Bobby Fischer and How to Take Over the Initiative

Bobby Fischer and How to Take Over the Initiative

Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011) is a great documentary with rare footage about one of the best chess players ever, the Mozart of the chess world, Bobby Fischer. The documentary tells the story of his life, his highlights as a chess player and his later troubled years.

Usain Bolt playing chess Usain Bolt playing chess without a king. Source:

May 1972, Reykjavik, Iceland.

Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, two titans of the chess world meet for the World Championship. In play it's the World title. In the context of the Cold War the Americans and the Soviets were looking to outdo each others in every way possible. Chess was considerate the ultimate sport of the mind and the national game in Soviet Russia. The soviets invested heavily in chess schools and wanted to prove their superior intelligence over the Americans.

I've only heard and read about this colossal match before watching the documentary. I've read about it in Robert Green's book titled The 48 Laws of Power. In the book, Fischer's eccentricity and flakiness is depicted as a calculated, psychological move, as a way to keep Spassky always guessing. From the documentary you can notice that Bobby is very thoughtful of what he is saying in interviews, his eyes are moving in all directions as he does his thought process and is coming up with the answer, just like when he was at the chessboard, seeing several moves ahead with the eyes of his mind. However, this can't be said for his later years, it seems that he was suffering from some kind of neurological problems, in interviews he would just spew out words without thinking too much.

"In previous games between Fischer and Spassky, Fischer had not fared well. Spassky had an uncanny ability to read his opponent’s strategy and use it against him. Adaptable and patient, he would build attacks that would defeat not in seven moves but in seventy. He defeated Fischer every time they played because he saw much further ahead, and because he was a brilliant psychologist who never lost control. One master said, “He doesn’t just look for the best move. He looks for the move that will disturb the man he is playing.”" Robert Green - The 48 Laws of Power

Fischer was quite well known for his eccentric behavior even before his match against Spassky, complaining, quitting tournaments, delaying actions, (literally) running away when the press showed up. Critics described him as a prima donna. Fischer was also a tormented man struggling with his inner demons, grew up without a father figure, his biological father died when he was 9 years old and that was also the moment when he found out the identity of his true father, grew up by himself because his mother left him alone in the house since the age of 3, had a childhood-less life because he spent his childhood always playing and studying chess.

Choreographed or not, it seems that Bobby Fischer eventually made Spassky lose his temperament and focus. What Fischer actually did with his chaotic actions, with his delaying, with his numerous complaints about the cameras, about the noise, about the location and his requests to change the location of the match - was to gain the initiative. Spassky wasn't obliged to agree to put up with all the eccentricities and location changes, he could have refused, but he didn't, he let himself to become a pawn inside a game.

Not only that Bobby created a chaotic environment outside of the board, he surprised his adversary with unusual chess openings and moves that didn't seemed to make much sense. Quoting from the documentary: "We can see Spassky sitting in the edge of his chair, he is very tense. Fischer seems a little more relaxed than Spassky." Spassky was out of his comfort zone because he didn't studied those unusual moves and positions that were presented to him. By surprising his adversary, Bobby took the initiative on the chess board too.

"Spassky was known for his sangfroid and levelheadedness, but for the first time in his life he could not figure out his opponent. He slowly melted down, until at the end he was the one who seemed insane. Chess contains the concentrated essence of life: First, because to win you have to be supremely patient and farseeing; and second, because the game is built on patterns, whole sequences of moves that have been played before and will be played again, with slight alterations, in any one match. Your opponent analyzes the patterns you are playing and uses them to try to foresee your moves. Allowing him nothing predictable to base his strategy on gives you a big advantage. In chess as in life, when people cannot figure out what you are doing, they are kept in a state of terror—waiting, uncertain, confused." Robert Green - The 48 Laws of Power