Chess and Madness
June 13, 2011 | by Yascha Mounk
Early on in Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle (A Chess Novella) the narrator, a casual chess player, expresses his worry that a serious devotion to chess might bring on madness:
How impossible to imagine [...] a man of intelligence who, without going mad, again and again, over ten, twenty, thirty, forty years, applies the whole elastic power of his thinking to the ridiculous goal of backing a wooden king into the corner of a wooden board!
On Monday, I settled down to watch Bobby Fischer Against the World, an entertaining new HBO documentary, directed by Liz Garbus. Besides chronicling the career of one of the greatest chess players of all time, it is also a rumination on the cold war, on political extremism, on youth prodigies and the dangers of sudden fame, and on loneliness. Finally, perhaps most hauntingly, it is about the relationship between chess, genius, and madness.
Bobby Fischer grew up on Lincoln Place, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, the son of a single mother who spent much of her time agitating for communism. A lonely, awkward, uncommunicative boy, he immediately became obsessed with chess when, at age six, he learned how to play from the instructions of a cheap set bought at a candy store below his apartment. Soon, Bobby was staring at his chessboard for hours on end, playing both white and black, engrossed in the absurd attempt of beating himself, and of not letting himself be beaten by himself.
When he was no older than thirteen, this obsession, which at first had worried his mother, seemed to pay off. At the 1956 Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York, Bobby’s first appearance at a major chess event, he played a game of such daring and brilliance that he instantly became a sensation in chess circles. Within a year, he had won the prestigious U.S. Open; within another year, he won the U.S. Championship; and within a year after that, he was well on his way toward a lucrative career as an internationally renowned master.
That career found its dazzling apotheosis when Fischer dueled with Boris Spassky for the world championship in the summer of 1972. Chess had been the pride of the Soviet Union, which devoted vast resources to train and support the country’s top players. Fischer’s rise to the top thus afforded the American public the thrilling prospect of beating the Reds on their chosen battleground. The clash between the apparatchik Spassky and the self-centered, money-hungry, unpredictable Fischer captivated the world more than any other chess match before or since.
The match itself—which works much like the NBA finals, except that an average game lasts upward of four hours, and the overall winner is the best of twenty-four individual games—seemed lost for Fischer even before it had truly begun. At first he refused to travel to Reykjavík unless the already unprecedented price money was further increased. It was, and Fischer arrived in Iceland within hours of a deadline that would have seen him forfeit the match. Then, Fischer lost the first game to an unimaginable blunder, an error so basic, in a game in which the great players err so rarely, that it is difficult to find an appropriate comparison in all of sports. Finally, he made egregious demands on the organizers in the run-up to game 2 and, when they refused to comply, simply did not show up.
At this point, with Fischer down by two games, most observers thought the match unwinnable for him and expected that he wouldn’t return to the board. But Fischer did show, won game 4, drew game 5, and won game 6. When, in their seventh encounter, Fischer finally took the lead after a sly, tactical, positional game of unusual beauty, Spassky was so impressed that he joined the audience in applauding Fischer. The match went on for weeks after that, but Fischer’s ascension to the title of world champion was never again in question.
But if the win against Spassky was Fischer’s high point, it was also the beginning of his descent. Over the next years, as a chess craze was spreading throughout the U.S. thanks to him, Fischer did everything except play the game he had made popular. He became devoted to a sect that called itself the Worldwide Church of God, leaving it only after its prediction of an imminent Judgment Day had failed; he grew convinced that the Mossad and the C.I.A. were spying on him; most infamously of all, despite being Jewish himself, he became obsessed with a virulently racist form of anti-Semitism.
This slow descent into madness, which in a sense had seemed to start the very first day he sat down to play chess, consumed Fischer for the rest of his life.
FISCHER’S FIRST FAMOUS GAME against Donald Byrne is also a clue to the most vexed question about him, a question that the HBO documentary raises but does not even begin to answer. Why did Fischer retire from serious tournament chess at the height of his career, when he was merely twenty-nine years old?
Fischer’s early TV interviews, which are replayed in the documentary, suggest that, like the black figures in the game that made him famous, he only knew how to advance. As long as Fischer was on his way to the top, he—despite his strange manner, despite his obvious difficulties at interpersonal communication—had a singular, cocky charm. He knew what he wanted, and he knew that he would get there. He alone among all chess players truthfully answered the question about his skill by describing himself as “Very good. The best.” That awkward honesty was very winning, and sometimes downright funny—even though Fischer always looked a bit puzzled why his statements, which, after all, were never intended to be amusing, made people laugh.
Fischer had been a minor celebrity since age thirteen. Now, after his triumph against Spassky, he became an A-lister—an A-lister, however, who knew that his greatest triumphs were already behind him, who knew that to defend his title would not be as glamorous as it had been to win it. And so, like any true A-lister—like an Eminem or a Britney Spears—having achieved everything before he’d even turned thirty, he suddenly faced an inevitable fall.
