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The Great American Chess Hero, Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer was the first player we followed in our online classes. There are many reasons to start with Fischer (including of course the chess), but that's not why we chose him. We chose him because of the story.


One of our core beliefs about teaching children chess at Silver Knight is that the most important thing is to make it stimulating, engaging, and fun. The students who get the most out of chess and improve the most are always the ones who are the most excited. Stories are a powerful driver of enthusiasm, and not only keep kids coming back, they help them remember what they learned.


Bobby Fischer was the first and only American world chess champion. A child prodigy, he became the youngest grandmaster ever at the age of fifteen in 1958. After an erratic but promising start to his adult career, he entered the series of matches called the Candidates to see who would be the next challenger to world champion Boris Spassky in 1972. He dominated the candidates tournament to the extent that when he entered the match against Spassky he was the favorite even though he'd never beaten Spassky before.


The world champion had been Soviet for 43 of the prior 45 years. While during the games they were alone, in preparation and between games Spassky had a team of world champions and grandmasters to draw on for support. Fischer just had his old pal Bill. Even before it started, the match took on mythic proportions in both nations, along the lines of the space race.


In the first game, after 29 moves, the game was essentially over, and drawn (tied)... and then Fischer made a SHOCKING blunder, moving his bishop into a trap. It's a mistake that the students were able to find in seconds. It's an unimaginable move for a grandmaster, and there's a photo of Fischer shortly after. He's covering his eyes because he can't bear to look, but peaking out through his fingers, compelled by his horror:


After going on to lose this game, he proceeded to make a second, even worse mistake: he threw a "temper tantrum," in the words of the New York Times, and chose not to show up for the second game of the 24 game match. This is how we ended our second lesson on Fischer, with this cliffhanger. In the words of one of the students: "AGHHHHHH I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT."


Fischer of course did come back to play after a call from the secretary of state, who passed along the president's fervent desire that Fischer continue, and he went on to win the match. Spassky had some beautiful games, but was ultimately overwhelmed. And then? Fischer vanished. He never defended his title.


We spent five weeks on Bobby Fischer's. In the first, we talked about why the world was scared of him, including a few of his most famous tactics, to work on calculation and tactical skills. In the second, we looked at the loss to Spassky, to learn a very useful bishop trapping pattern, plus a useful endgame idea or two. In the third we looked at his comeback, again with a focus on tactics. In the fourth we looked at Spassky's best game and a queen trap. In our final week with Fischer, we worked through the end of the match, and looked at Fischer's most famous game.


If you're interested in reading more about Fischer, he wrote an excellent book about his own games called My 60 Memorable Games. The chess content is advanced. There's also an excellent biography of Fischer called Endgame, which has much more information on his fascinating life, even for non-chess fans. We avoided discussing Fischer's mental illness in the class, but Endgame talks about it in depth. There's an entire geopolitical layer of the story that we didn't touch on, as Kissinger and Nixon both made appearances.