Memo To The Gods: Never Come Back

| 4 | Chess Players

Memo To The Gods: Never Come Back

The return of Bobby Fischer, the biggest comeback since Napoleon sailed a single-masted flat-bottom out of Elba (on his way, mind you, to Waterloo), has been widely noted but quite misunderstood. After 20 years of self-imposed seclusion, the greatest chess player of his time returns to life by way of a rematch with Boris Spassky (the man from whom he took the world championship in 1972) in, of all places, Yugoslavia. The picture flashed around the world is that of Fischer spitting on a U.S. government order charging him with violating the U.N. embargo on Yugoslavia. The papers are full of Fischer's ravings about a world Jewish conspiracy.

This is all very colorful. And quite beside the point. Mozart has returned. This age is quite consumed with Wolfgang Amadeus' table manners and toilet practices. But the point is the music. Can he still compose? Do the gods still sing to him?

Fischer's deranged politics, indeed his thoughts on anything other than chess, are of no interest. One does not learn asceticism from Elvis. One does not learn social etiquette from Howard Hughes. One does not learn politics from Bobby Fischer. Fischer once said, "Chess is life." We should take him at his word. There is no more to his life than chess.

Those unprepared to indulge Fischer for his monomaniacal genius should at least indulge him for his looniness. Someone seized with his hallucinatory visions may be playing in embargoed Yugoslavia but is living on the moon. Fischer is no more situated in this world than was another world champion, Alexander Alekhine, who, when apprehended at the Polish frontier for lack of papers, retorted, "I am Alekhine, chess champion of the world. This is my cat. Her name is Chess. I need no passport."

Fischer the person is a mere study in pathology, a sad but unremarkable story. The remarkable story, the mythic story, is Fischer the player. His drama is the drama of the Return, of the god who risks immortality to reassume human form.

Muhammad Ali returned and added to his legend. So did Ted Williams. But Ali, gone only four years, made his comeback at 30. Williams came back, once (from World War II) at 27, then again (from Korea) at a still vigorous 35. Those who came back past their prime -- Bjorn Borg, Mark Spitz, Joe Louis -- merely embarrassed themselves.

There are, of course, other ways of coming back. The crew of the starship Enterprise came back to make millions at the box office, but at the price of self- parody. Crosby, Stills and Nash came back, but at the price of cacophony. They could no longer sing harmony.

The Fischer phenomenon is more poignant still. He never was the Crosby, Stills and Nash of chess. He was the Beatles -- the greatest player of his age, probably the greatest player ever. Wayne Gretzky once won the scoring championship of the National Hockey League, with 205 points. The runner-up had 126. There was once that much distance between Fischer and the world. His play was incandescent. Moreover, his mysterious exile, his 20-year disappearance into a netherworld of shabby Pasadena hotels, only added to the legend.

And then one day he returns. After 20 years, one finally sees his face. Nelson Mandela's face too was hidden from the world for decades. When finally revealed, it had the grace, the radiance that fit the legend. Fischer? The face that 20 years ago was lean and sharp and taut is now merely gnarled. His manner, once simply eccentric, is wild and embarrassing.

And his play? He returned to play a man ranked 101st in the world and, except for a couple of games in which Spassky was frankly inept, their play has been roughly even. By world championship standards, Fischer's game has been inferior -- some flashes of brilliance, but some appallingly weak play as well.

Grand masters who 20 years ago would not have dared carry his coat -- the younger ones would not have been tall enough -- now publicly call his play aimless and amateurish. One Russian grand master advises patronizingly that Fischer must "realize that chess has changed in the past 20 years." World champion Garry Kasparov notes the "low level" of play in the match. "Incredibly low," says international master Alex Sherzer, with more than a trace of disgust.

In Game 5, for example, Fischer was adrift, wandering eyeless about the board. His rook moves two squares -- then, on the next move, back one. (Like gaining 8 yds. on first down, then voluntarily taking a 4-yd. loss on second.) A bishop thrusts sharply across the board -- to a useless perch at the edge of play. "What was his (bishop) supposed to be aiming for?" asked a bewildered Robert Byrne in the New York Times. A good question made poignant by the source. Thirty years ago, Fischer defeated Byrne in a win so beautiful it was once described as "more witchcraft than chess."

Game 5 ended in pathos. Fischer's position became hopeless. Ten moves after he should have resigned, he moved his queen -- proud, powerful, the lion of the chessboard -- and retreated it to a corner where it cowered for protection behind three lowly pawns. As Jose Zalaquett, a top Chilean amateur player, put it, it was an almost physical retreat, a folding back into the fetal position, awaiting the final blow.

There are still many games to go in this match. Maybe Fischer will astonish us again. Maybe he will shake off the years and, magically, become great again, young again. But if he continues on this trajectory of mediocrity, he will have addressed a warning to all the gods living and dead: Never come back.

By Charles Krauthammer

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