The American

This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:

  1. Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
  2. Bobby Fischer: The American
  3. Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
  4. Mikhail Botvinnik: The Research Player

Chess’s greatest player can tell us a lot about the game, the mind, and man in general.

The Soviets dominated world chess through the 20th century.  Why? Because the state subsidized the game.  Soon after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Lenin regime officially introduced chess to the USSR as a means to gain international dominance on the mental battlefield.  (2) The government organized state-run tournaments and chess clubs.  It established official chess columns and publications. Most effective of all: a chess requirement was established for all Soviet schools.  Students began in elementary school; the students who showed the most promise were chosen for more advanced lessons; those students who showed the most promise were again moved to even more advanced teaching, and so on.  The plan worked; the USSR became a veritable grandmaster factory, churning out greats such as Alekhine, Botvinnik, Tal, Petrossian, and many more.  Suddenly, though, an unknown American player exploded onto the international scene, effectively turning the chess world upside down.

Let’s start from the beginning.  In 1957, a 14-year old Bobby Fischer was invited to the U.S. Championship.  He had shown promise, but nonetheless was expected to finish at around the middle of the pack.  Instead, he won handily, defeating then grandmaster and 6-time champion Samuel Reshevsky, as well as defending champion Arthur Bisguier.  His victory gained him international attention.

Fischer made moves on the international scene with a series of strong results in Chess Olympiads.  At 17, he won silver in the 1960 Leipzig Olympiad, which included an incredible draw versus then world champion Mikhail Tal; after the game, Fischer admitted to Tal, “You’re not a bad player.”  Fischer could have won gold in Havana (1966) if he had accepted Florin Gheorghiu’s draw offer.  Instead, he refused the offer, and then lost the game! In Varna (1962) Fischer bragged to his teammates that he’d win in 25 moves; the next day, his opponent Miguel Najdorf (who had played his own Sicilian Najdorf variation) resigned on move 24!

Fischer vs. Tal, Leipzig 1960

Fischer’s strong performances gained him an invitation to the 1962 Candidates Match in Curacao, a required step on the road towards the world championship.  He fell short of expectations, though, placing fourth, below the third place required for continuation.  But it didn’t just end there: a stubborn and ever-wary Fischer began to suspect collusion.   He believed that the three players who did win (Petrossian, Keres, Geller), all Soviet, had agreed among themselves to play quick draws, so that they could save their energy for their games against their American challenger.  Fischer published his theory in a 1962 Sports Illustrated article called The Russians Have Fixed World Chess.  He then swore to never again enter a candidates match, and entered semi-retirement.  Amazingly, it was later found that Fischer had been right. I guess it’s true what they say: even paranoids have enemies!

In 1970, Fischer found himself back on the road to the world championship, facing Taimanov of the USSR.  Note that FIDE had switched the format from round robin to 1v1 knockout matches, in response to Fischer’s revelations on Soviet collusion.  Fischer beat Taimanov with an unprecedented 6 wins to 0 (no draws); Taimanov was then exiled from the USSR as a result of his performance.  Next, Fischer beat Danish grandmaster Bent Larson, by the same score!  In his third knockout match, he defeated defensive genius Tigran Petrossian with a hefty 6½ – 2½.

Finally, he faced Spassky in the 1972 World Championship match.  He lost the first two games, the second due to a forfeiture, and would have forfeited the entire match had Spassky not agreed to move the board to a back room, away from the media and paparazzi whom Fischer so loathed.  Eventually, though, he fought his way back to a 12½ – 8½ victory to become the 11th World Chess Champion.  This lone American upstart was the first non-Soviet to win the world championship since Capablanca, who was defeated by Alekhine in 1927 (3). Fischer hadn’t just won a match; he had defeated an entire Soviet empire.  Set over the backdrop of the Cold War, Fischer’s win represented America’s ability to overpower the USSR on the intellectual front.  The Soviets were crushed; meanwhile, upon returning to New York, Fischer was hailed as a hero.

