The strange life of Bobby Fischer

Bobby FischerForty five years ago this month, a momentous event took place in Iceland that shook the world. After 21 games spread over almost two months, the eccentric American chess master, Bobby Fischer, ended 24 years of Soviet dominance in chess after beating Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky. It shook the world at the apex of the Cold War. I watched it unfold, a memory I will always  carry.

Many years later, former Russian grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, commented,

…in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. That’s why the Spassky defeat […] was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War.

Back in those days, I played chess with more enthusiasm, skill and grace than I can muster today. Bobby Fischer was one of my early chess idols whose games I followed (I still have books of his games on my shelves). I remember very clearly that year when he was playing Boris Spassky in Iceland. 

I was working in a bookstore in Toronto back then, in that summer of 1972. Every day after a game had been played, I would go out at lunch and get a newspaper. With my chess-playing co-workers, we would go over the match move by move. Try variants, explore alternatives, discuss the results. And look in awe at what masterpieces he wrought on the chessboard.

It wasn’t just the game or the skill of the moves that fascinated me (not all of those games are great, I admit). It was the sudden appearance of chess in the forefront of Cold War geopolitics and the larger implications of the match on the world stage. If you didn’t live through the era, it’s hard to explain how the Cold War affected international and domestic politics, or how a chess match could be the fulcrum of boisterous nationalism on both sides of the divide.

But in the summer of 1972, chess was newsworthy, gaining front page status, and time on the evening TV broadcasts. Chess was cool, chess was sexy, chess was in – not just for me, but for all of pop culture. Chess sets sold faster than they could be stocked. And 29-year-old Bobby Fischer was its golden boy. 

Last week, I started reading Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady. It is the most comprehensive biography of Fischer yet and reminds me somewhat of Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs: both subjects were troubled, difficult but brilliant men. Both ran off the rails, but Jobs always managed to get back. Fischer never did. It’s a heart-rending, troubling, but fascinating story.

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Square words

Square word calligraphyWriting has been described as the most significant human invention. We tend to think of inventions as mechanical things, like the wheel, or fire, or the printing press, the airplane, the internal combustion engine or cell phone. But without writing, few of them would exist. Writing allowed us to share the others, to improve them, to record them, to pass them along and record them.

Writing allows us to share ideas, emotions, visions, beliefs, stories, poetry and music through a series of abstract squiggles. Without writing there would be no literature, no religion, no philosophy, no songs, no politics. We would not have a history or mythology beyond what we could share orally. And when you consider writing is no more than 5,000 years old – out of a history of humankind that is millions of years old – it’s pretty astounding that is is so relatively recent.

Humans experimented with various pictographic scripts prior to writing, but they tended to stay localized because they were both difficult and complex to learn and share. They are inefficient for conveying large amounts of information and data, too. With writing came laws, taxation, the census, banking, the codification of government and of religion.

cuneiform tabletTurning sounds into abstract symbols that could be pieced together into words was a new idea that seems to have developed in ancient Sumeria and Egypt almost simultaneously (both before 3000 BCE).

The Sumerians first used writing to keep track of mundane lists: sales, inventory, receipts and temple donations. That evolved to put laws, genealogies and myths into clay – works we still have and can read today. To be able to read the Epic of Gilgamesh, a remarkable tale written around 2100 BCE, today is entirely thanks to the invention of writing.

In Egypt, migrant workers developed a written script as a phonetic way to learn the speech of their Egyptian taskmasters because they couldn’t master the hieroglyphs. Or it may have begun with their graffiti scratched into a quarry wall. Either way, it was a brilliant and necessary invention.
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Assholes part two: Trump and his local mimics

Asshole: A Theory of Donald TrumpBack in 2014 I reviewed a book by philosophy professor Aaron James called Assholes. A Theory. I discussed how his study related to politics and politicians, particularly those who call themselves “A-type” personalities (including one or two on the local council).

Well James wrote another book, really an addendum to this one, titled Assholes. A Theory of Donald Trump. It was smaller than your average paperback, and a mere 130 pages, perhaps 20,000 words long. And since it came out just before the 2016 presidential election, it really doesn’t deal with the startling number of asshole things – the many, many asshole things – Trump has done since then. Perhaps that might come in a sequel. A much larger, longer sequel. A multi-volume work it would have to be, to really do him justice.

I picked the book up this weekend during my visit to Toronto, and read it cover to cover. Sure, it’s a bit dated but it still has meaning in today’s politics. And it relates to our own local council even more than the first book. (Check out the author’s website, too.)

