By GM Jesse Kraai
Many have come to believe that Beth Harmon from The Queen’s Gambit was based on Bobby Fischer. But Beth isn’t the only character the novelist Walter Tevis created whose genius is ridden by at least one demon. You may have also seen Fast Eddie in The Hustler. Eddie plays pool. Beth and Eddie are beautiful to watch, seducing us into a world of geometrical harmony, letting us see just enough to think we could also be part of it. But Beth and Eddie cross lines. It’s as if the basic gridiron of life and culture that we’ve all inherited can’t contain them. Norms of behavior and even opinion guide us to see the world like those around us do, and they also keep us sane. Beth and Eddie become demonic when they leave that playing field. And both of them can’t kill their demons without somehow also killing their genius.
Watching a fictional Beth Harmon transgress is entertaining. Her fumbles and falls humanize her. And when her gift bails her out of trouble we can be happy for her. It’s a lot less fun when it’s a real person. International Master John Donaldson has just given us Bobby Fischer and His World (Siles Press, 2020), by far the most comprehensive collection of source material on the world famous Bobby Fischer. Through this work we learn that the riches and fame that his gift provided may have hurt him rather than helped. Money enabled him to continue living outside the bounds of society; and fame gave his ego no need to improve himself, or to adapt to those around him.
It’s fun to listen to any conspiracy theory for five minutes, but then it becomes tedious. Again and again we see people in Donaldson’s book coming into contact with Bobby and feeling like they’ve just witnessed something both wonderful and scary. It’s a moment they don’t forget. They treasure it in their minds like a holy relic, waiting for the chance to tell and retell their encounter. Most of the people who met Bobby packaged their experience with this dismissive shorthand: Genius guy, shame he lost it.
But a few were able to see past the tedium of Bobby’s rants to the vulnerable kid beneath all the loud words. It came as a great surprise to me that the person who saw Bobby most clearly was not a chess player. Rock goddess Patti Smith first came into contact with Bobby in 1966 when she was working for a bookstore in Manhattan that was doing a promotion for Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess. It left such an impression on her that she sought him out in 2005, near the end of his life, when Iceland – where Bobby beat Spassky in 1972 for the World Championship – was the last place on earth that would take him in. The country of Iceland literally bailed Bobby out of a Japanese prison by giving him citizenship.
Patti writes: “Bobby Fischer arrived at midnight in a dark hooded parka ... He began testing me immediately by issuing a string of obscene and racially repellent references that morphed into paranoiac conspiracy rants.
‘Look, you’re wasting your time, I said. I can be just as repellent as you, only about different subjects.’
He sat staring into silence, when finally he dropped his hood.
‘Do you know any Buddy Holly songs?’ he asked.”
After Bobby died, Patti wrote of that night, “We must have sung a hundred songs. He knew every lyric to every fifties rock song, to every Motown song. He had all the dance moves.
He still possessed the heart of the kid who dressed in sharkskin. The kid who beat the fellows at chess in Washington Square for money to buy tickets to the Brooklyn Fox and Paramount.
We had a good time, I watched him pull on his parka as we said goodbye. He was somewhat shattered and paranoiac yet within those dark eyes the intelligence, rage and humor that he possessed as a young Grandmaster still burned.”
No one owned him. He was a force that could not be contained. Genius is dangerous. Those that think it can be packaged are fools.”