Bobby Fischer Against the World
chess for fun and chess for blood, Dept.


Biology ... er, AI Rick sez:


Hey, off topic but, but since you kinda mentioned it: That last line about chess. I'd been wondering when you'd bring up chess, because although I am not a chess player, I recently saw the movie Pawn Sacrifice and was mesmerized by Tobey McGuire's portrayal of Bobby Fischer. I spend the next day reading the entire Wiki page on Fischer, which definitely needed some serious editing, but I didn't want to miss an important fact in this guy's career. So...anytime you want to regale us with Bobby Fischer quotes, insights, etc. I am all ears.

I was especially intrigued by this idea that chess players get so wrapped up into the game that they become physically ill and even feel an actual sensation of being trapped and killed when being destroyed by an opponent. Such a thing never occured to me.

- See more at:


You don't have to ask Dr. D twice :- )


Tobey McGuire's portrayal of Fischer was, at the same time, (1) a virtuoso performance and (2) far, far short of conveying the killer that Fischer was.  Your On Demand section probably has the movie Bobby Fischer Against the World and that comes closer.  This guy was not a Star Trek dork.  When he walked into the room the players around him froze like rabbits smelling a panther.  He had the most menacing personal presence of any celebrity I know of - sports, politics, whatever.  The world poker champion met with Fischer once and said "I wouldn't play checkers or Ping-pong with Bobby Fischer."

Oh!  Come to think of it, Mike Tyson seemed to convey a similar aura.  Of course superiority of the body is one thing, superiority of the mind another.  Most of us realize that there are people out there who are physically superior;* that's a little easier for our ego defenses to handle.

Not that I believe chess skill proves mental superiority.  :- )  But that is sho' nuff what it feels like in a tournament chess game.  You feel like there is something profoundly wrong with you when you lose at that.  And you're talking to a guy who places almost zero value on intelligence.  I don't admire IQ any more than blonde hair, and for the same reason.  But something primal hits you in the chess arena...


It's routine for elementary-school students to cry, get sick to their stomachs, get massive headaches, etc., when trying tournament chess.  And that's if the parents are kind and the fellow students mild.  ... I always discouraged my kids from playing tournament chess.  Just this last week, my adult son wanted to play a few casual games (at odds) and after losing, he looked sick.  Basketball ain't quite like that.

The only panic attack I ever had in my life was at the 1995 World Open.  There is just something about this mental arena that is immersive and uniquely intense.


Fischer himself, I think, became paranoid because paranoia is the right way to play chess.  (There is a googolplex of moves possible and NOBODY can predict the dangers ahead.)  For Fischer, chess was life, and his mind became super-saturated with scanning for threats real and imaginary.  (The Soviets actually were out to get him.)  Far too many tournament chessplayers become mentally unbalanced.

That said, Sudoku is supposed to be great for long-term mental health, so ... :- )


Fischer is so popular with chessplayers, despite his personality, because his play was Mozart-like.  Clear without being simple, optimistic without being egotistical, precise without being mechanical, beautiful without being fanciful.  To this day his moves have the aura of being Truth itself, which is why he's studied so much.  Maybe if you can understand him, you can understand how he found Truth. 


A few entertaining Fischer quotes:


Chess is war over the board. The object is to crush the opponent's mind. -- Fischer

There are tough players and nice guys, and I'm a tough player. I like to see 'em squirm. -- Fischer

For the first lesson, I want you to play over every column of Modern Chess Openings, including the footnotes. And for the next lesson, I want you to do it again. -- Fischer (advice to his biographer, Frank Brady, who had asked for chess lessons.  Comparable to taking a musical student and saying "I want you to play over every musical note ever written by the classical composers.  Be back next month for the second lesson.")

It is difficult to play against Einstein’s theory. -- World Champion Mikhail Tal (on his first loss to Fischer)

You know you're going to lose. Even when I was ahead I knew I was going to lose. -- Andrew Soltis (on playing against Fischer)

It began to feel as though you were playing against chess itself. -- Walter Shipman (on playing against Fischer)

When you play Bobby, it is not a question if you win or lose. It is a question if you survive. -- World Champion Boris Spassky

I don't listen to weakies. - Fischer, on why he quit public school


In baseball, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson were somewhat this way.  It's hard to think of a baseball hitter who could pull this off to any extent at all.  Maybe Dae-ho Lee can ...

Good stuff,




Thanks so much for this. Those quotes were amazing. I'll definitely look for the movie. What a complex guy. I wonder if you have any idea of how much time I would need to spend studying chess to appreciate, if only a glimpse, of his brilliance. It's not the same as listening to a great piece of music or looking at a work of art, but I am intrigued as heck. I suppose there's only one way to find out :-)


Ya, it might be more time than it's worth.  Sort of like learning Spanish to appreciate Don Quixote...


Brilliant analogy. After watching the documentary, I am inclined to agree. But you put it so well. Well, thanks for a glimpse into a piece of your world. 

