Chess: Natural-born killer of the board torn apart by his demons

Dominic Lawson on how Bobby Fischer, one of the world's greatest players, fell to pieces and quit while at the height of his amazing powers

Chess players the world over will find something almost comfortingly appropriate in the timing of Bobby Fischer's death. He was 64 years old; there are, of course, 64 squares on the chess board.

That number lies at the heart of the mysteries of the game Fischer dominated as few others have ever done. Combined with the functions of the eight pieces and eight pawns allotted to each side, it generates a fearsome problem that no human mind – or silicon one – can encompass. The number of possible chess games that could occur is overwhelmingly larger than the number of atoms thought to be contained in the universe.

The grandmaster described in Nabokov's great novel on chess, The Luzhin Defense, is driven mad when he suddenly sees "the full horror and abysmal depths of chess". Non-chess players tend to argue that Fischer was driven crazy for similar reasons. We chessplayers like to think we know better: we say that it was only chess which kept him sane. It was after Fischer gave up playing – and his career effectively ended at the age of 29 in 1972, after he beat Boris Spassky to become world chess champion – that his psychoses reduced him to little more than a ranting tramp.

What we find difficult to encompass is that a man of such ugliness of character – his pathological anti-Semitism was expressed in language that Goebbels would have thought crude – could also have created chess games of breathtaking beauty. The first Soviet world champion, Mikhail Botvinnik, once observed that "chess is an art which illustrates the beauty of logic". On that analogy, Fischer was the Mozart of chess: his best games have a purity and simplicity of expression that no other player could emulate. Yet – and here is where chess is dramatically different from mere artistic self-expression – Fischer was also the most ferocious "killer" of the 64 squares.

Chess is unusual, perhaps even unique as a sport, in that the combatants can at any stage agree a game drawn. When Fischer arrived on the scene, the game was almost dying of what became known as "the grandmaster draw". The top players would regularly agree to "split the point" with each other, often to the irritation of spectators, who wanted to see blood.

Fischer gave the fans blood, buckets of the stuff. He would never agree draws – even in apparently prospectless positions against very strong grandmasters. For Fischer, every game was a fight to the death – and this searing, relentless will to win intimidated even the greatest opponents into making blunders they would never have made against anyone else.

It was this ferocious sporting attitude – as much as the fact that he was an American loner up against apparently mass-produced Soviet grandmasters – that encouraged a whole generation of young chessplayers in this country. I know: I was one of them.

That is why we felt such a sense of betrayal at the way in which Fischer – without any indication of regret – gave up the game that he had made us love. No one really knows why he abdicated – by refusing in 1975 to play his first official challenger, the lethally pragmatic Anatoly Karpov. (Ostensibly it was because the Russians refused to accept every single one of Fischer's match conditions. There were 64 of them, of course.)

Karpov himself once offered an explanation: "I don't want to claim that Fischer was afraid of me. Most probably he was afraid of himself. He believed that the world champion has no right to make mistakes. But with such a belief you can't play chess, because you can't avoid mistakes."

In other words, no matter how good you are, the 64 squares are too much for the human mind – any human mind – to control. They defeated Bobby Fischer, as they defeat us all.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Extras
indybest
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

English teachers required in Lowestoft

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

Business Development Director - Interior Design

£80000 - £100000 per annum + competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment...

Sales Director, Media Sponsorship

£60000 - £65000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A globally successful media and ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits