Friday, January 27, 2012

Best of the best: Bobby Fischer

Hi Pilgrims,

Again profuse apologies for the lateness of a post:
re-establishing ourselves in Kinglake has been combined with a substantial writing project all of which kept me ridiculously busy.

On the chess front, I have renewed my acquaintance with an old inspiration, one whose games I had unjustifiably neglected for nigh on thirty years – Bobby Fischer. Remember him?

Since I lost all my chess books along with all other belongings, in the Black Saturday fires of 2009, I have been judiciously on the lookout for chess books in second-hand book stores, mail-order, and on the internet. I stumbled across the complete games of Fischer in a 1995 book: ‘Bobby Fischer: Complete Games of the American World Chess Champion by Lou Hays’.

It coincided with a time when I was getting hammered in chess straight out of the opening and in the early middle-game. I was looking for something to inspire me as I seemed to be getting older but no wiser. I knew I had to change my openings. If I was doing so badly, I reasoned that it must be because the openings I was playing were wrong for me; I had no special feel for them, therefore was incapable of reacting properly when my opponents (all booked up and with microchips embedded in their brains) took me into unfamiliar variations. And then along came the Fischer collection by Hays.

It was a delayed epiphany of about 40 years. You see, it was because of Fischer I took up chess again as an adult, back in 1972, when he took on the chess system and won. I liked his games. So why did I not emulate his openings as many others had done? Had I wasted 40 years? Probably. A late epiphany is better than none.

So I have renewed my acquaintance with the games of Fischer. I like his style. I naturally gravitate to his mix of clear strategy, classical play, and accurate, forceful tactics. All I lack is any semblance of his talent – but then so do all my opponents at the level I play. So I have decided to unleash the ‘inner Fischer’ that’s been there for 40 years. I have started to study his games and the openings he played. I have adopted the Sicilian and King’s Indian as Black and e4 as White.

Already, my results have improved. I play with more confidence because the openings and defences suit my style. Maybe there will be some glory-days still left for the old dog (me). We shall see.

Reviewing Fischer’s career and games was like leaving behind the polluted environment of the city and going up into the mountains, where the air is crystal clear and you can see for miles around you. You can actually breathe the air instead of choking. This is what life (chess) is supposed to be like.

Fischer’s approach is classical and direct. A keen student of Steinitz, he easily absorbed the principles of classical chess. Combined with his innate talents, these principles became the foundation of an aggressive style of chess that has had no equal. Even the players of today, the great ones, do not have his level of direct aggression, soundly based and meticulously planned. And they have the benefits of modern computer assistance and hordes of seconds to help them.

The impression is given that every move is a step in the strategy; each move is a threat of some kind; the cumulative effect is of a series of hammer-blows aimed at the enemy, and when he weakens, the surgical knife comes out to finish him off.

Fischer is the greatest representative of what I call the ‘American style’ of playing chess: direct, clear, aggressive. No elaborate complexity of strategy; no bending of the knee to chess aristocracy; egalitarianism is applied – all enemies are to be treated equally. The detritus of European complexity seems to have never made it across the Atlantic to infect the American side of the ocean: Morphy, Pillsbury, Marshall, Capablanca, and Fischer. Reshevsky was prone to the European disease but then his early influences were steeped in European chess.

Fischer had patriarchal attitudes. He identified closely with Steinitz who was an outsider and a patriarch in his own way. For Fischer as for Steinitz, it was ‘my way or the highway’. You do as I say because I know what is right: this move, this variation, this opening or defence, this way of conducting chess tournaments. Fischer seems to have taken a dislike to Lasker because he deposed the Patriarch he so admired; and Alekhine’s complexity seemed to displease Fischer’s aesthetics as much as the fact he deposed the clear style of Capablanca. Even so, there are similarities to Lasker (tactical nuance, fighting spirit) and Alekhine (aggression, combinative attacks) in Fischer’s play. As Newton was wont to say, when his genius was being announced to the world, he was fortunate to be able to stand on the shoulders of giants who came before him. Same for Fischer.

In a way, Fischer is the patriarch of modern chess as Steinitz was of the classical period and Botvinnik, of the so-called, Soviet School of Chess. Of course, chess players are individuals and give their own individual twist to the influences on their development. The really talented break new ground and influence future generations. Fischer’s approach, and gift to the rest of us, is of relentless aggression, soundness, never giving up the fight even when a draw is ‘logical’; classical play with White and hypermodern openings with Black in order to have winning chances.

His style seems to have become a major influence on all the top players, as Kasparov himself has indicated in his ‘Great Predecessors’ series. Despite the difficulties he had with officials, Fischer was well liked by many of his rivals as well as respected for the principled stand he would take over conditions and player-payments. Tal, Spassky, and Gligoric among many other top players, seem to have been on friendly terms with the often cranky Fischer. The world owes an enormous debt to Spassky for the sporting qualities he displayed and the forbearance he showed towards Fischer’s behaviour, which allowed the world championship matches to proceed. Perhaps deep down, Mr Spassky also had a less than positive view of the Soviet system.

