September 27, 2017 | Feature
A Wooden Canvas
Fighting wars on chess boards
The diagram above shows the final position of a chess game between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky, two of the strongest European players in the 1800s. Dubbed “The Immortal Game” in chess history, it is known as one of the most stunning ever played. At first glance, it seems that Anderssen’s army (the white side) is scattered; white does not have much left on the board, having lost a bishop, both rooks, and even the prized queen. However, a closer inspection reveals something magical—the black king is checkmated, trapped by the white knights guarding the adjacent escape squares. Between them, the white bishop is poised to deliver the fatal blow. White has won the game. It suddenly dawns on us that Anderssen has not lost the greater part of his army accidentally, but has rather sacrificed them in an all-out assault on the black monarch. This was a hallmark of 19th-century, “Romantic Era” chess, where players sacrificed pieces in abandoned and swashbuckling style, all in an attempt to rip open a path to the opposing king and checkmate it outright. The games were fueled by passion and ferocity, by a simultaneous drive for art and blood, and indeed the board ran red quite often; the games were short but inexplicably noble and beautiful, with both players hacking away and willing to die by the sword, the board lighting up with fireworks.
Fast forward to the 1950s and ’60s, and both the world and chess are in very different places. Tensions between the United States and the USSR are at the boiling point, and chess has been all but monopolized by the Soviets. They flaunt a special pride in their domination of chess, which they see as the representation of an intellectual survival of the fittest. By this point, every world champion and every world champion challenger for the past 24 years has had Russian blood. The Soviet Chess School, led by the legendary Mikhail Botvinnik, nicknamed the “Iron Man” for his relentless determination and systemization of the game, is training three more future world champions. The Soviets see chess as a science; the bloodlust and passion of the old masters have been distilled into cold calculation. Far more resilient defensive techniques have been created, and moves are now either mathematically correct or incorrect. It is now impossible to launch an attack in the style of the Romantic Era without being met with a far more precise and devastating counterpunch and laughed at for being a novice. In just a few years time, Botvinnik will have one final addition to his legacy, this time not in the form of another star pupil or new scientific move at the board. Not something of flesh or blood or wood, but silicon—Botvinnik will go on to create the first chess computer.
However, something extraordinary happens in New York in 1956. News spreads that a local 13-year-old boy has defeated a grandmaster, the highest title attainable in chess besides world champion, in just 17 moves. This in itself is unheard of, but the true magic lies in how the boy won. Furiously transmitted around news stations in the United States and hailed within days as “The Game of the Century,” it is the first game in decades that truly evokes the Romantic Era. In a single game, the boy not only sacrifices his queen for a blistering attack on the opposing king, something Anderssen would no doubt have approved of, but also pulls off a chess phenomenon known as a “windmill,” a peculiar sight seen in only a handful of games in history, where two pieces synergize so well they develop an almost supernatural strength, capable of wiping out the opponent’s whole army. The boy’s name is Robert James Fischer, and many now consider him to be the greatest chess player who ever lived.
Fischer went on to become a national hero, a “weapon” of the United States in the Cold War, taking down one legendary Soviet player after the other. The most extraordinary aspect of these matches was that they were not even close; Fischer would whitewash his Russian opponents with clean 6-0 scores, overrunning every challenger in his path until the world champion, Boris Spassky, was the last bastion of Soviet pride. The American juggernaut had not only made a dent in the Soviet chess machine, something no U.S. player had ever come close to doing, he had singlehandedly conquered it.
The World Championship Match of 1972 between Fischer and Spassky is known as the most triumphant episode in the history of U.S. chess— an affirmation of the superiority of the American mind— but its glorious reputation also masked layers of tragedy. Fischer, for all his genius, was also plagued with paranoia and madness. He was known to break his opponents psychologically, snickering at any of their moves and constantly complaining to tournament directors about the lighting, the chairs, the table, the chess set, the cameras, and even radiation, claiming the Soviets were somehow bugging him. Spassky was reportedly never the same after his games with Fischer, and though Fischer won the match, the World Championship title would be the last laurel he would ever pursue. Within weeks, he suddenly faded from the public eye, and in the few interviews he would give later in his life, he was a man caught in a downward spiral of madness, devolving into racial and anti-Semitic slurs. He donated nearly all his world championship prize money to an obscure church before spending the rest of his days in Iceland, hating the United States and, in his final years, hating even chess.
If you ask any Russian grandmaster today about Fischer, the answer will be surprisingly universal: They will tell you they loved him, that Fischer’s chess was among the most beautiful ever played, and that his style married the brutal, calculating power of modern chess with Romantic passion and creativity, the two tethered together through his unquestionable genius. They would never guess you were asking about his madness. For all its psychological warfare, its pain and politics of winning and losing, there is a side to chess that is blind to backgrounds and prejudices. It is a side that is inexplicably breathtaking, hidden in 64 checkered squares capable of giving warmth and inspiration to anyone, regardless of the color of the hands that move the pieces. In today’s political climate, congealed with ego and shallow remarks, with tensions between the United States and Russia brewing once again, perhaps we need more of this. I think there is a reason why we, no matter how subconsciously, become a bit happier or feel a twinge of gratitude when we step outside and see the trees or a clear sky. To this day, I get the same feeling when I lay eyes on a chessboard. There’s no ego or superficiality in nature or wood; no biases or political slurs can twist its pure image, and you can clearly see what the whole of the game is. That sense of gratitude and innocent outlook on life—bit by bit, perhaps we can emulate that caliber of meaning and kindness with each other.