Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Eulogy: Bobby Fischer

There are two schools of thought on the topic of greatness.

One school declares that, in order for one to be a great person, one has to accomplish something momentous, unprecedented, and otherwise distinct in the history of humankind. One has to perform some great feat, some act that typifies one bright shining moment in the fleeting lifespan of the human spirit. It doesn't even necessarily have to be impossible, heroic or even practical; more than a few humanitarian endeavors lie forgotten alongside the fame of outrageous stunts.

If you subscribe to this school of thought, then Bobby Fischer was a great chess player. Even if you somehow don't see him as the greatest of them all, you would be foolish to rank him as anything but among the best who ever moved a pawn across the black-and-white board.

Say what you will, but the man ate, slept, dreamed, read, wrote, and breathed chess. He knew the game right down to its core. He knew its subtleties, lived its openings, and experienced its endgames. Bobby Fischer was a passionate eccentric at heart, one who all but dedicated his life to the game and showed us where it could take him.

In an era and history that saw an almost completely Russian domination of the game, Fischer was an anomaly. He was a lone American champion, a superstar among the elders, an innovator who poked and prodded at the fabric of the tournament system and showed the judges his own particular brand of defiance. He would challenge people in his games, dragging them into the foremost reaches of unknown territory and forcing them to play with his own primal technique. He shattered the unspoken notion of chess as a "boring" game: To him, this was not something where you could memorize the moves or record the clicking of the pieces in the back of your head. No, when you played against Fischer, you either played chess... or you went down like a bag of bricks.

But there are two schools of thought on the topic of greatness, and I have only mentioned one so far.

This other school preaches a concept other than greatness. This second school preaches temperance. It is, after all, not enough to accomplish something great. Heck, anybody can accomplish something great as long as they can set their minds to it. It is the question of humanity that ultimately decides whether or not the action was worthwhile. What did you do it for? Who did you do it for? Why did you do it? And even more so than anything else -- did you remain a human being, knowledgeable and compassionate, afterwards?

If you subscribe to this school of thought, then Bobby Fischer was probably one of the worst individuals who ever played the game. Or if you refuse to go that far, he was one of the most abominably controversial.

He threw tantrums over the smallest details. He wrapped himself in an unsettling sense of paranoia and blamed everything around him for matters that only he could resolve. He demanded, he bickered, and he railed at the most inappropriate things. He was anti-Semitic despite being of Jewish descent; he was anti-American despite being American himself.

Despite his considerable talent, Bobby Fischer was world chess champion for only three years. But he did not lose his crown in a down-to-the-wire match against an honorable opponent; he resigned after the world chess federation refused to change the tournament rules according to his wishes. He was less a well-meaning ambassador of the sport, and more a cranky old miser with little patience to start with. There is an entire line of chess players who you probably wouldn't mind meeting, sharing a cup of tea, and talking shop with. Bobby Fischer belonged less on this list and more underneath the broken lightbulb at the back of the building.

He was controversial, and that was why people watched him. He was self-centered, and that was why people disliked him. He was both a genius and a crank at the same time, and whether or not the combination is a good quality happens to depend purely on what you think.

Bobby Fischer was either a great man, or a man who ended up wallowing in his own greatness. Exactly what that means is up to you; as I mentioned, there are two schools of thought on the matter.

The only certainty now, however, is that Bobby Fischer has passed on. In the end, he was neither a genius nor a crank; he was merely a chess player who made his last move and finally resigned from the game. In the end, he was an old man who left behind a legacy of skills and eccentricities, of wise moves and grievous errors, of the pitfalls of fame and the benefits of infamy.

Greatness, after all, is always a matter of black or white.


jeff-reiji said...

hey sean, it's been a while.

in layman's tems, napa-tumbling ako sa entry na ito. I read about bobby fischer and his death in several blogs already but I find this one the best. I wish I wrote this.

you label yourself as a story writer but I find your essay writing better. I'm just wondering if you did this kind of thing when you were in college. did you join essay writing contests for kicks back then? I think you might've won a prize or two.

you know, or at least have an idea of what I did... =)

Sean said...

Reiji: Hi, Reiji. Thanks for your kind words; they happen to be very uplifting for me today.

Interestingly enough, I only joined one essay-writing contast in school, and that was way back in 1994. I've been writing fiction for much, much longer, to be honest.

On the other hand, there seem to be many more contests that center around fiction-writing as opposed to essay-writing. That could be why I didn't see a lot of action with essays, I think.