Bobby Fischer was one of my many childhood heroes. Of course, there is no getting away from the strange and, with the years, increasingly ugly side of his personality. And yet there was another side of Fischer that should not be forgotten, and by chess players never will be. He was the creator of immortal masterpieces, works of sublime beauty.
Chess players have long debated whether chess is an art, a science, or a sport. It is obviously none of those things, though it has some of the elements of each. It is geometry brought to life, a battle of wills conducted in the realm of pure mathematical form. There are certain kinds of beauty that every normal person can appreciate: that of a sunset, a flower, a piece of music, a beautiful woman. There are other kinds that are accessible to very few—only to those with specialized skill and technical knowledge. The beauty to be found in the higher reaches of mathematics and physics are prime examples. When the eminent physicist Edward Witten rhapsodized to an uncomprehending science journalist about the mathematical structure of superstring theory (“I don’t think I have succeeded in conveying to you its wonder, incredible consistency, remarkable elegance and beauty”), he was expressing a delight that only a handful of people in the world could ever share. While the number of those who can appreciate the beauty of a chess masterpiece is far greater, it is still a tiny minority of the human race. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” What Keats meant by that, I am not sure; but, sadly, some of the most sublime works of human genius must of their nature remain unheard by all but a few.
The word genius is thrown about too easily. There are some people, however, whose gifts are so prodigious that they seem to lie far beyond human limits. How can one explain a Mozart? The music poured out of him without effort. As a boy, he wrote to his father, “Papa, I piss music.” According to Einstein’s biographer Banesh Hoffmann, when someone suggested to Einstein that Beethoven was a greater composer than Mozart, “He would have none of it. He said that Beethoven created his music, but Mozart’s music was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe waiting to be discovered by the master.”
The “Mozart of chess” is often said to be the great Cuban genius Jose Raul Capablanca (1888-1942), perhaps the greatest natural chess talent of all time. The great American grandmaster Rueben Fine wrote of Capablanca: “What others could not discover in a month’s study he saw at a glance. Everything [in chess] came to him as naturally as walking: effort, exertion, study were for him superfluous. . . . Others might gape and wonder, and try in vain to analyze how he did it . . . to Capa [it was] as easy as breathing.” The rapidity of his play astonished everyone. Fine, who at “blitz” play (where the whole game must be played in a time limit of a few minutes for each side) was able to hold his own against even world champions like Alekhine, recalled that Capablanca always used to beat him “with ridiculous ease.” The comparison with Mozart is apt in other ways. Capablanca’s style is regarded as the most “pure” among the great champions. It had an appearance of simplicity and ease that was deceptive. In the words of a later world champion, Mikhail Botvinnik, “Capablanca’s play produced and still produces an irresistable artistic effect. In his games a tendency towards simplicity predominated, and in this simplicity there was a unique beauty of genuine depth.”
Fischer’s genius was on the same scale as Capablanca’s. But whereas Capablanca was notoriously lazy, and devoted almost no study to the game (which was eventually his undoing), Fischer throughout his career worked at developing his skill with single-minded intensity and was possessed by a ferocious will to win. These factors made him, in the words of Garry Kasparov, “an all-conquering titan.” But beyond the competitive aspect of the game, there is the artistic side. The two, of course, are not unrelated. Fischer himself wrote: “Chess is an art, of course. But I wasn’t thinking of that. Only accurate, strong play can be pretty . . .”
How to explain the Einsteins, the Mozarts, the Capablancas, the Fischers? Can one explain them with natural selection, and bell-shaped curves, and neurotransmitters? Can one explain them at all? True genius is like something fallen from the heavens into our world. We can only “gape and wonder.” Of course, it is not related to wisdom, or moral goodness, or even mental health. The loathsome aspects of Fischer’s behavior and beliefs are plain for all to see. But let us not forget that he also enriched the world with works of enchanting beauty.