Creative Nonfiction

Best by Test

21 June 2015

I never saw the waterfall that the path through the trees at the end of the street where I grew up led to. From the day I was born, I knew nature was worthless. I did not enjoy poetry, either. It seemed to me that my twin deficiencies – the inability to derive pleasure from nature and the same incapacity with language – were related; to a boy who could not fathom beauty in the formation of atoms, what were words worth? My father noticed my barbarous tendencies, and, as I had a talent for mathematics, tricked me into appreciating art by teaching me chess.

I was hooked immediately. I played and read books about the game continuously from the age of 12 to 16. In 2008, on summer break before year nine, Bobby Fischer died. He had been my idol. When I learned about his death, I was sitting at my father’s desk, scrolling through the news. The first thing I thought was: Checkmate. The word is a translation of the Persian “shah mat”, which means, “the king is dead”.

Fischer was the king of chess. Past tense. The man who started life vibrant as a kingfisher died useless as the Fisher King. In 1975, while world champion, he dropped out of the chess world, refusing to defend his title. Anatoly Karpov won the championship by default. Fischer had once said that the king’s pawn opening was ‘best by test’ – but after 1975 he went on declaring that he was the best player alive while declining to be tested himself. He grew a beard, moved to Iceland, and lived the rest of his years in isolation. He popped up sometimes to say something insane on Icelandic radio. He became a Holocaust denier. He did not play any type of chess except for a variant of his own invention called Fischerandom. The variant has since been renamed Chess960 to avoid association with his name.

When Fischer died, I put down my Staunton set and did not touch it until last year, when I joined the chess club at university and rediscovered the game. It is nothing like I remembered. Perhaps I have acceded to my father’s artistic hopes. Not only are the pieces smaller than they seemed seven years ago, but they also have personalities, which they never revealed to me before. I will explain with reference to three of my friends.

Let us start with the knight. He moves two squares in any direction, does a caracole, and moves one square to the left or right. This pattern is all that makes up his existence, but a character arises. He ducks and dodges, weaves and dives; he is a mole in enemy ranks, looking for a hole, dodging the bishops’ searchlights. Defences need to be tight, because if he gets in, he will take control; a knight that sneaks past the wall of pawns often decides a game. No piece is more enigmatic. He follows secret paths, unpredictable by human logic. Without him, chess would be no more than maths: a contest of trafficking in straight lines. The equine piece makes the game divine.

Bishops move diagonally. Teamwork is the motto of their kind. They were not meant for the army; God made them colour-blind. But with teamwork, two of them can create the Deluge – they flood the board when they are aligned. In an endgame, you can easily dodge one alone, like crossing Swanston Street at night to avoid the man preaching fire and brimstone. But if you are up against the pair, working together, the board is their zone; no square is spared.

The queen, the single lady, outclasses all the boys. A wise player will not put her in defence. She wants to kill. Broadly speaking, checkmate is on until she dies, at which point the other king sighs, deeply. On an open board, a centralised queen controls twenty-seven squares, her potential limited only by the player’s skill. Philidor claimed that pawns are the soul of chess. If so, then the king is the mind, and she the body. She makes things happen. She is the attack, with the strength of a rook and more finesse. An advertisement for monarchy, the squares under her control fan out like the Union Jack.

A side effect of starting to play chess again was that it forced me to confront Fischer’s death. But this prospect was difficult because Fischer never really died. Death in the real world is more complicated than putting a rook back in a box. One type of death is the point at which you stop being what you are in the present moment and become the sum of all the moments that preceded it – when you become history. For most people, this death coincides with their biological one. For some, it happens earlier, when they slip into the anonymous crowd of senescence and stop being relevant. But for Fischer, the opposite: eight years after his death, he has not become history. What I would call the true meaning of his existence – the greatest grandmaster of all time – has not yet won out over the beast he became in the last part of his life.

Perhaps Fischer refused to become history because he did not believe in historical meaning. I am like that too. I would not deny the facts of history; only someone like Fischer would do that. But for me – and, presumably, for him – there is one kind of meaning that matters: the beauty of numbers, the art of maths, the personality that emerges from pure logic. You has to wonder, then, what it means that Fischer died on 17 January 2008, at the age of 64. The fact is remarkable that the world’s greatest chess player – a person who, from the age of six, spent his life poring over the black and white chequers, discovering all they meant – who knew more about them than anyone – died at an age equal to the number of squares on his board.

A man who loved this game a lot more than me stopped playing it forever. Goodbye, Fischer. You were insane, but you were just like me. Insanity begins with a thin in.


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