Fish to Fischer

by Richard Fireman (first published in Chess Life 1989)

Back in those years, it seemed, just about everything was strange; the craziness of Woodstock, the crazierness of Vietnam, and just plain life. It was, I believe, 1970, and I was a college student and A-player invited by my friend Steve Spencer, a rising young master, to come see him play in the U.S. Junior Invitational Championship. The top eight under-21-year-olds in the country were to be slugging it out: Tarjan, Rogoff, DeFotis (Greg), Weinstein (Norman), Matera, Deutsch, Jacobs (the Texan one, I think), and my friend. It was a weekend or a holiday (Christmas?!) or maybe it wasn’t (what were classes in Existentialism worth compared to living it?), so I said sure and came into New York to the old McAlpin Hotel where the tournament was being held.

For a while everything seemed normal (too quiet, I would’ve said if I were cowboy in an old Western movie just before the Indians attacked); the games seemed to be progressing normally – Steve, who was destined to finish last, was trying to hold off the inevitable attack after grabbing a pawn – and aside from tournament director William Goichberg I was the only spectator. Nobody seemed to care whether I was there or not, and I sat quietly by in a nearby chair and read my book and occasionally glanced over at the boards to see what was happening. Time passed…

…and then HE walked into the room, and everything changed.

A tall young (27) man in a sports jacket, carrying some papers under his arm, with an abstracted look and an aura of energy radiating from him you could feel across the room. As though in a movie caught in the projector, everything stopped. Hands with pieces about to descend were poised in mid-air, head-scratchings were suspended, twitchings froze. Then, as though they’d been caught staring at a woman they were attracted to, everyone suddenly resumed their actions as though nothing had happened, and the movie started up once again. It seemed nonchalant (does anything ever seem chalant?!), but it wasn’t. For, miraculously, ten or fifteen minutes later all the games were finished, even though it hadn’t been anywhere close to the time control.

Because everyone wanted to meet Bobby.

He’d been quiet, nodding hello to Goichberg and casually walking about the room, glancing at each of the boards and hardly seeming to study, or even notice, the positions. Then he returned to the corner of the room and just sort of hung around until the inevitable gathering, the flocking to the waterhole.

“Let’s go look at some games,” he said, and heads wordlessly bobbed up and down. Since the room was reserved for use only for the duration of each day’s tournament, we had to go to another room, Goichberg explained. Fischer – he asked us all to call him Bobby – nodded and turned around and started walking, with Bill and the players following. I tagged along, not quite believing it was happening. Hell, this man was a legend. But he seemed as normal as the next guy, at least till then…

So we went into a room and sat down and set up a board and Bobby took one of a bunch of Russian magazines from under his arm and started moving the pieces around, and we stared. At some point he stopped after making a move and, with a slightly puzzled look – as though he were a novice who wasn’t quite comprehending the underlying reasons behind the strategies – said, to no one in particular, “I wonder why he did that?” One of the young masters, naturally eager to impress, offered a plausible explanation: maybe he wanted to do such-and-such and was afraid his opponent would do this-and that, so he first prepared it by playing this move. Fischer shrugged it off: “No, that doesn’t work, because…” and reached out for the pieces…

…and you could barely see what the sequence was, his hands moved so fast. If before when he entered it was like in that old Twilight Zone episode where time is frozen, this was like the Keystone Cops where the action is speeded up to an unnatural, ludicrous extent. Everyone just stared, jaws literally agape, mental tongues hanging. An eternity (well, twenty seconds or so) passed before us. Bobby was long since finished exhibiting that particular variation.

“Right?” he inquired. Yeah, sure, Bobby, anything you say. Nobody was about to dispute him. Hell, we barely saw what it was he had just shown us. And, except for myself, these were Masters, the cream of the crop of America’s rising young talent, superstars of the future, paralyzed in disbelief by what they had just witnessed. You’d think we’d asked for a daffodil and he’d pulled out the Burning Bush, we were so stunned. It wasn’t just the sheer speed of his action – though that was certainly impressive enough – but the seeming effortlessness of it, the naturalness which he exhibited; it was as though it were as normal as breathing to him, as though it were all simple and straightforward and ofcourse-this-is-what-happens-if-you-do-that, isn’t it obvious? That’s what was so stunning, as though his mind were a computer, as though anything we could have thought of had already been considered and incorporated and analyzed and dismissed, all in one simple algorithm. As though he were just on a whole other level.

