Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It's Our Game!

It was 1970 at the US Junior Invitational Championship. The top eight under-21 year olds were in their first round games, slugging it out. The tournament was being held at the old McAlpin Hotel in New York City. All was quiet, with only the tournament director and one spectator looking on.
And then he walked in. As players looked up, and then rudely interrupted their opponent’s concentration to alert their opponent – everything stopped. It was surreal for about 3 minutes.
Then everyone continued resumed their games as though nothing had happened.
A 27 year old Bobby Fischer in a sports jacket and carrying papers under his arm had walked in. He moved quietly around the room looking at the games in progress. He then walked over to the TD table, stood there and surveyed the room, with a look of complete tranquility.
Miraculously, in minutes, every game was finished even though they were nowhere near time control. Then there was the inevitable gathering around the TD table like thirsty elephants to a watering hole.
“Let’s look at some games,” Bobby said, and all heads wordlessly bobbed up and down. As he quickly set up a board, he told us to call him Bobby. He set down the Russian chess magazines that he carried with him and opened one up. No one could believe this was happening. Here was the chess god getting ready to go over games with us mere mortals, even though he seemed like just a normal guy.
That is, until he started moving the pieces around – in a blur of motion. At some point, he stopped after making a move and stared at the board with a puzzled look. He seemed like a novice who could not quite comprehend the underlying reason for that strategy. Then Bobby asked to no one in particular, “I wonder why he did that?”
Eventually a young master wanting to impress, offered a plausible explanation. Something like, “Maybe he wanted to do ‘such and such’, but was afraid his opponent would do ‘this and this’, so he prepared first…with that.”
Fischer immediately shrugged that off with, “No, that doesn’t work because…,” and he reached out for the pieces and …zoom, zoom, swish, zoom, zoom! His hands were moving so fast you could barely follow the sequence. It was like a movie on fast – forward. When he finished moving the pieces, Bobby inquired, “Right?”
Who was going to argue? Everyone just nodded or said ‘right’, in a soft tone. No one really understood what he just showed us, but none of the brightest young stars at this time could dispute him. Most were just paralyzed in disbelief as to what they just witnessed.
It was not the sheer speed of his actions – though that was certainly impressive on its own – but the effortlessness and naturalness in which he exhibited his understanding of the position. It seemed as normal as breathing to him. As though it was all as simple and straight-forward as ‘of course this is what happens if you do that.’
One of the masters later confided to the group that he had analyzed with a number of grandmasters, and they were not even close. “They may come to the same conclusion – eventually - but they have to work at it.”
With Bobby Fischer, it was not like that. It was like he had a special key to a room with all the answers to chess puzzles. Maybe he had to dig a little under a little clutter, but he didn’t have to break down the door to get in.
He did this for several more games and positions and he seemed to get faster at moving the pieces. It became a game as all the young men took turns taking a guess at a position, and having Bobby say, “No, no….that would not work because…..,” and then us saying “Oh, yeah. Right Bobby.” The young players rotated the chance to be good-naturedly pummeled. Bobby encouraged them all to participate.
Piecing it together later, the young masters were not the only ones who benefited from the encounter. Fischer probably saw these young men as companions in an alien world. He probably felt more comfortable among them, because unlike the media and non-chess players – they shared his world. The world of our game.
[Editor’s note: Isn’t that really the draw of a chess club? Regardless of our skill level, we all have one thing in common; it’s OUR game!]
Hat tip to Harold J. Winston (spectator in the room) and Chess Life, August 1989

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