R.I.P. Bobby Fischer: “I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.”

“When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive.”
Boris Spassky


“It was Bobby Fischer who had, single-handedly, made the world recognize that chess on its highest level was as competitive as football, as thrilling as a duel to the death, as aesthetically satisfying as a fine work of art, as intellectually demanding as any form of human activity.” – Harold C. Schonberg

Memories and reflections from those who knew him.

The last anecdote – told by Edward Rothstein – is my favorite.

I held out for about 30 moves, and when I resigned, it was with flags flying and bands playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” I went down with honors. The game took about 15 minutes, of which 14 were mine.

Here’s Fischer playing Fidel Castro:


A couple years ago, I read Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How A Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine, the story of his famous chess match against Spassky which took on (like the 1980 hockey game in the Olympics) the feeling of the entire Cold War, being fought on another kind of battlefield.

Here’s an excerpt (I highly recommend the book):

The most interesting phenomenon about Fischer, however, is not the effect chess had on him, but the effect chess had on his opponents, destroying their morale, making them feel that they were in the grip of an alien hostile force to his powers there was no earthly answer …
Fischer appeared to his opponents to function like a micro-chip driven automaton. He analyzed positions with amazing rapidity; his opponent always lagged behind on the clock…Nor did Fischer appear to be governed by any psychologically predetermined system or technique. Take just one example, the twenty-second move of game seven against Tigran Petrosian in the 1971 Candidates match. Who else but Fischer would have exchanged his knight for the bishop? To give up an active knight for a weak bishop was inconceivable; it seemed to violate a basic axiom of the game, to defy all experience. Yet, as Fischer proved, it was absolutely the right decision, transforming an edge into another ultimately winning advantage.

Human chess players can often feel insecure in open, complex positions because a part of them dreads the unknown. Thus they avoid exposing their king because they worry that, like a general trapped in no-man’s-land, this most vital of pieces will inevitably be caught in the crossfire. Common sense and knowledge born of history tells them that this is so. An innate pessimism harries them, nagging away, warning them off the potentially hazardous move. Not Fischer. If he believed his opponent could not capitalize on an unshielded king, if he could foresee no danger, then he would permit it to stand brazenly, provocatively unguarded.

Faced with Fischer’s extraordinary coolness, his opponents assurance would begin to disintegrate. A Fischer move, which at first glance looked weak, would be reassessed. It must have a deep master plan behind it, undetectable by mere mortals (more often than not, they were right, it did). The US grandmaster Robert Byrne labeled the phenomenon “Fischer-fear”. Grandmasters would wilt, their suits would crumple, sweat would glisten on their brows, panic would overwhelm their nervous systems. Errors would creep in. Calculations would go awry. There was talk among grandmasters that Fischer hypnotized his opponents, that he undermined their intellectual powers with a dark, mystic, insidious force. Time after time, in long matches, Fischer’s opponents would suffer a psychosomatic collapse. Fischer managed to induce migraines, the common cold, flu, high blood pressure, and exhaustion, to which he himself was mostly resistant. He liked to joke that he had never beaten a healthy opponent…

In Reykjavik to cover the match, the novelist Arthur Koestler famously coined the neologism “mimophant” to describe Fischer. “A mimophant is a hybrid species: a cross between a mimosa and an elephant. A member of this species is sensitive like a mimosa where his own feelings are concerned and thick-skinned like an elephant trampling over the feelings of others.”

There is no doubt that, like a psychopath, Fischer enjoyed that feeling of complete power over his opponent. Like a psychopath, he had no moral compunction about using his power.


Here is a lengthy obit in the New York Times. Well worth reading.


The 1964 tournament also produced another of his legendary games, this one against the grandmaster Robert Byrne.

“It was one of his brilliant counterattacks,” recalled Mr. Byrne, who would go on to become the chess columnist for The New York Times. “He was playing Black, and he made a deep sacrifice, so deep that I did not understand it. It was a very profound combination, very beautiful.”

Mr. Byrne ended up resigning the game while he was still materially ahead. The result was so unusual that it confounded grandmasters analyzing the games for spectators.

Frank Brady, in his Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness, wrote:

[Fischer] empathizes with the position of the moment with such intensity that one feels that a defect in his game, such as a backward pawn or an ill-placed knight, causes him almost physical, and certainly psychical pain. Fischer would become the pawn if he could, or if it would help his position, marching himself rank-by-rank to the ultimate promotion square. In these moments at the board, Fischer is chess.

“I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves,” said Bobby Fischer to The Washington Post, on the eve of the Spassky match – when he was asked if it were true that he was “on edge”.

Here’s a photo from the Boris Spassky / Bobby Fischer match, 1972.


Here’s an excerpt from Bobby Fischer Goes to War, describing a moment in the first game of the Spassky/Fischer match in Iceland:

Then, on move twenty-nine, Fischer did the unthinkable Picking up the remaining black bishop in the long fingers of his right hand, balancing it with his thumb, index, and middle fingers, he stretched out his arm and in one movement plucked off the rook pawn with his two smaller fingers while installing the bishop in its place.

