*. At one point in Bobby Fischer Against the World one of the talking heads being interviewed says that in 1972 Bobby Fischer was “better known by the population of the world than anyone except for Jesus Christ.” I don’t know if he was aware of it, but I think this sort of comparison got started with John Lennon’s famous line from a 1966 interview that the Beatles were then “more popular than Jesus.” This has become a go-to line for a lot of celebrities. I remember a while back, when Tiger Woods was the biggest thing that had ever happened to golf, his father saying that he was bigger than Jesus or the Buddha. Because he was affecting the lives of more people, you see.
*. To be sure, the 1972 World Chess Championship between reigning champ Boris Spassky and challenger Bobby Fischer, which took place in Reykjavik, Iceland, was a big deal at the time. It also went on to have a certain cultural afterlife, from the musical Chess to the 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice. And of course Fischer’s subsequent retreat from public life meant it took on a kind of mythic stature. Was Fischer the greatest chess player of all time? We’ll never know. I came away less impressed than I’d been previously. Spassky was obviously disconcerted by Fischer’s antics, and if he’d played better might have gutted it out.
*. But I doubt Bobby Fischer is as big as Christ today. Aside from Game 6 I don’t think this match is even remembered much by chess aficionados. In any event, so much of chess is now played and viewed online, and computers (the “engines”) play such a much bigger role in training and analysis, that it’s like a different game now.
*. I knew the basic story, having reviewed the book Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow back in 2004. Liz Garbus has fashioned a solid documentary out of the material, with the focus being on Fischer’s eccentricity. What made him so weird? It seems like he was a lonely and gifted child who found an escape from reality in chess, and then found he couldn’t cope in the real world. But at least he got famous playing chess. Without his celebrity he was destined for a flophouse or prison. The odd feeling I had at the end wasn’t sadness though so much as apathy. Fischer seized his moment. What happened after was going to be anticlimactic anyway.
*. Keeping that initial comparison on the table, it’s thought that Jesus died when he was 33. We can’t imagine him getting old. Meanwhile, chess players peak in their 20s and early 30s. Fischer collapsed in a spectacular way, but for many stars, then and now, it’s hard to manage a long decline.