Fischer vs. Modern Elite Players

Fischer vs. Modern Elite Players

| 211 | Strategy

If you frequent chess forums, you are probably familiar with the never-ending debates about the strength of chess players from various eras. There will always, for example, be a person making the traditional claim that any decent master today would beat Paul Morphy to a pulp. Never mind that the character making such a claim is usually way below master-level themself.

Paul Morphy

Even the pictures back then were worse quality! Photo: Wikimedia.

It is easy to recommend to such a person, who clearly suffers from an acute case of recency bias, to learn more about chess. But what about GM Hikaru Nakamura's notorious interview from 2014 where he was asked how GM Bobby Fischer would do against modern top players like Nakamura himself? Hikaru's response was quoted a zillion times all over the internet: "Fischer would almost certainly lose to all of us!"

Many things could be said of Nakamura, but shallow chess knowledge is definitely not one of them! So, is he right?

Naturally, you cannot bring Fischer back and test his skills versus modern grandmasters, but nevertheless, I will try a little experiment. I came up with this idea while watching the Global Championship. Just like everyone else, I thoroughly enjoyed the following beautiful combination. See if you can find it:

While the combination is very cute, it is also quite simple, so I suspect that both Morphy and the above-mentioned decent master of today would easily find it. But what really made me think is the position from the opening part of the game. Why didn't White capture Black's a8-rook on move 12?

Well, to be fair, it was an easy question for me since I've known the answer since my childhood. The following game of Fischer's was a real eye-opener for me.

Since we discussed the game in this 2020 article, you shouldn't be surprised that Fischer called his position winning just three moves after White captured on a8. GM Nodirbek Abdusattorov got a classical chess training in his childhood, so it is no surprise that he didn't fall for this trap. However, let's revisit last week's article. Do you remember this?

Or take a look at another recent high-profile game between GMs Magnus Carlsen and Anish Giri:

In his annotations, Carlsen's main second GM Peter Heine Nielsen writes about 16...Qxa1: "A controversial move that invited opinions varying from an understandable mistake to a criminal misunderstanding of the position. [...] Here to some, including Magnus and [GM] Jan Gustafsson, this seemed obvious, while others, like Anish Giri or myself found it less clear. [...] the computers are merciless. They describe the queen move as a serious blunder, leaving White with an immediately winning position."

I really like this comment, because it is very instructive, but I would really love to see Fischer's reaction to it. If he didn't die of laughter, he might utter something like "No [kidding], Sherlock" referring to the evaluation as White is winning. Or perhaps he would rant for a long time about the conspiracy of modern elite players who are trying to erase his chess heritage. Who knows what the mad genius would do? One thing is clear: this "controversial" move was really chess 101 for him.

Here is one more example from the highest level of the tournament:

In this case, capturing on a8 was not a decisive mistake since White could just agree to a draw at any time by repeating moves. While GM Richard Rapport gets major credit and admiration from chess fans all around the world for his unmatched fighting spirit, his understanding of a position failed him in this case, and he paid a high price for it.

As you could see in these numerous examples, something which was elementary for Fischer wasn't that obvious for modern elite players. So, was Nakamura completely wrong with his statement quoted at the beginning of this article?

Hikaru Nakamura
Well, is he? Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Unfortunately, most chess sources provide only the first part of his answer. Here is what the American Chess Superman actually said: "Fischer would almost certainly lose to all of us, but this is due to the fact that the game has so fundamentally changed. If Fischer had a few years to use computers, I think he would probably be on the same level." Now it makes perfect sense!

Moreover, if we could bring back Fischer circa 1972, give him modern engines and databases to practice with for a couple of years, and organized a match against any modern elite player, I would put my money on Fischer against anyone except for Carlsen, who is in a league of his own. Besides, as Nielsen noted, the chess pattern that we discussed today was as obvious for Magnus as for Fischer!

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