The Mystery of Bobby Fischer’s Madness

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The chess champion Gary Kasparov recently wrote an interesting book entitled “How Life Imitates Chess.” Yes, life does imitate chess, but the real appeal of chess lies in how very different it is from life. To understand that difference is to understand Bobby Fisher. Edward Rothstein, of the NY Times, provides us with a clue in that regard: “But there is still something about Mr. Fischer’s craziness that is closely connected with the essential nature of chess…The world itself, with its more messy human interactions, its complicated histories, its emotional conflicts, can be put aside, and attention focused on an intricate bounded cosmos.” The real world is, indeed, messy and chess, by contrast, has a logical purity, clarity and lucidity. What, though, is the connection between Bobby Fisher’s longing for logical clarity, as embodied in chess, and his paranoia?

Paranoia is, essentially, a desperate effort to make sense of what is unintelligible. It is an attempt to find meaning and coherence in a world in which, in the language of Yeats, “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” Consider conspiracy theories, which are the stock and trade of the paranoid. It is, for example, absurd to think that a lone gunman, a worthless loser, can have a major effect on the course of history. It is absurd, because it defies logic that a small cause can produce a gigantic effect. But that is precisely what happened when Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy. The paranoid cannot accept the absurdity and so conceives a conspiracy theory of gigantic proportions to give meaning to an event, where meaning is lacking. When Fisher’s world was confined to chess tournaments, it was the Russians who he accused of cheating at chess and thus conspiring to defeat him. When Fisher’s world extended beyond the chessboard, he accused the Jews. He remained a conspiracy theorist throughout.

How very different, then, chess is from life. Generals, who fight real battles, are acquainted with “the fog of war,” for in war one is surrounded by a great many uncertainties and surprises. Most often, the victor is the side who makes the least blunders. In the game of chess, by contrast, everything is clearly laid out on the chessboard. Life really imitates poker far more than it imitates chess, for in poker you do not know what cards your opponents are holding. Nor do you know what cards you will draw. But chance, luck, and contingency are absent from the game of chess. That has been chess’ universal appeal, and it certainly was that for Bobby Fisher who, in flight from this messy affair called life, became addicted to chess.

Brian M.Carney, in an article in the “Wall Street Journal,” noted that Fisher, from early on, nurtured a sense of grievance. Indeed, the essential narrative of paranoids is that they have a just grievance. That narrative is accompanied by feelings of self-pity, anger, and bitterness. No narrative is more baleful to the development of character and morality. (It is, by the way, the predominant mood of radical Islamics.) The sense of grievance was the poison that increasingly polluted Fisher’s soul.

As to whether Bobby Fisher was clinically paranoid is anyone’s guess. It is clear, though, that his way of seeing the world was indicative of what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style.” That, alas, was both the source of Fisher’s power as well as his downfall. When he saw his enemy to be the Soviet Union, he became supercharged for battle, for a Manichean worldview is key to the paranoid style. After all, life is most often full of messy moral ambiguities. It is a relief to the paranoid to see the world in black and white, like the pieces on the chessboard. (Of course, the Russians have always acted politically to lend credence to the saying “Sometimes paranoids are right.”)

But for Fisher to have to defend his chess title was not congruent with his paranoid narrative. After all, the other side of paranoia is delusions of grandeur. When a person knows himself to be the greatest — and with some justification, for Fisher was an incredible chess player — he has nothing to gain, but everything to lose. Thus Fisher refused to defend his title, in 1975, against Anatoly Karpov, and lost it by default. That proved to be the beginning of…

 

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