Bobby Fischer: lost rock god?

When is chess rock ‘n’ roll?


There have been any number of chess giants who were also musicians, of course; the greater their standing in the world of chess, the more intriguing their musical achievements. Some could have been professionals in either sphere, the concert pianist Mark Taimanov and the operatic bass Vasily Smyslov being examples. There are many more in Richard James’s chess and music posts.

Here, however, is a case of a chess giant who could also have been a singer to rival John Lennon, or at least so it would seem from this intriguing 1961 interview with the great American champion Bobby Fischer:

D. ANDRIC: Some other participants of the tournament [in Bled, Slovenia] persuaded Fischer to sing when at a Bled night club one evening, hoping to have some fun at his expense. They were hushed to awe however, when he sang a series of rock and roll songs attractively and well.

FISCHER: “My main talent lies not in chess but in music: I’ve written this somewhere in my diary. Grandmaster Smyslov who could be an opera singer anywhere admitted I had a suitable voice, and I’ve got rhythm, too.”

As far as I know, this is the only recorded instance of Fischer’s claim that in becoming the only chess player ever to achieve truly global celebrity, he robbed the world of a potential rock god. I owe this fascinating quotation to the chess writer and researcher Jeremy Silman, who unearthed it in the March 1962 edition of the American magazine Chess Life, a journal whose early issues are particularly hard to obtain: no library in the UK, not even the British Library, keeps copies. Silman’s article on these treasures of chess journalism (Part Two of a three-part series) can be found here.

The 1961 tournament in Bled was a good one for Fischer: at the age of eighteen, up against many of the world’s best players, he was the only player to remain unbeaten throughout, and he finished a very narrow second to Mikhail Tal, who had been World Champion until a few months previously:

Bled 1961 final standings
Bled 1961 final result. One former World Champion and two future World Champions led the field.

Even better, Fischer defeated Tal in their individual game, the only one that Tal lost in the tournament:

Najdorf watching Fischer vs Tal Bled 1961
Fischer vs Tal, Bled 1961. The great Miguel Najdorf watches over Fischer’s shoulder.

Bobby Fischer was born in the same year as Mick Jagger, George Harrison and Roger Waters. His teenage claim that his musical talent was even greater than his chess-playing ability obviously tells us more about his incredible self-confidence and self-belief than anything else. But it is a reminder that he was of the same generation as the Stones, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the other greats of 1960s and 1970s rock and roll. Perhaps the rock legends who played chess will be a future post in this blog. Here are four:

When is chess rock ‘n’ roll?

Bobby Fischer came closest of anyone to playing chess like rock ‘n’ roll. First of all, there were the tantrums: forfeiting a match when the start time of a game was rescheduled; accusing the Soviet chess establishment of cheating by fixing results to prevent him from winning a tournament (he then refused to play at all for nearly two years); insisting on playing some of the world title match against Boris Spassky in the tiny room at the back of the hall reserved for table-tennis instead of on the main stage (which he claimed to be too noisy). Fischer was as much a nightmare for officials and organisers as any rock diva demanding, say, a particular brand of white socks be supplied to their dressing room (Status Quo once refused to play on those grounds). You can read more about such things here.

But more to the point, Bobby Fischer was someone who could play chess like rock and roll. Here’s what I mean:

Fischer Reshevsky move 10
Bobby Fischer vs Samuel Reshevsky, US Championship 1958, move 10. White to move. What would you play?

When this game was played, Fischer was fifteen. He was also the defending US Champion. Reshevsky, playing Black, was one of the strongest grandmasters in the world, who had previously won the US Championship seven times, and would win it again one last time in 1969.

In this position, Fischer played the chess equivalent of a rock power chord:

Fischer Reshevsky move 10B arrow
Fischer plays 10.Bxf7+!! [B x KB7 check!!]
Astonishing! After ten moves, Reshevsky is lost. He gamely took the marauding bishop with his king, and Fischer played:

Fischer Reshevsky move 11B arrow
Fischer plays 11.Ne6!! [Kt-K6!!]
Another power chord! In the resulting position, either Reshevsky is going to take the knight with the king, in which case it is checkmate in a maximum of six moves (Fischer had worked that out); or Fischer is going to win the black queen (which is what actually happened — Reshevsky took the knight with the pawn, allowing Fischer to take the black queen with his queen). Reshevsky eventually resigned on move 42.

That’s chess rock ‘n’ roll.

Here’s another chess rock moment, from Fischer’s game against Robert Byrne (another American grandmaster) in the US Championship of 1963:

R.Byrne Fischer move 15B
Robert Byrne vs Fischer, US Championship 1963, move 15. Black to move. What would you play?

Time for another power chord:

R.Byrne Fischer move 16 arrow
Fischer plays 15…Nxf2!! [15…Kt x KB7!!]
Fischer’s opponent did not realise until several moves later why Fischer had given up a whole piece. After move 21, Byrne resigned. The two grandmasters explaining games to the public in the commentary room thought, when the game ended, that Byrne must have won since Fischer was so far behind in material. Fischer later described his opponent’s resignation as “a bitter disappointment” — it had prevented the following position actually appearing on the board:

R.Byrne Fischer move 23B never played
Byrne vs Fischer, the position that would have occurred on move 23. Black to move. What would you play?

Here, Fischer had foreseen another two-piece sacrifice leading to mate:

Checkmate on move 25, as a result of a piece sacrifice on move 15. That is chess rock ‘n’ roll.

Rock and roll in performance is very loud; chess is usually very quiet. But the display, bravado and technical brilliance of Bobby Fischer was the same as that of the greatest rock performers. The brilliant moves above did not come out of nowhere; they rely on absolute technical mastery, as much as a Brian May guitar solo.

Perhaps the best moment to end on is the turning point of Fischer’s greatest match, when he won the world championship by defeating Boris Spassky in 1972. In the first five games of the match, Fischer had lost two (one of them by not turning up), and won two. In the sixth game, Fischer played an opening he had almost never played before. He proceeded to win with such style that Spassky, on resigning, stood and applauded him.

Spassky applauds Fischer (Pawn Sacrifice)
Spassky applauds Fischer on losing the sixth game of the world championship match in 1972 (scene recreated in the 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice).

That’s rock ‘n’ roll.

Author: Robert Samuels

I teach music for The Open University and play chess for Cowley Chess Club in the Oxfordshire Chess League.

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