Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Playing Myself in Chess.

Bobby Fischer did, so why can't I? Now, I do remember that he wound up crazy. Long prior to his final exile in Iceland with a considerably younger Japanese grandmaster as well as mistress. The media decades ago reported vague rumors, pre-Internet, of how the Brooklyn prodigy haunted Pasadena, full of bile for the star-spangled-Zionist conspiracy. The Philadelphia Inquirer found out in 2002 that not only was his pediatrician mother-- a Communist fellow-traveller of Polish descent, Swiss birth, and St. Louis upbringing-- Jewish, but his true father. He was not her German bio-physicist husband. He had tried to enter the U.S. in 1939; rejected due to his Communist connections, he wound up in Chile.

Fischer's engenderer? A Hungarian physicist with whom Regina Wender Fischer Pustan had an affair in 1942. Paul Nemenyi was working for the Manhattan Project in Chicago. Bobby was born there, but his parents divorced soon after and he was raised by her first in Arizona and then in NYC. Nemenyi made child support payments. It's uncertain if the young boy knew of his true paternity. The FBI spied on Regina and Bobby as suspected Soviet spies. She had studied medicine first in Germany and then Moscow in the 1930s. This may account for his hatred of his native land-- and his parentage. I completely forgot, until I verified these details, that Fischer died at the start of this year.

Not that I am trying to emulate the former hero of Cold War America but his downhill trajectory does intrigue me for its utter unpredictabilty. To think of the world's most famous chess success muttering shades of Howard Hughes, only a few miles away from me. The added frisson that he wandered in his craziness along placid streets through which I drive to pick up my boy from school, to go to the dentist, to see the doctor, to check out the library, for me makes this juxtaposition of genius and invert even more surreal.

Fischer did learn how to play at six. He read the instructions, and for a year competed against himself until at seven he took instruction, from the president of the esteemed Manhattan Chess Club. You know the rest. At the height of his fame, it turned to notoriety, as from 1973-75 he bickered about the details of defending his title against Anatoly Karpov, to whom he forfeited the crown, and for twenty years, Fischer did not conduct a public match.

Wikipedia notes, about his days closer to my home:
On May 26, 1981, a police patrolman arrested Fischer on the sidewalk of Lake Street in Pasadena, claiming that he matched the description of a man who had just committed a bank robbery in that area. During the arrest, Fischer was slightly injured. He was held for two days and subjected to further assault and interrogation. He was released on $1000 bail and the matter was later dropped. Two weeks later, he published a 14-page pamphlet detailing these experiences and expressing outrage that the arrest had been pre-arranged.

Here's Fischer's side of the story: "I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!". I have added the cover above in the interests of thoroughness. An overlooked episode in local history.

On another trail of run-ins with The Man, my wife and one son watched the documentary (which I'd seen already) on the Weather Underground. Then she endured some arthouse abuse fest, "Tarnation." I spent those three hours, and more, last weekend in my own imaginary film, starring both as black antagonist, white protagonist. I found myself in a curious predicament-- my left hand, so to speak, pretending not to know what my right hand was doing. The time before the travel board I cradled as I sat on the couch drifted by. I found myself finally figuring out the implications and not only the basic moves. The long-range patterns eluded me. A lifetime of memorization of thousands of attacks not in my retirement plan, I will content myself with novelty, small gains, and cultivating my eclectically intuitive garden of the mind.

I react to chess the way I played what used to be called a halfback in soccer. I love defense. I'd untangle the ball away from the forward, and then pass it off to a teammate. In chess, I like blocking any moves by the opposition, but I find it difficult to develop, as they say in chess, my own pieces to make a solid offense. Perhaps I am born for stalemates and détente, as a child of the Atomic Age. I did spend brief but memorable moments in my formative years huddled under a desk, at 10:15 a.m. the last Friday of the month, as the Civil Defense sirens blared and we seven-year-olds practiced "Duck and Cover."

I also, unlike real players as well as the Soviets vs. Yanks, tend to forget if I just played Black or White. I probably threw my impressively even-handed contest off by moving twice a side, so long did I dither about my tactics. I kept turning the pegged miniature board about to examine it from each color as I switched. Then, lost in thought, I'd forget if I'd already moved. Perhaps that's why contestants often make notes as they go along, or why there's chess clocks? As for differentiating my immediate moves from my ultimate strategy (the same distinction was challenged by McCain of Obama's Iraq policy in their first debate), I plead ignorance.

Also, the dogs keep knocking even the tiny plastic pieces out of their drilled holes, so I am shopping for a magnetic chessboard in the color easiest on one's eyes (green). To my surprise, this seems not a common set, or at least in my modest price range. I'll have to ponder the pattern for a long time, so I might as well get the shade most suited to my squint. If I will buy the cheaper one I've located, 99% chance it's Chinese. Many fine examples-- if none in green-- come lacquered from India in sheesham and rosewood, but I'm not an earthtone sort. I may spring for the rougher-hewn, but appealingly more handmade, Carpathian model even if it's an unlucky thirteen more dollars, to support those diligent Slavs. The former Soviet bloc does appear to like to keep the coordinates painted on the side; this predilection I regard as some Jungian archetype of the Piklok pocket set, from a White Russian exile in 1920s France, as eulogized by Nabokov in his preface to "The Defense.")