This was inexplicable. In playing Bxh2 – bishop takes the king rook pawn – Fischer had fallen into a standard trap. At first glance, the undefended white rook pawn looks as though it can be safely pinched by the black bishop. At second glance, one sees that if the pawn is taken, white’s knight’s pawn will be advanced one square, leaving the black bishop helplessly stranded. White can capture it with nonchalant ease. Even for the average club player, the recognition of such a danger is instinctive.

Fischer was the chess machine who did not commit errors. That was part of his aura, part of the “Bobby Fischer” legend, a key to his success. Newspapers reported a gasp of surprise spreading through the auditorium. Spassky, who had trained himself not to betray emotion, looked momentarily startled. Those who have analyzed the match were equally dumbfounded. “When I saw Bobby play the move,” wrote Golombek, “I could hardly believe my eyes. He had played so sensibly and competently up to now that I first of all thought there was something deep I had overlooked; but no matter how I stared at the board I could find no way out.” Nor could Robert Byrne and Ivo Nei, who analyze the game in their book on the match: “This move must be stamped as an outright blunder.” The British chess player and writer C.H. O’D. Alexander’s verdict is similar: “Unbelievable. By accurate play Fischer had established an obviously drawn position … now he makes a beginner’s blunder.” A television pundit on the US Channel 13 reckoned it would go down as one of the great gaffes of all time. The Los Angeles Times thought it could be explained only as a “rare miscalculation by the American genius.” In Moscow, the correspondent for the Soviet state newspaper Izvestia, Yuri Ponomarenko, located the move’s source in sheer greed. Bondarevskii commented that the move was “a vivid example to smash the myth of [Fischer] as a computer.” Anatoli Karpov, the twenty-one-year-old Soviet star in the making, had a psychological theory involving both players: Spassky was afraid of the American and had sought to prove to himself that he could always draw with the white pieces. Fischer, annoyed, attempted to disprove this. “So he sacrificed a piece without rhyme or reason.”

Years later, in twenty pages of exhaustive analysis, British grandmaster Jonathan Speelman concluded that even after Fischer captured the h pawn, totally accurate play could have earned him a draw. And to be charitable to Fischer, perhaps he recognized this intuitively. But that is hardly an explanation. For such a gambit had only a downside, offering no chance of victory. At best, with extreme care, it gave him the same result – a draw – that he could have achieved without any effort at all – indeed, probably simply by asking for one.

The game was adjourned after five hours, with Fischer’s position in a hopeless mess.

Given this description of just one move during the match, it is not surprising that Arthur Koestler (blistering critic of Stalinist Russia – although once a Communist himself – journalist, novelist, all-around brilliant Orwellian thinker) – who covered the Spassky/Fischer match – wrote of his experience: “Funny to be a war correspondent again after all these years.”

Miguel Najdorf, Argentianian grandmaster, said of Fischer: “Fischer wants to enter history alone.”

And so he has.



Jeff shares his memories of 1972, and what that match meant to him and his friends.

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20 Responses to R.I.P. Bobby Fischer: “I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.”

  1. Jeff says:

    Great post, Sheila. Even though Fischer’s problems eventually overtook him and diminished some of the greatness that had come before, I’ll never forget that Summer of 1972, when a bunch of 12-year olds (my friends and I) who up to that point couldn’t have cared less about chess spent most of their afternoons playing 24-game matches, while speculating how Fischer was doing during that day’s game in Iceland. It couldn’t have just been the chess – there was something about Fischer, his charisma, the WAY he went about playing chess, that made it special to us. That he became what he did is one of the saddest stories of my lifetime.

  2. red says:

    Wow, Jeff – thank you for sharing your personal memory. Fascinating!!

    It seems that many big wig chess players felt the way you do … that his exit from the scene left them bereft, in a way. Sad.

  3. red says:

    Just added a link to your post, jeff. Wonderful stuff.

  4. Jeff says:

    Thank you, Sheila! Much appreciated.

    Looking at those photographs in the New York Times really brought it home for me. Almost the perfect saga of tragic decline.

    And it made me think about where all the young Bobby Fischers are today. I have a feeling they’re all in Vegas and Atlantic City, playing poker.

  5. mitchell says:

    ive been reading stuff..whats up with the anti-semitism..i cant seem to find any stuff about why he felt that way?..did he go bonkers?

  6. red says:

    Mitchell – I know his mother was Jewish, and he pretty much disowned her. He really went off the deep end. I think he was always on the edge of sanity (one of his chess opponents called him a “brilliant lunatic” – which they quoted in the musical Chess – based on the Spassky/Fischer match) … but at the end, he was just a lunatic.

  7. red says:

    Jeff – I like your thought about the poker-players. I think you might be right.

    I’m just bummed that I don’t understand chess well enough to REALLY understand Fischer’s genius. I mean, I get it – and I love all the quotes from his opponents, and people who really know the game … my friend Allison has taught me chess, she loves it – and my friend Beth’s husband Tom is a chess fanatic as well – but I just don’t have the perspective to understand Fischer’s revolutionary take on the game. How outside the box he really was.