How did an American player, who had decided to start playing on his own, bring down a nation that had thoroughly institutionalized the game of chess?  More specifically, how was Fischer able to succeed without the environmental pressure to play?  Why did he even start playing in the first place?  What led him to eventual mastery?  These questions promote debate on the very nature of genius.

The classic doctrine suggests that success in chess (as well as pretty much any other skill) requires a combination of both genetics (natural talent) and environment (practice).  The Soviet strategy was to enforce the environmental aspect.  Everyone was forced to learn and practice chess, so as to avoid the risk that one with genetic inclination towards chess might never discover this inclination.  Presumably, as many Americans as Soviets are born with grandmaster potential, but far more Soviets realized this potential.

How, then, did Fischer achieve mastery without the environmental aspect?  I argue that many people ignore a third requirement for success in chess (as well as pretty much any other skill):  genetic tendency towards practice!  Thus we have three factors: environment, talent, and drive.  This third requirement blends the previous two, but is no less important.  It’s not enough to have genetic tendency towards talent; without the genetic inclination toward obsessive practice, that talent will never be realized, no matter how much the chess player is forced to play.

There’s no doubt that many Soviet masters must thank the official establishment of chess for introducing them to the game.  But they achieved mastery much less due to the environmental enforcement of chess, and much more due to their own decision to practice.  After all, mastery requires thousands of hours of practice, far more than can be forced upon one at school.  The miracle of the whole Fischer story is that he discovered chess pretty much by accident (at age six, Fischer and his sister bought a chess set, along with instructions, at a local candy store).  However, once he discovered chess, his ability to achieve mastery without environmental pressure is not that difficult to explain.  Unlike the Soviets, he lacked environmental pressure.  But, like the Soviet grandmasters, he did possess both talent and incredible drive (Fischer dropped out of school at 16 to study chess full time).  He didn’t grow up in a pro-chess environment, but upon discovering the game, he placed himself in a pro-chess environment.

Common wisdom suggests that genetic inclination should never limit success, since dutiful practice can overcome genetic obstacles.  But, what if willingness to practice itself is genetically mediated?  Suddenly, it seems that genetics have a tighter grip on our life path than we might have previously acknowledged.

On that logic, though, it now seems like we’re not in control of anything.  Our third factor, drive, concerns our tendency to hone our talent. Couldn’t there be a fourth factor, say resilience, that could allow us to compensate for a lack of drive?  What about a fifth factor, that could allow us to fight a lack of resilience, and so on?  As we rise upward from talent to application of that talent, we’re dealing less with genetics, which is fixed, and more with mentality, which is most-definitely not fixed.  Even without talent, one can have drive, and even without drive, one can have resilience, and so on!  As conscious beings, we can, and should, fight any genetic deficit.  Next time you’re studying one of Fischer’s famous games, or anything for that matter, and feel like giving up and quitting, find it in yourself to stay at it!  World championships may lie ahead.


  1. Bobby Fischer
  2. Red Squares: Why are the Russians so good at chess?
  3. History of the World Chess Championship

5 comments on “The American

  1. Nancy Diamond says:

    Interesting theory. However, it raises the question of whether the Russians’ domination of chess is similar to Germans/Austrians dominating music (a couple of centuries ago) or the numerous French painters instigating the impressionism movement. I don’t think training accounts for the emergence of painters in France. Music may be different.

  2. Anomaly says:

    The paradox that you hint at in the final two paragraphs is that if there is any free will at all–if we can exert some control over our emotions, habits, thoughts, and actions–genes enable us to do this. They simultaneously constrain and liberate us. Genes make us lazy, and enable us to overcome our laziness and display resilience.

    This is the intuition behind compatibilism: the idea that character traits that we admire must ultimately be explained by (but not reduced to) mundane mechanisms like genes interacting with environmental stimuli.

