Archive for June 23, 2011

The Fischer King

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2011 by dcairns

BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD, a fine HBO documentary about the mentally unusual chess champion, is screening at Edinburgh International Film Festival but not as part of the neuroscience in cinema strand, although it easily could be: with all the hints of autism, monomania, sensory hyperacuity and paranoid schizophrenia, Fischer’s brain would make an excellent object for study.

After three screenings (I’m such a lightweight) I was falling asleep at the start of Liz Garbus’s movie, but it woke me up and snapped me into attentiveness by the time it got to the epic championship bout between Fischer and Boris Spasski. Like WHEN WE WERE KINGS, the movie uses expert testimony to elucidate just enough of the strategy involved to allow the matches to transcend a mere score-sheet of victories and losses. The boxing movie had Norman Mailer helpfully outlining Ali’s moves so that someone like me, whose experience of fisticuffs is limited to getting duffed up in the school playground, could appreciate some of the craft behind the pummeling, and similar insights provided by experts and associates of Fischer allow the audience to get a sense of the tactics even if they don’t know Philidor’s opening from a hole in the ground.

Extracts from Pudovkin’s CHESS FEVER, the finest of chess-based movies, amusingly illustrate the long history of chess masters who suffered marble loss, my favourite being the guy who came to believe he was playing against God, via wireless — and winning.

Fischer, who I found weirdly sympathetic in spite of nearly every aspect of his personality, seemed to illustrate the particular dangers of monomania — as long as chess was the only thing in his life, and he was on an upward course in his career playing it, his psychological problems had a productive focus. Once he became World Champion, the terror of losing took chess away from him, and so he became narrowly focussed on other, less healthy subjects, such as his anti-semitic conspiracy theories. Since Fischer was himself Jewish by birth, it doesn’t take much analysis to see this as a manifestation of self-hatred, just as Fischer’s difficult and demanding behaviour at tournaments seemed to everyone but him like a kind of psychological warfare. “I don’t believe in psychology, I just believe in good moves,” he said. And with no belief in psychology, he had absolutely no insight or defense when his mind started deserting him.