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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As Elvis leaves the building, so do we all

Day of the Dead ElvisNo one gets out of here alive. We all die. And with us go into the dustbin the dreams, the values, the ideals, the culture we grew up with, we shared, we ensconced in our daily existence. And the clutter we accumulated during our lives.

Elvis has left the building and, sooner or later, so shall we all. And as we do, the value of our own material legacy will diminish with each day.

A recent story in The Guardian tells of how once-treasured Elvis memorabilia is falling in value, as collectors age and die off, leaving a younger generation to sell it off at bargain rates. A younger generation not imbued with the Elvis worship of their parents or grandparents, not prone to spending income on his waning memorabilia. They want none of this: taking on Elvis is cultural appropriation.

I imagine a grey-haired, Beatles-besotted relative chortling with some internal “I told you so” glee as he or she puts the late collector’s Elvis collection onto eBay. But their time will come, too.

It’s a very Buddhist lesson on why we should not become attached to material things. Despite our passion for them, despite our sense of connection between them and the stages in our lives, as in the George Harrison song, all things must pass. Even Elvis is transient.

The Beatles’ generation, coming so quickly on his heels, scoffed at Elvis, much the same way The Clash generation scoffed at the Beatles, the same way the Beyoncé generation scoffs at The Clash. Pick a pop movement, a fashion, a theme, a style, a fan base: from its lofty temporal perch someone looked down on someone else’s movement. It was ever thus; even Shakespeare fell from grace after he died. Tastes change, new generations come to maturity and power, new technology and new politics come into play, changing the conversation. Today’s pop culture fades into tomorrow’s nostalgia, takes on a patina of kitsch even while we fondly recall it.

I remember a set of plastic figurines of the Fab Foursome made for sticking into a birthday cake beside the candles. They originally sold for a dollar. Then as the Foursome’s star rose, they sold for dozens of dollars. When they ascended into musical mythology and eBay arrived, it was hundreds. Yet they too will join Elvis memorabilia in yard sales, as those of us who lived then pass away. Already children ask, “Paul who? John who?”

Who will pay more than pocket change for a souvenir of Al Bowlly these days? Who has collectible nostalgia for Rudy Vallee? Ruth Etting? Paul Whiteman? Guy Lombardo? Bing who?
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Book collecting: snobbery or reading passion?

The Bibliophiles, 1879, by Luis Jimenez y Aranda, Private Collection. Photo by Christie's/Bridgeman Images
The book has always been a sign of status and refinement; a declaration of self-worth – even for those who hate to read. That’s the lead into a recent piece on Aeon Magazine about book collecting and collectors. It’s also about reading and the snobbery of readers. Fascinating piece.

For me, anyway. Pretty much everything about books and reading fascinates me, from the art to the industry to the neuroscience. I am and always have been a book buyer, proudly taking my place among those “Bookish Fools” referenced in the article’s title. But perhaps from a different part of the podium.

I spent an hour with a painter this week discussing getting a portion of our house repainted. Part of that work involves us moving a lot of books into other rooms. A lot. Many hundreds. Maybe even thousands. Plus the bookshelves. Six large and two small bookcases in the upper hallway alone. And where to put them? One upstairs room is already lined with bookcases and the other rooms have their own, too.

It served to reinforce just how many books we have to think of the time required to unshelve then re-shelve them (in some sort of reasonable order). Many days.

I got two books in the mail yesterday and this morning I ordered another online. Others are somewhere in between, on their way via the post office. I get larger shipments – boxes – from booksellers once or twice a month, plus individual titles. I haunt the local used book stores for more. I still have battered paperbacks I picked up in the 1960s, but most of my personal library is far more recent. That’s because I am mostly a reader. Compulsively, even obsessively, perhaps. But not a fetishist collector as the article describes.

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