    But ‘mentality’ sounds more like the property of a will that stands outside the causal nexus of gene/environment interaction. It sounds more like libertarianism, or radical free will. I wonder which theory you’re inclined to believe.

    • Josh says:

      I see that ‘mentality’ may hold a libertarian connotation, though I don’t necessarily think this should be the case. I guess I’d call myself a compatabilist, since I see no reason why mentality couldn’t be explained by gene/environment interaction, just like laziness, or the ability to overcome laziness.

      I’m not very educated on this topic, but here’s how I’d put it. We can likely agree that talent has a genetic basis, as does tendency to apply that talent. What about tendency to apply that tendency to apply, and so on? We can start from something as concrete as eye color, and gradually move upward into more abstract traits. And, as we move upward, it gets harder and harder to explain these traits by genetics. Just because we can’t, though, doesn’t mean that no one could. The question which emerges is: along the spectrum of traits, from concrete to abstract, is there ever a change in type? Or is every change one of degree? I’m inclined to choose the latter, simply because I have nothing to suggest the former. It’s difficult to draw a solid line between any two steps along the spectrum. Therefore, though I certainly couldn’t tell you how mentality is explained deterministically, I’d be reluctant to tell you that it couldn’t be.

      This, of course, shouldn’t discourage one from applying his or her talents, though. This was the message of my article. The fact that the role of genetics rises into consciousness doesn’t, or shouldn’t, make that consciousness any less real.

  3. Richard says:

    Here, Josh starts off with an interesting piece of chess history, but then ends up claiming certain things about genetics and the restrictions they place on our successes. First, worth noting is the field of epigenetics, where the interaction of genes with environment can generate new phenotypes. In the long run this might then affect the genetic inheritance which an organism will pass on to its offspring. Epigenetics challenges the simplistic model which separates an organism’s genetic profile from the environment in which it is embedded.

    At one point, Josh mentions “three factors: environment, talent, and drive”. Apart from how environment may not be distinct from talent and/or drive, it may also be that talent and drive are mutually constitutive in some sense. A reasonable amount of talent will increase one’s chances for early successes which will have a positive role in reinforcing the drive to try again, even when faced with temporary failure. The point is a simple one: if you’re good at something you enjoy, you’ll be more likely to try and try again.

    The emergence of “resilience” and the “fifth factor” which redresses its lack is a little dubious. We often experience different levels of an emotional commitment to achieving certain results; different levels of drive, if you like. What would distinguish “resilience” from merely being a renewed intensity of one’s “drive”? Why need there be a separate genetic mechanism for “resilience”? As Josh correctly estimates: “As we rise upward from talent to application of that talent, we’re dealing less with genetics, which is fixed, and more with mentality, which is most-definitely not fixed.” He is correct to say that we’re dealing less with genetics now, I believe. But this is just because we shouldn’t naively think that there is a distinct genetic basis for every new word we cook up; it need not imply anything about mentality being fluid rather than fixed. Besides, to a certain extent, epigenetics challenges the idea that genetics is “fixed” anyway. It sounds to me like Josh is still searching for a way for the mind (whatever that is) to be free from the more apparent limitations of the body and its biology.

    • Josh says:

      Hey there, so I agree that it would be silly to look for a distinct “drive” gene; a distinct “resilience” gene, and so on. Furthermore, I’d even say that calling “drive”, “resilience”, and “the fifth factor” all different things would be dubious. Really, I was just using these terms to get across the point that, regardless of what restricts us genetically, we can employ something higher, so as to overcome that, mentally.

      It’s true, I am just looking for a way to separate biology from mentation. It’s not going to be as easy as I’ve tried to make it. But perhaps we’d at least find it informative that, while natural talent certainly seems fixed, most of us would at least attest to the fact that, if we really try, we can overcome our laziness, shut off the TV, and finish that term paper, or practice that skill.

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