Friday, January 18, 2008

The King is Dead

Bobby Fischer is dead and I am conflicted.

Yes, he was a nutjob and anti-Semite (despite being Jewish himself) with a massive persecution complex. On the other hand, he was one of the great chessboard artists of all time. With a wonderful mix of talent and chutzpah, he caught the world's imagination playing a game that is as close to a universal language as we have. It is because of this, that many - myself included - still harboured irrational hopes that the king would return.

He didn't.

He just got stranger. And maybe that's where the problem lies. He did not simply disappear. J.D. Salinger disappeared. Fischer stuck around, popping up just often enough to tarnish his legacy. True, he tried to innovate with his FischerRandom Chess. Unfortunately, he also embarrassed himself and his supporters whenever someone put a microphone in front of his mouth. Eventually, he became an odd footnote to his own past and, perhaps, a cautionary tale for parents who buy their kids chess sets.

I've played chess - badly, for the most part - for over two decades. I love the game. I love the ritual of setting up the board. I love the language and traditions. I love the fact that everywhere in the world there are people who are playing the exact same game on the exact same checkered board. I've seen this first hand. On my first trip anywhere outside of Canada and the States, I went to Mexico City and wound up spending some late evenings playing chess with guy who manned the front desk of the hotel I stayed at. His english was spotty, my spanish was mostly non-existent and, yet, we spent a few hours together pushing pieces back and forth. You don't find that playing Monopoly or Scrabble.

I also have a real fascination with street chess, the sidewalk tables where the game becomes part art and part con job. Most large cities have these places where people from all walks of life meet to play chess. Back when Toronto's chess tables were around the corner from Sam The Record Man, it was nothing to see a Bay Street business man play against a street person or a recent immigrant play against a tourist. It was wonderful.

Any trip to New York, for me, is not complete without some time spent at the chess tables in Washington Square Park. Of course, from there I wander over to Thompson St. where not one, but two chess stores (Village Chess Shop and Chess Forum) wait to supply chess fans with the tools of their trade. Sure, I see a lot of other things when I go to New York. How could one not? The fact remains that the only places I return to for sure are the chess places. (Perhaps I should not have admitted that.)

At least part of this obsession can be traced back to Fischer and what he once represented. This is in spite of the fact that his World Championship victory occurred three years before I was born. His presence - his mystique - was that strong. For better or worse, Fischer was the face of chess.

I really wanted him to come back. I really wanted to understand him. I wanted my chance to see the greatest player play. I wanted to feel a touch of that magic.

Now, it's all over. The king has died in exile and we are still left wanting.

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