  8. Jeff says:

    Sheila, I think that is what always made him so mysterious – he wasn’t just outside of the box, he was barely on the same planet as the box…what he did would not work for anyone else. I see some of that in the eyes of some the great young poker players, guys like Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey…always thinking.

    Mitchell, the man was definitely bonkers. Even before he started spouting the anti-semitic vitriol, he was WAY out there. Check out SI.Com right now (just enter “Bobby Fischer” in the search box) and they have posted an article written in 1985 which is an account of Nack’s search for Fischer, who had virtually disappeared. Even then, you can see that the man was deeply disturbed.

  9. red says:

    Jeff – sorry if these seem like elementary questions, please bear with me, I don’t know enough about the game:

    When he looked at the board, what did he see? Do we know? I didn’t read his book that he wrote about his chess game … does that illuminate at all?

    What was it that made him on another planet? Was he like an Isaac Newton, only of chess? That he could just see farther ahead than anyone?

    Was it that he thought faster than everyone else?

    My dad would love your thoughts on the poker players – he’s a poker player himself.

  10. red says:

    Mitchell – tracked down the link Jeff mentioned:

    Here it is.

  11. red says:

    I know that one thing that comes up repeatedly with Fischer, in his playing, was that he had no mercy. He didn’t just want to win – he wanted to crush his opponent psychologically. (Speaking of the 1980s hockey team, that reminds me of Jim Craig’s reminiscence of what he felt when he skated out onto the ice for the third period of that fateful hockey game: “The hatred I felt was incredible. You don’t want to just push someone against the boards. You want to put them through the boards.”)

    Is that a clue to Fischer’s brilliance as well?

  12. Jeff says:

    Sheila, I wouldn’t consider myself a chess expert by any means (though I play a pretty mean game, if I do say so myself), but based on what I’ve read over the years, I think it was a combination of some of the things that you mentioned – his ability to see further ahead in the game than any other player, and his ability to do that much more quickly than any other player. So yes, he could see farther ahead, and faster – a critical factor at that level of chess. But a lot of it, and here you get into speculation because he never really let anyone inside of his head, had to do with his attitude, and the way he approached the game. The confidence, the arrogance if you will, I suppose you could say it was uniquely American, though there had been American grandmasters before Fischer.

    And let’s face it, he was mentally unstable – as early as the mid-1960s, he behaved in ways that, had he not been a chess genius, might have landed him in some kind of institution. So it was a blessing and a curse.

  13. mitchell says:

    Jeff/Sheila…thanks for the link…fascinating fella…my head hurts!

  14. DBW says:

    There are certain people whose minds are wired in a way that makes them particularly adept at things like mathematics, quantum physics, chess, etc. Fischer was one of those people. All great chess players have a facility for seeing many, many moves ahead. They don’t really look at the game as series of individual moves. Each move creates a certain number of possiblities for the rest of the game. For normal people, we might see 10-15 moves down the line, and maybe 2-3 full possibilities. Fischer saw almost all the possibilities in their entirety, all at the same time. When people talk about his attitude and arrogance, I think it came from his inhuman competency at this single thing–he basically knew all the possibilities going forward, he knew his opponents probably didn’t, and I think he enjoyed pushing games in directions his opponents didn’t see, didn’t expect, and weren’t comfortable anticipating. I’ve read of big matches where he did things just to mess with his opponents and entertain himself–knowing he could deal with unexpected possibilities that produced uncertainty and mistakes in his opponent. Personally, I am fascinated by people like Fischer whose minds work in ways about which the rest of us can only ponder and guess.

  15. mitchell says:

    ..just read that Bobby was the first crush that a high school Barbara Streisand ever had..they were at Erasmus High together..weird!

  16. red says:

    Mitchell – no way. I love that there’s a Barbra connection – I had no idea!!

  17. Jeff says:

    Another Erasmus alum who was there at the time was Barry Munitz, who was my boss when I worked for the California State University system and later became CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Munitz is also a huge chess buff (not to mention a big fan of James Ellroy), and was President of the Chess Club when Fischer was there. His account of trying to recruit Fischer, from an old article:

    “Munitz, Fischer’s slightly older compatriot at Brooklyn’s Erasmus High School, has been deputized to seduce the young prodigy into joining the school chess club. Only Fischer is in no mood to be seduced.

    “He was as irascible then as he is now,” Munitz recalled recently, “and he responded to my inquiry with a very short and extraordinarily obscene answer. And that was the end of our exchange.”

  18. mitchell says:

    The Power of Barbra compels you!
    p.s. mae west went to erasmus high as well…of course much earlier.

  19. chess coach says:

    What separated Fischer from other chess players of his generation was combination of Einstein level intelligence with a consuming passion/obsession beyond what most of us consider healthy.

  20. red says:

    Chess coach – thanks for stopping by to add your perspective – much appreciated!

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