I’ve since met and analyzed with a number of grandmasters, and they weren’t even close, so it’s not just the difference in playing strength. Sure, they exhibit a natural feel for the game and understanding beyond that of the rest of us mortals, but they’re still in the same order of things, the same part of the universe: they fumble around with this idea and that, and they’re more likely to come to the right conclusions because of their talent and experience and insight. But they still have to work at it. With Bobby it wasn’t like that. With him it was like he had a key to the door containing the mystery, a special pass. With him it was as simple as going into that room with all the answers, looking for what you wanted, finding it and taking it out. Maybe he had to clear a couple of things off the shelves before he found what he wanted, but he didn’t have to hire the A-team to break down the door.

Well, I’m sure he knew what he would’ve done in that position we’d stopped at, but the move the Russian had made evidently wasn’t it, and even Bobby couldn’t read minds, and nobody else, after his little display, was about to offer any other suggestions, so he sort of shrugged and proceeded with the game. Ten or so moves later – uh oh – he paused again. “Hmmm…,” he hmmmed, and we held our collective breath. You could’ve heard an atom drop. “Why did he do that?”

Aww, come on, Bobby, you’ve gotta be kidding. But he wasn’t. Please, give us a break. But he didn’t. He just sat there and waited, looking, interminably. Finally we had to breathe, but shallowly. And, finally, someone had to say something…

“Uhh…well…”

Heads snapped, eyes staring in wonder and admiration at the voluntary sacrifice. What courage. What fortitude. What a jerk. Doesn’t he know there be dragons in those parts?

“Errr, maybe, I don’t know, uh, maybe he wanted to do that?” He sort of half-gestured at a move, then pulled his hand away quickly as though he didn’t really mean it, he had just said it because his mother had made him promise he would do it. He put his hand back into his pocket and stood frozen, neck tensed, awaiting the axe.

It came. “No, no, that wouldn’t work…” and, I swear, I don’t know how it was possible but his hands moved even faster. Swish, swish, chopchop-chop, and the resulting mangled position was something a two-year-old might have gotten into against the Prussian army. “Oh, yeah, right,” mumbled the recalcitrant offerer/offering, “sorry, Bobby.”

“Okay,” came the voice from the Mount, his hands resetting the pieces, and the tension broke, and we all started breathing normally. One of the guys next to the last suggester elbowed him in the ribs and smiled, and we all glanced at each other, grinning. It was okay to be mortal. Hell, it was even fun. Next time Bobby paused the delay wasn’t so great, the fear absent. Sure, the same process ensued, but we expected it to, even wanted it to. It wasn’t competitive, as though we stood a chance of seeing something he didn’t; it was constructive, a learning experience for all of us (most of all, for me, since I was the weakest player); the challenge in it was to see how long your move would last before being proved absolutely worthless, and we all took turns being good-naturedly pummeled.

Bobby expected it, invited it, encouraged us to participate. Go ahead, bob for apples. Eat of the tree of knowledge. We did, and later went to a nearby Japanese restaurant with him and talked of everything but chess – I remember he mentioned he was learning how to drive a car, for instance – and then, smiling, he departed. Who was that masked man…

He had been nothing like the image I’d expected of him, the media depiction of the crazed recluse, the impossible boy wonder who made life impossible for everyone he met. In fact, he’d been downright friendly. Piecing it together later – after the shock wore off – I concluded that he’d probably felt much more comfortable among us, who were not only not of the media but not even his peers, and who looked up to him rather than down or suspiciously; that we made him feel not only admired but, more importantly, welcome.

And that, I felt, was something he rarely felt, and something he appreciated. Perhaps even yearned for. I don’t know; I can’t pretend to really know the man. But if you’re out there, Bobby, and by some chance read this, I want you to know that, yes, you were welcome that day. And that we would welcome you back.

Article by Richard Fireman (first published in Chess Life 1989)