So Many Insane Plays – Three Lessons From Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer is arguably the greatest Chess player of all time. This fact is all the more astounding because he was an American who rose to the pinnacle of a sport dominated by non-Americans (think soccer, or “football”). His method of play, his studious preparation, and even his descent into madness contain valuable lessons for the young or mature Magic player.

Frank Brady has written a fascinating, page-turning biography of one of America’s most transcendent and enigmatic icons: Brooklyn-born World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer. Young Americans may not appreciate the Fischer legend or his iconic stature, since it was forged in the crucible of the Cold War. As a point of comparison, he was transcendent in the way Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods are in the modern era (in the 90s and 00s, respectively), in terms of their visibility beyond the sport and cross-cultural global status. In each case, they transformed the sport participated in, and became icons beyond it. Brady’s book is titled Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – From America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness.

Fischer’s defeat of Soviet chess legend Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship, in my estimation, approaches the 1980 U.S.A. Men’s Hockey Team’s “Miracle on Ice” defeat of the Soviet Union in the Winter Olympics, in terms of its cultural relevance. The Soviet Union had long dominated the Chess World Championship, largely on account of a system of state subsidized training and support. Chess was to the Soviet Union was baseball once was to the U.S.: a national pastime. The significance of Fischer’s win cannot be overstated in that context, although in a post-Cold War era, it’s difficult to appreciate.

In reading Brady’s book, I couldn’t avoid comparisons to Magic and my experience in Magic. Although Magic is a different game from Chess, there are many parallels, from the dedication required to reach mastery levels of the game itself and to hone one’s craft, to the rating systems which defines achievement. I’ve culled three critical lessons from the book that are directly applicable to Magic.

Lesson # 1: Your Opponent Wasn’t “Lucky” or a Cheater

When Bobby Fischer was just 13, he won the U.S. Chess Open. By the age or 14, he began a remarkable streak of eight consecutive victories at the U.S. Chess Championship. Both his youth and the consecutive streak were unprecedented in that event, especially for a game that is mastered over decades of study and experience. From Brady’s account, Fischer as a young grandmaster reminds me of many young but highly talented Magic players, with both their brash arrogance and naïvely high expectations.

After being vanquished in one critical encounter, Fischer, as an older teenager, exclaimed that his opponent “got lucky.” For Magic players, that phrase is familiar. Magic players are accustomed to bad draws, mana screw, “variance” (the catchword of the day), or an opponent topdecking an unlikely “out.” But to read a Chess player, and a particularly skilled one at that, ascribing “luck” to an opponent was striking. Chess is regarded as a game in which luck plays little to no role. The attribution of being “lucky” reveals more about the psychology of top young players than the nature of the game itself. When losing games or even tournaments, it was reported that a young Bobby Fischer would cry. As a teenager, he seemed to take losses with only slightly more grace.

Top flight competitors in any sport have difficulty accepting a loss. That drive is what makes a competitor so strong in their avocation. In a recent major Vintage tournament, one well-respected top player even went so far as to express suspicion that another well-respected top player was cheating after a painful loss. Another top-player I respect is sometimes criticized for being a poor sport after losing. Many top Magic players lack grace in losing, and it is a skill that should be developed for the benefit of the sport.

Far too often, I’ve observed how innocuous or even stupid play mistakes or errors can be interpreted, if given the proper motivation and framing, as cheating or suspicious play. A player that is sore after a painful loss will sometimes cite trivial or silly procedural or technical mistakes as evidence of cheating. This may seem to be a stretch of logic to an objective observer, but to the player in the heat or wake of the moment, it is as persuasive as a bloody knife with fingerprints.

I wish I could say with certainty that such accusations diminish with maturity and age, but I’ve seen little hard evidence of that. Instead, the sophistication of the accusations rises. For nearly his entire 20s, Bobby Fischer refused to compete in the Candidates tournament, the qualifying tournament for the World Championship, because he felt that the Soviet’s had rigged the system with draws that would functionally exclude non-Soviets from competing for the World Championship title. Well into middle-age and beyond, Fischer continued to accuse Kasparov and others of ‘cheating.’

