life's a game of chess
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by Simon King




Fischer had been holed up in his room for three days. The curtains were drawn all over the house, the surroundings were dank and musty and the floors were cluttered. Fischer had burrowed his head into his blanket and he had shrouded himself with his sheets. He wedged his fingers into ears to protect himself from the non-existent noise, but the entire house was eerily silent.

Chess moves permeated his mind. He thought of the myriad, labyrinthine movements that he could make with his pawns, knights, castles, rooks and bishops. He thought about the diagonal and vertical moves that eviscerated all of his opponents. He had stored thousands of games in his own mind, but Fischer had also created his own stratagems. The endless permutations went through his head again and again and he always fixated on how he could seize the king.

The previous week had been hectic, as the championship final was due at Reykjavik on Saturday, against Spassky and several television stations had broadcasting rights. It would be no understatement to call it the most important chess championship final in history, since Fischer and Spassky were in top form and were about to face each other. Fischer, the temperamental icon of the free west, was about to face Spassky, the affable icon of tyranny. 

This was how the match had been framed and promoted. Spassky was the beneficiary of an evil empire, which used its statist resources to prop up chess championships. Spassky was a uniquely talented individual, but he was the product of an evil oligarchy. Meanwhile, Fischer was a rugged individual who had achieved his status single-handedly. There had been no grants and no nanny states – Fischer had achieved all of this by himself.

Meanwhile, Spassky was a nationalist who rued the halcyon days of the Russian empire. He was a devout Christian and monarchist, a free thinker who could not toe the party line that was prescribed by lifeless Soviet bureaucrats. He was also a nice man. Fischer was an unlikely icon for the free world – his behaviour was strange and erratic – but he supported Nixon and America’s misadventures abroad.

And it all took place during the apex of détente. America and other western powers sought to compromise with the Soviet Union whilst the Soviets had jettisoned the idea of promoting communist revolutions across Europe. However, this match was now a fight between the free west and the repressive USSR – and it was taking place on a chess board.

But it was now doubtful if the match would ever take place. Fischer had fled the airport just as his flight to Reykjavik due to depart. He had been spooked by the gaggle of journalists and photographers who had huddled around him. The piercing flashes and endless questions unnerved him and he stormed out of the airport. He caught a taxi, which drove him to his house. He subsequently burrowed himself in a corner of his room and shrouded himself with his sheets.

The phone kept ringing. It rung for the tenth time, but Fischer continued to ignore it. Ten more minutes of silence ensued and Fischer assumed that organisers of the tournament – the most likely callers – had given up. Millions of dollars were at stake here, as several television broadcasters and advertisers had pooled their resources. A vast fortune would be lost thanks to Fischer’s impetuous petulance.

Fischer extricated himself from his sheets and leapt up. The sunlight pierced his eyes as soon as he opened the blinds. His back ached, as he had been crouching for hours. He looked at his disassembled bed and the profusion of clothes scattered across them. Fischer had by now grown accustomed to the light.

The phone rang yet again. Fischer opened the door of his room and clung to the banister as he walked down the stairs. He looked at his phone, which had a wired cord. Fischer gazed at it intently for four minutes and it finally rung. He retrieved the hand set.

‘Bobby… Bobby… Are you there?’ The voice was strange but familiar. It had a low pitch, it was throaty and it had a drawl. It had a strong Eastern European, Jewish accent. ‘This is Henry Kissinger.’

Fischer remained silent.

‘I am calling from the Pentagon,’ he continued. ‘We need you to play this match. You must play this match.’

Fischer replied, ‘But the journalists… the cameras… I cannot abide loud noises. The conditions must match my specifications. No loud cameras. No flashing lights. No annoying journalists. No annoying questions.’

‘Bobby, we’ll make concessions. We’ll fly you over in a private jet. Noise will be kept at a minimum.’

‘But Henry, those journalists terrified me…’ Fischer said.

Fischer might have been a masterful chess player, but he was an awkward communicator. He was also exceedingly stubborn and inflexible, but Kissinger – a true negotiator – would not let this faze him. ‘This game is extremely important to our international reputation. It is extremely important to the international liberal order. You must play.’

Fischer’s narcissism would not relent. ‘But… I don’t want to!’

‘You must play this game and defeat the Russians,’ Kissinger insisted.

‘Why don’t you nuke them instead, Henry!’ Fischer roared.

‘That would be irresponsible, Bobby… You know that. Instead, nuke them on the chess board,’ Kissinger perorated. He hung up the phone.

Fischer dropped the phone. He showered and plucked at the muck that had been festering in his fingertips. He tidied his room and threw away food that had decomposed. He brushed his yellow teeth. He boiled some eggs. He read about himself in a newspaper.

Then, Fischer left his house. He walked towards Reykjavik.




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