How strange. He wins the World Championship, and his first response to the media is that he needs to play more chess. Kinda reminds me of Russell Wilson after losing the Super Bowl: he says something about needing to get in the film room and practice field, study and prepare for what's next. I guess that's why we started telling these champs: "Dude: first thing you say is 'I'm going to Disneyland.' "

Did Fischer feel lucky to win? 

4 the film Searching For Bobby Fischer has a great quote that I think holds true: "Bobby Fischer held the world in contempt."

For those who have not seen it, the story is not about Bobby's life, but rather discovering the next Bobby Fischer. Ben Kingsley, playing chess coach extraordinare Bruce Pandolfini, is trying to drive home the point that you have to hate your opponent to be the best.

His young prodigy, Josh Waitzkin later laments: "Maybe it's better not to be the best. Then you can lose and it's okay."

I've seen this film many times, and the first time I watched it with my wife she was shocked to see me tear up in some of these key moments. 

Indeed, I suspect a soft-hearted Fischer would never have been champion.


Though it may cheer you to know that many wonderful players were wonderful people too.  The 27-year world champ Emanuel Lasker ...  the mythical chess Zeus, Paul Morphy, who quit chess because he couldn't stand to be around people like Fischer ... the Seattle supergrandmaster Yasser Seirawan (best post-WWII American player other than Fischer) is one of the most likeable people I've ever met.  

Seirawan shut me out 4-0 during a blitz match once and I felt like I was winning, he was so supportive of my play.  Super funny and a giving, generous man ... very popular with the ladies by the way.  Heh!

"It's not good for your chess to hate your opponent." - Fischer.  Ironically.

When sitting at the board, Fischer was capable of objectivity that a surgeon or an astronaut could only marvel at; it was in his fanatical preparation that "the dark side" fueled his time investments.

Grandmasters would report that he looked hysterical just before a game, and then he would sit down, adjust the pieces "and become steel."


You make an ASTOUNDING find there as an observer, Kirkuleeze - for Fischer it wasn't okay to lose -- it was like being murdered to you and me -- so he retired.  Won the battles, *lost the war.*

You gotta find a way to be okay with losing.  Very Zen :- )



Nice guy. To me he was the face of US chess in the 90's, and if I remember right he had a hand in the local chess magazine.

As far as nice champions go, can't really complain about Carlsen either. I'm a big fan of Aronion as well... after losing a game in the candidates tournament, he explained his odd opening play as something that came to him in a dream. Unbelievable.

Like all chess players, I would love to see a matchup of some of these guys in their prime. Fischer/Capablanca or Morphy/Kasparov would be amazing.

With Fischer leaving the game, it's hard to gauge his thought process. He had already begun to judge the game as too much memorization and too little innovation, but I've always thought he preferred to disappear as a legend, rather than risk a future defeat.


Or I wouldn't have spoken to you as though you weren't.  ... Agreed on Magnus Carlsen.

The dream remark ... ya.  Fischer once said his mind was always working on chess, even his subconscious, even when he was asleep.  Think that's how the DNA double helix theory was discovered too right?


At the biggest moments, in the biggest contest, the best become assassins.  Or Great Whites, if assassins isn't PC enough.

And they don't even really know how they do it.  If they knew how, they would know how not to.  Such is the stuff of decline.....

Ask Tiger.

But for Elway, Jordan, Brady, Nicklaus, Woods, Fisher, Borg, when that moment came, all the world slowed down......while their perception of the world (and its possiblities) became more acute.  Ah, there is lots of "mental game" stuff that can improve the performance of a Doc, or a Moe.....but none of it gets us close to living (briefly) in the head of a Nicklaus or Fisher.

Allen Iverson could do things with a basketball that were bordering on the metaphysical:  Crouching Tiger stuff.......but he was a mental midget, in the terms of Jordan-stuff.  I don't mean he was actually stupid, but he wasn't up to the mental-toughness demands of greatness....

But few are.

And you can't really explain it to mortals.  We can pretend we understand, but only pretend.

As Nicklaus stood over his tee shot on 16 at Augusta in '86, after he had just made one of the most famous eagles in the history of the game, Tom Weiskoph, announcing, was asked what was going through the Nicklaus mind.  Weiskoph, who was once thought to be heir to The Bear, and with one of the most graceful swings in the history of the game (and a major champion) basically admitted, aloud, that he had no idea what was going on inside Jack's head.  

He was saying, "I haven't a clue how to golf-think like Jack Nicklaus."

Ask any run of the mill Physics PHD at your local university what happened inside Einstein's head.  If he/she doesn't look at you as if you were a complete maroon for even asking, then he/she is lying in a bald-faced way.

They don't know.  

Fisher as Jordan,  There you go.  


Love that you brought Nicklaus up.  In his books he seemed like a polite enough guy but I fancied that a real chill came across in his writing.

M's Watcher's picture

I got to see Seirawan play chess while he was at Garfield HS and later at the Last Exit on Brooklyn in the U District, back in the day.  Of course, he turned Garfield into a chess powerhouse with his presence.  And then I guess he got really good.  He was remarkable to watch.


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