Recent analysis using computer assistance has revealed that Fischer did not always play perfectly correctly. Top level commentators, some of them world champions themselves, have shown that this or that move, if played by his opponents, would have undone Fischer’s aggressive play. Does this belittle the great man’s reputation? Hardly. It is as nonsensical to apply modern computer tools, group-think, and ‘post-Fischer’ knowledge, to devalue his legacy, as it is for an ordinary scientist today to scorn the greatness of a Newton or Einstein because they did not have the modern technical marvels and knowledge of the present day. As for Fischer’s appalling political and social attitudes, they go to a critique of Fischer the man not Fischer the player. We know of many great cultural figures, whose attitudes and values are despicable, even by the standards of their day, yet we still respect the contribution they have made to our civilisation.

Fischer’s play still stands up as sound, aesthetically pleasing, and an example for all players to aspire to, irrespective of class.

As for my play – please do not ever use it as an example of anything except the struggle of a keen chess player with a modest skill set, occasionally producing an interesting game (as long as you do not look too closely), as the disclaimer of Pawn’s Progress proclaims.

This next game is from the ongoing second match of mine against Tayhk from Singapore played on as previously posted. The game was completed in January 2012.

I was Black and managed to win after a few positional mistakes by my opponent. The tactical play involved dancing on a knife-edge for both of us in an open position but in the end I prevailed. I played this game under a ‘Fischer influence’ which meant that I tried to play soundly but aggressively after an unfamiliar opening tried by Tayhk; the tactics were well calculated and forceful, blending well with classical principles. Anyway, I tried. I hope you enjoy the game, especially the final part.

Tayhk versus The Palooka (George Eraclides)

Nimzo-Larsen Opening

1. b3 e5 2. Bb2 Nc6 3. Nf3 d6 (3...e4 is quite acceptable but I wanted a tight formation against this clever, improvising player) 4. e4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Be7 6. Bc4 (the play of my opponent does not seem to suit the essence of the Nimzo-Larsen; the Bishop will be misplaced here and I now noticed a tactical opportunity. Remember the great chess teacher Purdy’s advice: look first for forcing tactics for both sides before playing strategically, because if you don’t, you may be overlooking a brilliant strike for yourself or by your opponent; I referred to them as ‘Bunny Rules’ in earlier posts) Bg4 7. h3 (of course if he had played Be2 there would be no need for this weakening) Bxf3 8. Qxf3 (in hindsight 8. gxf3 Nd4 may have been better with 9. Nb5 or a4 to dislodge the Black Knight; given he has not yet castled, he can sneak in Queen-side castling and try to attack down the g-file) Nd4 9. Qd3 c6 (Black hits the Bc4 which is poorly placed, threatening to capture His Holiness) 10. a4 a6 11. b4 (necessary to save the Bishop) O-O 12. Nd1 (on d1the Knight becomes an impediment to his positional structure but he must try and dislodge Black’s well-posted Knight; Black takes the opportunity to try some clever space-grabbing moves on the Queen-side which keep the pressure on White. All this because of the poor move 6. Bc4) b5 13. Ba2 (he wants to save the Bishop because it attacks f7 or he does not want to admit to himself 6. Bc4 was a poor idea; I would have played 13. Bb3) c5 14. Bxd4 cxd4 (capturing towards the centre works best here, as it does most of the time) 15. c3 d5! 16. exd5 Nxd5 17. O-O Nf4 18. Qe4 Ng6 (I was quite pleased with my position. Now White gives me an opportunity to win a tempo, a dubious Pawn, and further improve my position; note: any pawn exchanges on the Queen-side initiated by White will favour Black because of White’s poor development and separated Rooks) 19. g3 Qd7 20. Kh2 bxa4 21. f4!? (high stakes play by White to cash-in on the Ba2 spearing f7; a better try was 21. Nb2) exf4 22. gxf4 Bf6! (a clever threat which White imagines he has dealt with by his next move) 23. Qf3 Rad8 24. Rf2 Rfe8 (alarm bells should be ringing) 25. Nb2? (desperation or a blunder) Nxf4! 26. Rg1 (his choices are to attack, and in the complications force a swindle, or be ground down in the long run) Be5 27. Rg3 (he is working in very tight spaces to meet numerous threats and now gives up the exchange) Ne6! (this may have come as a surprise; it blocks the attack on f7 by the Bishop on a2 and gives Black all the time needed to attack; the theme of an assault on f7 lingers in the air, never to be fulfilled) 28. Kg1 Bxg3 29. Qxg3 dxc3 (tidying up loose ends) 30. dxc3 a3! 31. Nc4 (forced and now the diagonal of the Bishop is blocked) Qd3 32. Rf3 (Black can win the Queen-less ending easily but now clever tactics by Black decide matters once and for all) Qc2! 33. Rf2 Rd1+! 34. Kh2 Qc1 35. Qf3 Ng5 36. Qc6 Rde1! 37. Nd6 R1e2! 38. Qg2 (38. Qxd8 Rxd8 39. Nxd8 Qe3 was quite unpalatable to White) Qd2! 39. Kg3? (‘Resigns’ was the alternative) Qxd6+ 0-1

So this was my ‘Fischer inspired’ effort to emulate the approach of the great man. It gave me the point and a slight lead in our second match of 24 games.

Hope you enjoyed the effort and maybe learned something useful.

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