Monday, November 5, 2012

Jonathan Safran Foer on Bobby Fischer

Slate published a selection from an essay on Bobby Fischer by Jonathan Safran Foer, taken from the recent collection Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame.  (One of the co-editors of this book is Jonathan's brother Franklin Foer, the former editor of The New Republic).

Fischer's struggles with mental illness and his renunciation of his ethnic Jewish identity are well-known. It's an interesting and important subject, but not a very pleasant one, and not directly relevant to chess. The paradox of Fischer seems ripe for a novel, so it should be interesting to listen to a young American novelist with a personal stake in this conversation weigh in.

Foer writes:
A Jew wrote The Natural, but has there ever been a natural Jew? Free-spiritedness, joie de vivre, ease in the world—these are not what we do. We do scrappiness, resilience, hard work, self-questioning, self-consciousness, self-destruction, and unflappable will. This applies especially to our athletes, many of whom were not given the best of genetic toolboxes. Most great Jewish athletes have at least this in common: they overcome God’s gifts.
Not a jock, and not a Jew by any definition richer than heredity, Bobby Fischer was the quintessential Jewish Jock. He worked harder than any of his peers. He attempted to conceal his insecurity behind an ego built for 20, and his self-love behind self-hatred behind self-love. And perhaps more than any human who has ever lived, he kvetched [....]
I agree with Foer that Fischer outworked his competitors.  Despite the title of Frank Brady's first biography, Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy,  young Bobby was not a prodigy in the sense  of amazing achievements by age 12  (Reshevsky, Karjakin, and Carlsen in chess, Mozart in music, Pascal and Ramanujan in math).  I know several children under ten who are probably significantly stronger than the twelve-year-old Bobby; from what I've seen of Fischer's 1955 games, I'm fairly certain that one of these young players is at least two orders of magnitude stronger.  

Fischer the teenager is quite another story.  (See Wikipedia for a quick recap of his rise in the years 1955-59.)  As Kasparov has argued, a genius for hard work is a kind of genius. Fischer at age 16 (ranked by Jeff Sonas as second only to Kasparov among the sixteen-year-old players of the last century) was already an order of magnitude stronger than the 14-year-old U.S. Champion, who was in turn several classes stronger than the promising preteen. If we only knew what Bobby did in these years—Jack Collins provides some cluesand what he did prior to his next quantum leap (1968-1970), we'd know much more about the best pedagogical methods for genius.


If Fischer considered himself "not a Jew by any definition richer than heredity," why did he expend so much energy calling that presumably tenuous identity into question?  As the author of Everything Is Illuminated knows well, Fischer was born in mid-Holocaust.  To be raised by a fellow traveler of the Communist Party of the USA, and to come of age in New York City in the years after the Rosenberg trial, all at a time when American anticommunism far too often had an antisemitic undercurrent: that particular environment might make the most rational person a bit paranoid.  More so if that person is also "wired" a bit differently than you and I are. Perhaps Fischer shared characteristics with those on the Asperger end of the autism spectrum. Or perhaps he suffered from organized paranoia—compare Judge Schreber and John Forbes Nash, whose antisemitism was a function of their mental illness. If so, then a measure of compassion is certainly in order.  

Some of the things that Fischer said in the last decades of his life were unspeakably vile, and one cannot help but sympathize with the revulsion underlying Foer's curt observation, "With Jews like this, who needs Nazis?"  But some of us are old enough to remember a very different Fischer.

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