James didn’t merely pen a screed against Trump. That’s been done, is still being done by savvy media and political commentators worldwide. Trump is an easy target for so many reasons, not least of all because he lies often and aggressively and is both ignorant and a clown. Nothing you don’t already know about him. Nothing the whole world doesn’t know about him.

No, this is much deeper than a single asshole, even one that big and that pompous. It – like his earlier book – is reflective of a whole culture of the ignorati that has risen worldwide. Trump is merely the most visible icon of darkness as the intellectual lights go out.

James examines a trend in politics that has seen the rise to dominance of similar assholes in numerous nations. And along with the asshole in charge comes a parallel government and bureaucracy that sees the ignorati, the illiterati, and the anti-intellectuals elevated to power. As we see in the USA, bigoted, theocratic, right-wing dictatorships and oligarchies are emerging in what were once democratic nations. More and more of them are looking and acting more and more like North Korea or Iran these days.
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Albert and the Lion

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
‘E’d a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

Albert 'Arold and Others
So begins the poem, The Lion and Albert, written by Marriott Edgar. I first read it in the book pictured on the right: a book that accompanied a collection of 78 rpm records in which Stanley Holloway read the poems (click to see a larger image).

I was perhaps nine or ten years old when I first found them in the family collection of 78s, along with the book of 12 poems and their drawings. We had an old, hand-cranked 78 record player in the basement and I used to go there and crank it up and listen to the scratchy old records. I loved them.

I loved the process of having to wind it, to set the heavy head on the platter and release the catch to get it spinning. I recall we also had an electric one – trec chic – in the basement where it had been exiled to, along with other odds and sods from my grandparents, like an old tube radio that was almost as tall as I was and had a half-dozen knobs on the front. In those days, I could still walk to the corner store and buy replacement tubes for it with my weekly allowance

Holloway at that time wasn’t known to me from any other performance. He wouldn’t appear in the film My Fair Lady until 1964. But I delighted in his voice and from him I learned a bit about British vaudeville, burlesque and even about the era of the Pearly Kings and Queens.

I used to parade around in my basement, swaggering, shouting out the words of the poems and monologues that I soon memorized. “With ‘er ‘ead tucked underneath ‘er arm…” about Anne Boleyn was one of my favourites. “Sam, Sam, pick oop tha musket Sam…” was another.

That was then. Somehow, over the years, I lost track of the book, forgot the sounds and the words. We moved from the house to a smaller apartment in 1962, and the old 78s and its player vanished, probably tossed away or given to neighbours. As I reached my teenhood, other fancies and interests took hold. I didn’t even think about them until many decades later.

When my parents died, I ended up with some of their belongings. Among them was a thin, battered, old book: the “libretto” for those Stanley Holloway records. A book I had read and reread many times in my childhood. Taped and retaped, it has been in someone’s closet or drawer probably every since I last looked at it. It’s the same one you see here, in the scan of the cover. It was published in the 1930s and was my father’s. He brought it to Canada, likely when he emigrated from England, in 1949. It’s one of the few things I have left of him.
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Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots?

Seven plots?When I was in school, back in the last century, I was taught there were three basic plots in which every story ever written could be classified: Man-vs-man, man-vs-nature and man-vs-himself. That was in the days when it wasn’t politically incorrect to use the word man to mean everyone. Today we’d say it differently, use other pronouns, but the meaning is the same.

Three is a bit simplistic, sure. The list has been expanded on by authors, academics and critics ever since. And by robots, too. Last summer, a story in The Atlantic told of university researchers who used software to parse through 2,000 works of literature to determine there six basic plots:

  1. Rags to Riches (rise)
  2. Riches to Rags (fall)
  3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Which is one less than Christopher Booker lists in his lengthy 2004 book,The Seven Basic Plots:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

Around the end of his book, Booker actually lists two more plots which are, historically speaking, not as common (by his assessment, they are late additions to our literary canon, although I think that could be argued against), so he discounts them as less important:

  1. Rebellion Against ‘The One
  2. Mystery

Both genres are popular today and should not be overlooked (where would we be without Star Wars or the DaVinci Code?). So it’s really nine plots. Or more? Booker has two variants under the ‘Rags to Riches’ plot: failure and hollow victory. If you include them as separate themes, the seven in the title expands to eleven.

But can one really reduce all writing to such a short list? Do all stories fit so comfortably into these archetypes? Some find it easy to poke holes in such generalizations. Others to broaden the spectrum with more items on their own list.
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