Lesson #2: A Tournament is Mostly Decided Before the First Game Begins

What becomes perhaps the most significant and distinguishing fact about Bobby Fischer as a young Chess prodigy was his voracious consumption of written works on the game. Fischer read just about every book he could get his hands on, playing through games from magazines and ancient texts, even learning foreign languages to devour anything printed. When preparing for tournaments, Bobby would take a step further. If he knew certain players would be competing in an event, he would track down every recorded game of that player he could find, playing each game from his potential opponent’s perspective, learning their mindset and analyzing their approach to the game, studying their openings and closings. To borrow Magic terminology, Bobby was metagaming – learning his opponents and their proclivities, thought patterns, and likely lines of play inside and out.

Boris Spassky (left) vs Bobby Fischer (right) at the XIX World Chess Olympiad (Siegen, GER, 1970)

When Bobby finally agreed to compete for the World Championship, after a decade of refusing to play based on the accusation that the Russians had ‘rigged’ the system, he spent several months in upstate New York preparing to face Boris Spassky, the reigning World Champion. He found a book that had 500 of Spassky’s most famous games, and he memorized them all. According to one account, Fischer would ask passersby to flip to a random page with a game, and Bobby would recite the entire game, play-by-play. Bobby knew his opponent’s as well as anyone could, and maybe as well as they knew themselves.

In our culture, we suffer from the fundamental attribution error – the psychological phenomenon of attributing success – or failure – to the individual. Americans, in particular, are especially fond of the ‘genius’ narrative that attributes individual success to rare or unique talent. Malcolm Gladwell’s amazing book “Outliers” does a great job debunking these myths, and Bobby Fischer is no exception. Bobby Fischer, gifted with unique memory and intelligence, was arguably the most prepared Chess player on the planet in any given event.

Fischer understood that tournaments were largely decided before the first game was even begun. What the public and observers saw was an undeniably gifted and talented player, but that obscured or hid from view the sheer effort and prodigious preparation that Fischer put into his game. It was not his exceptional insight that was the foundation of his success. Rather, his insight was a consequence of an exceptional work ethic.

In Magic, there is an ongoing debate regarding the relative importance of deck choice versus technical skill. What this debate often overlooks is that both skills are rooted in the same basic principle: experience and preparation. Technical play skill, no less than testing and tuning a deck, is a product of years of experience and preparation. Magic players would do well to remember that tournaments are generally decided before the tournament even begins. Golf players and chess players know this, so should Magic players. Tiger Woods, like Fischer, began studying and practicing his craft at a very early age.

Lesson # 3: Don’t Be Crazy (or a Prima Donna)

The saddest part of the Bobby Fischer story is how so much of his greatness was ultimately squandered due to his personal foibles. As his success grew, so did his neuroses. Ultimately, Fischer became a recluse and, if not paranoid schizophrenic, a seriously demented individual. In the 1972 World Chess Championship, Fischer presented a list of demands for his attendance, many of which were completely unreasonable. His demands for the 1975 World Championship match, which were ultimately unmet, let to his forfeiting the title. Among the demands he made in the 1992 Spassky rematch included such minutia as the height of the toilet.

The intuitive explanation for such behavior is rooted in the assumption that people who transcend any given sport or profession are inherently unbalanced people. That is, to become the best at anything requires a dedication to that thing which leads to underdeveloped or atrophied ability or skills in other areas, such as social skills. This may be too facile an explanation, but there is a kernel of truth to it. Rather, I think that individuals who become truly amazing at any given thing have greater risk of becoming truly deranged or unhinged, but it is not a given.

For every Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, people who, by many accounts and news reports, were not terribly good human beings, there are people who seem to be able to keep their lives in order despite or, rather, in spite of their success. What seems to be important or the critical factor is the presence of people in their lives who can ‘check’ them, and keep them from becoming Nietzschean uber-mench, with will to power over society. Obviously, Tiger Woods had no check in his life after his dad passed, and his escapades with porn stars and dilettantes upended his career as well.

I’m not suggesting that top magic players, like top athletes or chess players, are crazy or necessarily lack social skills. But the hubris that accompanies transcendent success combined with the underdeveloped social graces that are a consequence of focused dedication make it more likely that a person will become neurotic. The solution is to remain grounded – in friends, family, and community.

Until next time,
Stephen Menendian