Friday, January 18, 2008

Searching for Bobby Fischer

So Bobby Fischer died. Justifiably included in Fischer bios today and the rest of the weekend will be his more recent crazy Jew-hate tangents. The "Chess-Playing Cartman (CPC)," we should call him. But really, he is being remembered for his chess accomplishments more than his later-in-life rants about a global Jewish conspiracy. I wasn't alive in 1972 when Fischer beat Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, but I know what it meant. Any time an American beat the Soviets at anything, we loved it. Soviets were cold and logical, while Americans were loud, flamboyant hip-shooters. The majority of Americans didn't care about chess. We just cared about beating the commies at something. Anything. Chess, basketball, luge, whatever. And Americans relished it because we knew, just knew, that every Soviet man, woman and child was glued to to some crummy, state-built television, pinning their sense of being on Igor Poltagnovik beating Joe Dinkleweiner in some obscure Olympic clash. Every Soviet athletic defeat suffered at the hands of an American was another blow, however small, to the communist psyche. To us, they worked and worked and worked to ensure that the Americans would not beat them. Yet Americans did win. Sometimes. And if an American lost to a Soviet, life went on for us. Because we were the capitalists with millions of other forms of entertainment. We'd be sad that the U.S. Hockey Team had been beaten, but life went on and we'd find something else to root for. But they died a little each time an American won. They trolled around wearing tattered Soviet rags, kicking cans on dirt streets in some world of grays. You just knew it. And you loved it.

Then there was Bobby Fischer. An American beating a Soviet at something so thoughtful and logical was the ultimate kick in the Premier's balls. The story goes that in their '72 meeting, Fischer acted like a turd. He only agreed to the match after making several demands regarding the setting's environment - not the Al Gore environment, but lighting and such - then freaked out when cameras televising the proceedings were in the wrong spot. Fischer ultimately took the match after losing the first two games. To the Soviets, it was a Pac-10 team throwing the ball all over the field to beat Wisconsin instead of lining up and playing smash-mouth the way it was supposed to be done. I've always been cynical about the role of sport in the real world. I don't think Jesse Owens winning in Berlin meant anything to the Nazis. I didn't think the NFL Network needed to show the Patriots' final regular season game because there was any historical significance. But Fischer beating Spassky was historical.

Of course, the rest of the public Fischer story is not very romantic. He was reclusive, only emerging occasionally as CPC to rail against the Jews or chess-playing computers or spicy mustard on hot dogs. Fischer was a loud, eccentric, paranoid, racist nut, at least toward the end of his life. But the vast majority of Americans gave him a free pass because he had changed the world. We've always forgiven the trespasses of those we see as great men, or at least looked the other way. Whether it was George Washington as slave owner, John F. Kennedy as womanizer, Hemingway as lunatic, Clinton as liar, or Brett Favre as 4 year-old. We want them to be hero, wholly, not only in one part of their lives. So we remember that Washington crossed the Potomac and freed his slaves when he died, and JFK was a good dad who came up with cute nicknames for his kids, and Papa is in Havanna puffing a cigar somewhere because The Old Man and the Sea was amazing, and the evil Republicans impeached Clinton because he'd had an affair, and Favre is just showing the boyish spirit we all love. And Bobby Fischer beat the Soviets at something they held dear. More than that, they knew they were the best at. And he was a hero to us. He inspired one of the great sports movies of all time, if you want to be liberal with your definition of sport. No one remembers who Fischer beat in '72, but they knew his name.

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