All apropos of fallen walls, foreign policy, trade deficits, and our reliance on imports. But, nobody makes this product in the U.S. Even finding a European manufacturer took considerable scrabbling. I had wanted to purchase magnetic pieces without a board to use on an old backgammon-checkers set in the garage, but nobody makes them; how to find 32 magnets the right size to affix with Krazy Glue to the bottom of some cheap plastic array has confused my thrifty reverie. In such manner I spent today a share of free time musing. Since I've been stressed, and not only due to Dodgers, I rationalized.

With my younger son having learned well the fundamentals in a few hours practice with me two weeks ago, and despite his playing me to a tough endgame over hours, I cannot lure him back to the board. Blame the birthday boy's video games and, sigh, replacement iPod. I had tried to tutor myself at about twelve. This would have coincided with the Fischer-Karpov standoff. After one desultory game pushing pieces on my little magnetic set-- which I can't find for the life of me now after having it for decades-- with a forgotten junior-high classmate sitting at the lunch tables, I gave up. Like classical music, vegetarianism, and Catholic piety, it's a trait others assume I have instantly, and my disclaimers in middle age I suppose have inspired me to see if I could, after all, convince myself differently. They say that you should tackle a new language to stave off senility, but my Irish efforts, here on this same blog twice-weekly, attest to my mature difficulties with an teanga beo.

My older son shows no interest in the 64 squares; my wife's cowed by 32 pieces. I took up chess in avuncular hopes that I could entice another domiciled here to join me, and to deepen in my dotage a new cerebral corridor that might improve my spatial skills. As I have no mathematical ones; the jury seems to be out on whether chess takes more from the calculating abilities of its players or one's conceptual talents. I might lean towards the latter if I flatter myself. I found my suspicions confirmed in my current bedside book by one champion who gloated how "of course," in his silent, speedy reviewing of possible moves during a match, he could visualize instantly for each option twenty moves ahead.

In reading about the venerable game, I have kindled my intellectual interest. I suppose millions watch baseball-- amidst the predictably imploding Dodgers of late, and even the Red Sox, my back-up team to root for-- and love journalism about a sport that they can barely manage to swing a bat past. For chess, the algebraic notation, the elegant simplicity rendered into 10-120 power the number of possible games vs. 10-80 power for all the electrons in our universe does show the almost mystical aura of this invention. There's a beauty to it that approaches infinity. And, a terror of this glimpse of the void. You encounter reason, skill, and mystery. This quest, then, can entice even a non-player like me to want to understand the combination of rigor and imagination inherent. These two nouns remind me "en passant" of novelist Jane Smiley, trained as a medievalist, in arguing why she loved the period-- enough we do not know to make the Middle Ages fertile for speculation today, and enough we do comprehend to enforce critical discipline.

Such pairings of supposition and summation also enter into J.C. Hallman's "The Chess Artist." He engagingly narrates his quest in Kalmykia (near the Caspian Depression, which says it all) with his friend who seeks to be the first African American grandmaster. I followed this with David Shenk's brisker survey of "The Immortal Game." I'm now nearly finished with Paul Hoffman's "The King's Gambit" (the first two reviewed here and on Amazon US; the third's tomorrow's post). I've discovered a similarity in this chess trio with my reviews a short time ago of three tomes on the Beatles by Bob Spitz, Steven Stark, and Jonathan Gould.

As with chess, I find it intriguing to read about a level of creativity I can only gape at. I realized that I found more entertainment with my encounters in print than listening to the Fab Four. As my childhood came a bit late, but still in rough parallel with their ubiqitous (even for a bookish, eccentric, Nabokovianish boy-man) tunes, I don't have to hear them anymore. They all, from wretched ditties like "Piggies" to underheard melodies like "Things We Said Today," pop up in my mental jukebox. The late theologian Hans Urs van Balthasar sold off, I recently found out, his Mozart collection (I presume the complete set of CDs which Philips sold for the bicentenary of the composer's death, a pricy package notwithstanding the Jesuit's vow of poverty. Must have been a gift.) The reason? He had it all in his head. Considerably more impressive than me with "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?"-- which I wish I could never recall again. Maybe I should have stuck with the Accelerated Dragon: 4...g6 variant of the Sicilian Defense, not Top 40 radio.

Photo: This 1966 Bantam mass-market paperback has the same cover font as my nearly as old early 70s Steinbeck "Travels with Charley." In a downtown L.A. sorry mini-Borders at the 7th Street Plaza whiling away time before I taught, I noticed it, but did not buy. No royalties for bigots. Sudoku took up three shelves in the "Games" section a third of a century after Fischer's Reykjavik victory. His remained, however, the only chess title. It stays in print, but Amazonians split on suspecting it or praising its thick contents, many claiming it was ghostwritten to boot.

Fischer by repute-- at least at the apogee of his celebrity-- supposedly made no time for any pursuits but those on the board, famously claiming "Chess is life" as a riposte to another master's "Chess is like life." He also smirked: "Chess is better" than sex. He did father in the early '00s a child with a 22-year-old Filipina. Not sure if his Japanese bride agreed with his libidinous pronouncements. The two ladies settled in court after a battle over his $2 million estate. I speculate if and how our homegrown hero had much time or incentive to spend typing rather than playing, obsessively, with and without himself.

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