Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chess is better

The NYTimes reviews a new biography of Bobby Fischer. 19-year-old Bobby Fischer after a visit to a brothel in Curaçao: “Chess is better,” Fischer said.

... Mr. Brady also makes use of unusually good source material, from Fischer’s own unpublished manuscript to 50 years’ worth of his own conversations with Fischer’s associates, mentors and relatives. Note the omission of the word “friends.” Fischer never had them.

Mr. Brady met Fischer when the prodigy was a 10-year-old boy in New York, followed his career closely and sat with hushed audiences watching Fischer play tournaments. He drew on the archives of Jack Collins, Fischer’s mentor, and Regina Fischer, his mother. When Regina, the Jewish mother of this rabidly anti-Semitic Jewish son, began to understand the depths of her son’s bigotry, she wrote a prophetic letter that appears in these pages, delivering words that could have been Fischer’s epitaph: “The greater the person’s mind and talent, the greater the destruction.”

What changed boyish, chess-loving Bobby into the erratic, loathsome old crackpot and man without a country that he would eventually become? Mr. Brady is not in the business of tossing around facile judgments or easy answers. Instead, he gets as close as he can to a Bobby’s-eye point of view for “Endgame” and tries to convey what Fischer’s character-warping experiences as a public figure may have been like, and how they shaped him. Mr. Brady can credibly describe what went on in his subject’s mind during the 1956 so-called Game of the Century, when this 13-year-old nobody defeated Donald Byrne, a 25-year-old college professor, and shocked onlookers with his cunning and audacity. When Fischer made the especially daring sacrifice of a knight, a tournament referee said, “a murmur went through the tournament room after this move, and the kibitzers thronged to Fischer’s table as fish to a hole in the ice.” [WASN'T IT A QUEEN SACRIFICE?]

See also here and this post from 2008:

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.

I suppose Go is actually better than Chess ;-)

Edward Lasker: "While the baroque rules of Chess could only have been created by humans, the rules of Go are so elegant, organic, and rigorously logical that if intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, they almost certainly play Go."

I'm sympathetic to this point of view. The rules of Go seem to be a natural embodiment of two dimensional notions of encirclement and control of space. They are much simpler and less arbitrary than those of Chess. I can't say anything about the strategic and tactical subtlety of the game, since I don't play, but experts seem to think it is quite deep (certainly it is more challenging for AI than Chess, if only for combinatorial reasons). One problem with Lasker's contention is that Go doesn't seem to have been invented independently by any human civilizations other than ancient China (supposedly 4000 years ago)!

1 comment:

Paolo del Mundo said...

Ummm... that's a really unfair statement if there ever was one! How can you compare Fischer, a player from the 1960s, with more modern contemporaries like Kasparov and Carlsen? For one, K and C learned a lot from going over Fischer's games... they stood on the proverbial shoulder of giants (one big one being Fischer). For another, K and (more importantly) C had the good fortune of training with computers-- a boon to all chess players.

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