Interesting piece on Bobby Fischer the chess grandmaster who moved from God like status in the world of chess to be a friggen mental case in his later years.
His descent into wild and irrational behaviour is far from a unique narrative, particularly in chess. The history of the game contains many similar trajectories. As GK Chesterton noted in arguing that reason bred insanity: “Poets do not go mad, but chess players do.” Akiba Rubinstein, the early 20th-century Polish grandmaster, would hide in the corner of the competition hall between moves, owing to his anthropophobia (fear of people), retiring from the game when schizophrenia got the better of him. William Steinitz, the Austrian who was the world’s first undisputed chess champion, died in an asylum. Then there was Paul Morphy, the American who was said to be the 19th-century’s finest player and to whom Fischer has frequently been compared: he quit the game, having beaten all his rivals, and began a decline into paranoid delusion. Aged 47, he was found dead in his bath, surrounded by women’s shoes.
These pieces are always fascinating to me because they highlight how fragile the human psyche can be particularly at the margins. It seems to take very little to tip some over into madness whereas others display tremendous resilience.
It also highlights that extraordinary performance comes from extraordinary application.
Nothing interrupted his obsession. He played while eating. He played in the bath. He played when he should have been at school. He cultivated an extraordinary facility for reading chess games, absorbing pages of dense notation in seconds, and learned Russian just so that he could study Soviet chess literature. He could play blindfold and recite games by heart. “Chess and me,” Fischer later said, “it’s hard to take them apart. It’s like my alter ego.” Such was Fischer’s all-consuming preoccupation with chess that his mother took him to see two psychiatrists, both of whom told her not to worry.