September 3, 1957 – How Bobby Fischer Spent His Summer Vacation

Bobby Fischer in 1957. Photo source: Sam Falk/The New York Times

On September 3, 1957, 14-year-old chess prodigy Bobby Fischer woke up with a new championship title and an extra $125 dollars in his bank account.  Bobby started his summer by winning the United States Junior Chess Championship in July, then went on to defeat Arthur Bisguier  at the prestigious US Open Chess Championships in August.  On September 2nd, Fischer defeated James T. Sherwin in the seventh and final round of the New Jersey Open, played at the Independent Chess Club in East Orange, New Jersey.

The final game between Fischer and Sherwin, a King’s Indian Reversed variation, is well-known and studied in the rarefied air of international chess competition.  Annotated versions of the game can be found in several sources, the first one appearing in the October 1957 edition of Chess ReviewAnnotation is a kind of chess “code” that specifies all the moves of a game in order, including which piece was moved, where it was moved to, whether it captured another piece, and the  individual annotator’s editorial comments in the form of punctuation or other symbols (! – good move, !! – excellent move, ? – mistake, ?? – blunder, and ?! or !? – that was either brilliant, weird, or stupid, not everyone agrees).  Bill Wall of Palm Bay, Florida, retired Air Force officer, former NASA engineer, chess journalist and author of over 600 chess-related articles, considers the September 2nd Fischer-Sherwin game “number one in My 60 Memorable Games by Fischer”.

The son of a German biophysicist, Robert James Fischer was born in Switzerland and grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and Brooklyn, New York.  He started picking up the game at age 6, and began formal training at the Brooklyn Chess club at age 8.  After winning his first US Junior championship in 1956, he never looked back.  He won every United States Chess Championship he entered, starting in 1957-1958, and in 1963-1964 won by a perfect 11-0 score, the only chess player ever to do so.  He achieved Grandmaster ranking at the youngest age – 15 1/2 – and won a Cold-War “Match of the Century” against Boris Spassky in 1972 to become the World Chess Champion.  Publicity surrounding the televised championship and Bobby’s achievement spurred wide-spread interest among all ages in learning the game.  Membership in the United States Chess Federation skyrocketed.  Fischer’s career had been virtually unstoppable and his withdrawal from the chess scene shortly after the 21-game event against Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, surprised the nation and chess players everywhere.  It would be twenty years before he re-emerged to play Spassky in “The Revenge Match of the Twentieth Century”.

Brilliant, enigmatic, vitriolically anti-Semitic and a Holocaust-denier, Bobby lived a nomadic, unsettled life as a fugitive from the American legal system in Hungary, the Philippines, Japan and Iceland before his death in 2008.  He has been called a “genius”, “mad”, a “mythologically-shrouded figure”, a “revolutionary”, a “legend in his own time”, and “the greatest player who ever lived”.

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