Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dick Cavett on Bobby Fischer

Dick Cavett, blogging in the Times, treats us to some recollections of and reflections on Bobby Fischer. Although I've read several biographies of Fischer, I doubt I've seen much live footage of him. The clip below is wonderful and a bit surprising -- it captures a moment, one we'll never see again.

Cavett's focus on Fischer's physical appearance (his height, eyes, even shoulders) is interesting, perhaps odd, but understandable given that celebrity itself is his (Cavett's) main expertise. Sylvia Nasar devoted an equivalent amount of attention to John Nash's appearance in A Beautiful Mind.

The comments on the original post are well worth reading -- many are from the generation that experienced Fischer's meteoric ascent firsthand. See here for a followup.

NYTimes: It must seem strange to people too young to remember that there was once a chess champion — of all things — who became arguably the most famous celebrity on earth. And that his long-anticipated match against the reigning Russian champion, Boris Spassky, was broadcast and watched worldwide as if it were the Super Bowl, except that chess drew a much bigger audience.

There was another element that added to the drama. With Fischer the American and Spassky the Russkie, the monumental match was seen as a Cold War battle.

The Russian chess champions considered themselves the undoubted best. Time out of mind the Soviet chess dynasty had reigned supreme, viewing themselves as a rightful symbol of Soviet superiority in all fields.

PBS broadcast the drama in sports fashion, complete with play-by-play commentary by Shelby Lyman, who himself became a household name. People stayed home from work, glued to their sets, and PBS got its highest ratings ever. The country and the world became chess-crazy. And Fischer-crazy. Chess sets, dusty on the shelves, suddenly sold in the millions.

We ordinary mortals can only try to imagine what it might feel like to be both young and so greatly gifted at a complex art. And to be better at it than any other living being, past or present. There are plenty of geniuses and lots of famous people, but few are both. Is anyone really capable of surviving such a double burden?

We assume that geniuses are blessed creatures who don’t have to work hard to achieve their goals. Hard for us, easy for them. But Bobby as a kid — IQ pushing 200 — put in 10 to 15 hours a day of brain power and heavy concentration that would kill an ordinary person. (Or at least me.)

The chess world was already well aware of this kid prodigy. But they were unprepared for him to suddenly go up against the acknowledged top player of the day in the United States Chess Championship. And win — at the age of thirteen. When asked what happened, he said, “I got better.”

What does such dedication to seemingly unreachable goals — until he reached them — do to the rest of you, the over-achiever? Touchingly, when he returned to my show after having disposed of Spassky, triumphant in the eyes of the world, he opined that he might be wise to try developing some of the rest of himself. He had begun to see that a life of nothing but chess was “kind of limited.” (He went to dinner in Reykjavik with friends. “Bobby couldn’t follow the conversation,” one said. “He sort of backed into the corner, got out his little pocket chess set and played with himself.”) He announced on my show that he was now “reading a lot of magazines, trying to keep up with what’s going on in the world.” He was still in his twenties.

Until the advent of Bobby Fischer, my image of a young chess genius was not flattering. I pictured a sort of wizened and unpopular youth, small of frame, reclusive, short, with messy hair, untended acne, thick glasses and shirt sticking out in back. And also perhaps, as the great V. Nabokov wrote in describing somewhat genderless piano prodigies with eye trouble, obscure ailments, “and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters.”


Getting Fischer on my show that first time, before the big match, was considered a major catch at the time. If anyone in the audience shared my image of what a chess genius probably looked like, Bobby’s entrance erased it.

Here was no Nabokovian homunculus. There appeared, somewhat disconcerted, a tall and handsome lad with football-player shoulders, impeccably suited, a little awkward of carriage and unsure how to negotiate the unfamiliarity of the set, the bright lights, the wearing of make-up, the band music, the hand-shaking and the thundering ovation — all at the same time. I had hoped to avoid the cliché “gangling,” but Bobby gangled. He sort of lurched into his chair.

Once seated, he was something to behold. Six foot two (tall in those days), athletic in build, perfect in grooming, and with striking features. The face radiated intelligence. You couldn’t confuse him with anyone you’d ever seen.

And there were the eyes.

Cameras fail to convey the effect of his eyes when they were looking at you. A bit of Svengali perhaps, but vulnerable. And only the slightest hint of a sort of theatrical menace, the menace that so disconcerted his opponents.

Looking out over the audience, I could clearly see entranced women gazing at him as if willing to offer their hearts — and perhaps more — to the hunky chess master.

When I asked him about such matters, he said that the awful demands of his life — the global travel; the constant study, sometimes until dawn, followed by play; the punishing five-hour sessions at full concentration, day after day — all this made it “pretty hard to . . . [hesitates] . . . build up a relationship.” He seemed quite surprised with himself, as did friends watching, that he had allowed so revealing a moment. (That old Cavett magic, no doubt.)

One thing he said in that first appearance became famous. At one point I asked him what, in terms of thrills, the chess equivalent might be of, say, hitting a home run. His answer: “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.” There was a trace of a chill in his laughter.

... I’ve sat for a while trying to figure out how to close. A faint glimmer of a bit of poetry had been swimming elusively in my head, just out of reach. And then it emerged.

It’s from E.E.Cummings’ famous poem about another lionized and legendary figure who, after triumph and glamour, also did not have “a good death”: Buffalo Bill.

With Cummings’ quirky punctuation, it’s a short poem, with no title but referred to by its first three words: “Buffalo Bill’s / defunct.”

Its closing lines somehow seem appropriate here. They are:

he was a handsome man
and what I want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

From the comments:

... The finest thing about Bobby that he made being smart, that is intellectualism, a cool thing. He was brilliant, knew it, was outwardly proud of it and not only could perform great feats with it but he said that he would and then did and did so far beyond the wildest dreams of anyone. So thank you Bobby and thank you Dick.

The truly great thing about Bobby Fischer was an audacious courage that for lack of a better comparison I mention Muhamid Ali and even though Bobby’s courage was on its own level there were similarities in the “not afraid of nothin” certainty with which they went about their business. Fischer’s march through the qualifying rounds of the world championship are simply unfathomable. Bobby the destroyer of ego was in full bloom and the completeness and ruthlessness was scary to watch even though I could not look away.

Even to people who play high level chess, the things he lay before the world were unbelieveable to see. It was watching that runup to the world championship that confirmed my inklings that a man could become mad in chess and accept it fully as more than reality and that here was such a man who not only possessed a fine and strong intellect but also the courage to throw it against or into the madness, the howling inferno that chess on that level can become. I was witnessing my own personal dark fear displayed on the largest stage and at a scale bigger than life in a man with one of the finest minds and the profound courage to risk it entirely. The outcome of the championship was certain to everyone by quarter finals.

Thank you so much Bobby and to borrow a few words to help express my love from Don McClane:

“but I could have told you Bobby, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”

Conrad Elledge

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