Fischer, the player of the century, functioned only as long as he was on the attack. But he had overlooked one simple difference between chess and life: in chess, the game is over as soon as the opponent is checkmated. In life, you have to go on even at the moment of your greatest triumph.
IT DOESN’T SEEM FAR-FETCHED to suggest that Fischer was brought down because he believed it was futile to keep up his attack once he had reached the very top. But if, at the height of his fame and wealth, he wished to give up on playing chess, why didn’t he manage to find another meaningful cause to which to devote his life?
Which brings us back to Zweig’s novella. The book’s true hero is a certain Dr. B. Though he learned some chess at high school, he never played seriously, preferring the solid life of a lawyer. Only when he is held in solitary confinement by the Gestapo for the better part of a year—without a book, without even so much as a piece of paper to distract him—does he start playing chess against himself to occupy his mind. At first, this helps him to bear the unimaginable tedium of his situation. But, eventually, he becomes so obsessed with the game that he falls prey to a veritable chess mania:
All my thoughts were chess, chess movements, chess problems; sometimes I woke up with a wet brow and realized that, even in my sleep, I must subconsciously have played on; and when I dreamt about people, I did so exclusively in the movements of the bishop, of the rook, in the back-and-forth leaps of the knight.
By the time we encounter Dr. B., this chess mania is all in the past. Released by the Gestapo, he is on a ship voyage to Buenos Aires, where he intends to lead a solid life once again. While, incredibly, he beats the world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic, onboard the ship, his real heroism consists not in his preternatural playing strength, but rather in his decision to stay sane by giving up on chess once and for all.
Our nameless hero turned to chess in an hour of need, when, because of the cruelty of the Nazis, there was no way for him to lead a normal life. But when he was offered a normal life, he returned to it, forsaking chess once and for all. Fischer, by contrast, succumbed to chess from the beginning because nothing else in the world was of real interest to him. And so it is only logical that he continued to descend into madness even after he had given up playing.
STEFAN ZWEIG SUGGESTS BOTH that chess is a cause of madness and that, perhaps more importantly, madness may be why certain people are defenseless against the charms of chess. That far, I follow him. But I think that Zweig mounts an even more radical attack on chess. His antichess novella raises a last question—admittedly, the most worrying one that any chess lover must, but does not want to, face: Perhaps we should not think of a serious, truly life-engrossing devotion to chess as a cause of madness. For perhaps it simply is madness. Perhaps devoting one’s life to that singular obsession—the “ridiculous goal of backing a wooden king into the corner of a wooden board,” as Zweig so aptly put it—does not bring on, but rather constitutes, madness.
Chess has no transcendental or metaphysical justification. But neither do any of the other pursuits that make us human. Fischer may, in some sense, have been mad all along. He certainly, since his earliest childhood, was barely functional the moment he stepped away from the board. And yet, until he was twenty-nine years old, this bare ability to function still allowed him to reach unprecedented heights in one of mankind’s peculiar little forms of art.
That’s also why the bulk of Fischer’s life, the seemingly interminable years of decline after his great match against Spassky, was a true tragedy, rather than just another story of another human life gone to waste.
Fischer played a serious chess match only once more in his life. It was a rematch against Spassky, held in 1992. Though Fischer won the game, and a handsome amount of money to boot, his comeback was in truth a double loss. He lost because, in strictly sporting terms, it was a farcical spectacle, in which neither player came close to the skill of bygone years. And he lost because, by agreeing to play the match in Belgrade, he violated a U.S. embargo against Yugoslavia, which was then at the height of its bloody civil war. After that, Fischer couldn't return to the U.S. without risking ten years in prison, and he spent his last years in exile—in Hungary, in the Philippines, in Japan, and finally in Iceland.
The last surviving images of Fischer—images which the HBO documentary seems to want to hurry away from, perhaps because they are so oppressive—show him as a futile, lonely old crank, walking around and around an ugly pond in downtown Reykjavík, incessantly going on about his ever more loathsome conspiracy theories. It’s hard not to think of Zweig, who posits a stark choice: a life of chess and madness or a life of normalcy and sanity. Zweig also suggests a clear answer: anybody who is strong and responsible should ultimately choose normalcy. But the opposite answer seems just as fitting. For the first 29 years of his life,
Bobby Fischer, who proved incapable of discovering anything else of value in the world, was able to construct for himself a meaningful life – all because of a mere game like chess.
The choice of chess and madness undoubtedly has all the shortcomings Zweig ascribes to it. But, like Bobby Fischer, it is just as worthy of our admiration.
Yascha Mounk, the founding editor of The Utopian, is currently working on his first book, A Foreigner in My Own Country: The Story of a Jewish Childhood in Modern Germany, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.