To become the World Chess Champion requires talent, hard work, persistence, proper coaching and perhaps a little luck to be in the right place at the right time. Most chess champions have been well-rounded individuals and well-adjusted people who made many contributions to society.
Anatoly Karpov (champion from 1975-1985 and FIDE champion from 1993-1999) was a very active champion, participating in nearly every major tournament held during his reign and winning over 160 tournaments in his career. He has participated in Russian politics, started chess schools and academies in many countries, including in Kansas in the United States, and is a candidate for the presidency of FIDE. His chief rival, Garry Kasparov (champion from 1985-2000), was also very active as champion and is now involved in Russian politics. Three-time champion Mikhail Botvinnik was very involved in the development of computer chess.
However, the two American-born champions, Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer, both had serious mental illnesses. They both were reclusive and stopped playing chess at the peaks of their careers. Was there something about the rugged individualism of Amercian society that led them to these troubles?
Morphy, called “The Pride and Sorrow of Chess,” was the unofficial world champion from 1858-1862. Morphy defeated all the top masters of his day, often in brilliant style, and was universally recognized as chess champion of the world. But just as suddenly as he reached the top, he divorced himself from chess and tried to practice law. Because he did not support secession and did not join the Confederacy during the Civil War, Morphy found it hard to form a law practice in Louisiana after the war.
Morphy entered a phase of depression and exhibited signs of mental illness. His last years were quite tragic, as he roamed the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans, talking to people no one else could see.
Fischer, who died in Iceland in 2008 at age 64, could produce moves at the chessboard of such quality, depth and beauty that those brilliancies could bring tears of joy to one’s eyes. In examining his games, one is amazed at how few blunders he committed, at how precise his moves were in the endgame, and at how many times he could find the very best move when there were several good moves available.
However, the troubled genius harmed American chess by not defending his title in 1975 and by not doing anything away from the board to promote chess. Even if he had simply availed himself of the commercial opportunities open to him after his 1972 triumph, he would have enriched himself while also fostering the further development of U.S. chess. But instead he chose to drop out.
Fischer rejected being Jewish even though he had a Jewish mother, which is the traditional way of defining someone as being Jewish. Not only that, but he actually had two Jewish parents. The evidence in the FBI reports about Paul Nemenyi, coupled with Nemenyi giving financial support to Fischer, is strong and substantial evidence of paternity. But what is even more convincing is looking at photos of Fischer and Nemenyi side by side. The resemblance between the two is startling. The circumstances were such that Fischer must have known who his biological father was. Yet despite the fact that Nemenyi, a scientist of Jewish heritage, received horrible treatment by Hitler’s Nazis and was driven from his career and out of Europe, Fischer still became a raving anti-Semite and someone who praised the Nazis. The psychological underpinnings of what could lead to such behavior are perhaps more complicated than any position Fischer ever looked at over a chess board.
Fischer’s contributions to chess were enormous. He was a dedicated artist and a fierce fighter, and he also introduced or popularized such innovations as the Fischer clock and Fischer random chess. Yet his rantings in support of the 9-11-2001 attacks on America, as well as other bizarre pronouncements, severely undercut these contributions. He renounced his American citizenship and became an expatriate trying to stay one step ahead of U.S. law enforcement. The fact is that this fascinating man’s inability to maintain what he had built is as common an American shortcoming as anything.
How much of the mental illness suffered by Fischer and Morphy can be attributed to the emphasis on the individual that is a part of the U.S. creed? Had they grown up in more nurturing chess environments, would they have been able to hold themselves together, keep playing chess at a high level, and make other contributions to society, or would they have still slipped off the deep end?
We need an American champion who has the talent, determination, fortitude, imagination and creativity of Fischer, but also someone who is well-grounded, sane and can help the game away from the board. We are sometimes left to wonder whether all those characteristics can come in the same package when America does so little to nurture its chess talent.