This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:
- Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
- Bobby Fischer: The American
- Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
- 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’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.
- Bobby Fischer
- Red Squares: Why are the Russians so good at chess?
- History of the World Chess Championship