The sport on TV most often in my boyhood was Chess. My Dad used to play Chess – pretty well, too, he won his club tournament 11 times in a row and they had a special rose bowl made after the tenth, so when he finally lost the cup he’d have something to keep. Of course he tried to get me interested – but I was never very good, a mid-table performer on the school ‘chess ladder’. The bookshelves in our house were full of chess – openings, gambits, defenses. Dad would watch the great battles between Karpov, Kasparov, Korchnoi, and I would sit by him and doze – chess is not really made for TV. But the formality of it, and the fierce concentration on the players’ faces, made an impact.
So there has always been a sort of mystique about chess for me, entirely divorced from the game itself. Nowadays Dad doesn’t play chess much, his hobby now is diving: there is no mystique attached to diving for me. The things that fascinate, I think, are the things the smaller you constituted as part of the adult world – natural for them, strange or symbolic for you. The chess I played on cheap boards in our draughty school art room was not the same game as Dad played with his special wooden pieces that had green felt on the bottom and fell into their carved box with a rich, satisfying clack-clack-clack.
I don’t know what my Dad thinks about Bobby Fischer, whose match against Boris Spassky would have happened when he was two or three years into those eleven wins. On the front cover of Bobby Fischer Goes To War, a book about the game, there’s a picture of Fischer sitting over a chessboard, staring at the reader. The hair, the suit, the stare, everything about the picture is evocative, because everything in it reminds me of old photos of my Dad, the model – my model – of the clever, awkward, early 70s man.
Except there are other old photos of my Dad, where he’s swimming or ski-ing or laughing or holding me: the simple fact of his family and social life (compared to Fischer’s paranoid isolation) meant that I couldn’t recognise him in the words of the book, only in the pictures of chess clocks and men in crumpled suits. Maybe that’s why I didn’t finish it, or maybe it was that chess isn’t a great subject for the layman. It’s hard to describe unless you are willing to get your hands dirty, show diagrams of chessboards and get into details: this book isn’t. When it talks about the chess the grandmasters played it reads more like music criticism.
Like Mozart’s music, [Spassky's] chess was a brilliantly fluid combination of form and fantasy. He himself took pride in being labelled the ‘Pushkin of chess’, explaining…that it was ‘because of my elegant and harmonic style’
This is elegant, and sets Spassky up against the deep logic of Fischer, but actually tells me nothing about how the form, fantasy and harmony might translate to style on the chessboard. After six or seven chapters I gave up. There were hints, though, of a book within the book that I might go back to: a book about the hold chess took on the imagination in the early 70s that led to it being on television in the first place for my Dad and I to watch. (Think for instance of the word ‘Grandmaster’ as a cultural boast, bouncing from the boards in Reykjavik to the New York Boroughs…). Bobby Fischer Goes To War is trying to be that book, but by focusing on a match it forces itself to address the actual games played, and in doing so loses its thread. Or maybe it’s just me who’d think that, since I’m not really looking for a book about chess; I’m looking for a book about my Dad.