Monday, March 20, 2006

Fischer's Problematic Legacy

The Courier Mail of Queensland, Australia, has a good story about what's up with Josh Waitzkin (of Searching for Bobby Fischer fame), who "quit, cold turkey" (his words) from chess over 5 years ago. Like the story of his childhood as told by his father, the story of the grown-up Waitzkin speaks to the pleasures of chess as a hobby and to the incredible pressures of the competitive game. Approached as a form of "self-cultivation," according to Waitzkin, chess has a lot to teach us about how we think and learn. But as a sport, it can only teach us the dread of losing and fill us with paranoid fear. In Waitzkin's view, that's what happened to Fischer, who was not driven crazy by chess but the fact that "he got put into such an incredibly pressured external world - with the Cold War and the world championships - that he had a meltdown." The problem with Fischer is that he was a brute sportsman in a game of the mind rather than a cultured individual for whom chess was an art or a way of life, like tai chi.

Another recent article, this one about U.S. champ Hikaru Nakamura ("I'm not Bobby Fischer," Salon), speaks to Fischer's problematic legacy, which continues to create an "incredibly pressured external world" for anyone who takes the game seriously. It is just impossible to make a living at the game, says Nakamura. And confronted by the money that Poker Celebrities are raking in, it's hard to imagine devoting yourself to the game. Both Waitzkin and Nakamura speak to the negative aspects of competitive chess and the terrible missed opportunity of the Fischer years. The wave of interest in the game that his 1972 championship generated crashed and mostly retreated into the sea once Fischer refused to defend his title a few years later. If he had been able to keep his life together and use his celebrity in support of chess, who knows but that it may have helped those who followed to find more sponsorship and support.

Is there hope for chess? If there is, it comes in the form of GM Susan Polgar, who is featured in a recent Newsday story ("A Chess Queen"). If there is anyone trying to create a climate of interest in the game, it is she. And her attempts to market the game have met some success. Her approach is simple: How do you make chess popular in America? You make it faster (televised blitz), bigger (enormous simuls), and more broadly appealing (no one has done more to get girls into the game). You use the media and make media connections. And you produce material for television, DVD, or computer (because no one really reads anymore). She has been a genius at promotion -- including promoting our chess elite. If we are lucky, she will succeed at making herself and other American GMs the new heroes of the game in the U.S. and thus replace Fischer with more positive role models, giving the game a more appealing face if nothing else....


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