Sunday, January 20, 2008

The death of a genius

A chess legend and artist passed away recently. On Friday, January 18th 2008, my spouse told me that she heard on TV that a known chess player has died. I asked her if it was Bobby Fischer and she replied with a yes. In my mind, his physical death confirmed the closure I had with him as a hero for a period of time in my life as chess has been relegated to a far away activity. These days, chess problem solving and some uncompleted games with my young son is the extent of my involvement with it.

Bobby Fischer is the only American Chess World Champion and the one who broke the Soviet’s domination of chess. The story of him winning the championship has been retold countless times and includes elements of intrigue that transcend the chess board.

As a child and a teenager, I was fascinated with chess. Given lots of travel and my study schedule, I ended up reading a lot of chess books and playing chess (including correspondence chess for a while). I loved chess as it involves pattern recognition, strategy, tactics, logic and psychology … It is a fascinating game (and a sport) that survived through centuries even thought it was banned many times by different rulers and different religions at different times. I was fascinated by Sissa’s story of the invention of chess and the evolution of chess (shatranj) through time and geography.

Bobby was one of my chess heroes while going up… I still have “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” in my library even though most of my chess books have been donated or lost over the years. For a while, chess was an addiction for me whereas I would spend hours analyzing games and playing both against real players and computers.

Fischer always impressed by his style and way of playing… through his games, I understood the true meaning of an artist as he would win games by doing very “obvious” and extremely “simple” moves… obvious only after they would be done and simple because they captured the essence of chess…

Reading the (sparse) news about Fischer over the past couple of years created a large disconnect between the image I had of him from reading my books and the real person. Initially, his self imposed exile reminded me of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in which the "individuals of the mind" go on strike, refusing to contribute to the rest of the world. Society, they believe, limits them by interfering with their work and underpays them by appropriating the profits they deserve. These individuals start disappearing from their cities without a trace. Bobby had refused to defend his title in 1975 and then disappeared from the chess world (and lucrative sponsorships) for a long time. His retreat also reminded me of J.D. Salinger of the Catcher and the Rye fame who also became a recluse after writing his best known novel.

Unfortunately, his personal problems would come out every now and then in the news (see this 2003 article in the Guardian). Sexist and racist comments were quoted from him. He got involved with a sect and gave them all his winnings. This his subsequent fight against the sect. The Belgrade incident in which he defied US sanctions. His unfortunate 9-11 comments. All items which showed an unsavory side of him and pointed to some unresolved problems he was facing.

This begs the question if we as a society are failing our geniuses? Are we putting difficult expectations on them and not giving them the space to be integrated in our society? If we take a more popular icon and discuss the derailment of Britney Spears and the undue attention she is getting at a time she needs support (in this case – I do not believe we are talking about genius – my focus is on the potential physiological and mental illness issues of an singer who gets a lot of media attention). What about the case of Chris McKinstry and Pushpinder Singh, the two Artificial Intelligence pioneers who ended up taking their lives separately not too long ago. We as a society have a lot to think about when it comes to talent, innovation and the reckless way we treat and support each other.

If I think of Bobby Fischer, I would like to think of his chess playing and his achievement in popularizing chess in North America. If I would imagine him post his 1972 coronation as world champion, I would have loved to see more of his games, and, most importantly, how he would approach playing against the top computer programs. Computer chess has moved forward tremendously in the past couple of decades with world champions succumbing to their tremendous calculating abilities.

Let’s for this time, separate the genius from the individual and let the rest fall into its rightful place…