Bobby Fischer: Thoughts on Wasted Potentials

By: Deji Yesufu

In 1995 my brothers taught me to play Chess. I took my lessons a notch higher and became somewhat of a local champion in both my home and even at my department. But there were some guys on campus that were a lot better than me. Some of these guys were very good and the one thing that differentiated them from us was that, along with their courses of study, they were also studying Chess. One of them was particularly fond of mentioning the name Bobby Fischer. He would often remark: this is how Fischer won so and so match, etc. One day I asked him: what happened to Bobby Fischer? I was told Fischer was so good, he simply stopped playing Chess because no one could beat him. Unfortunately that is a spiced up version of the real story. A documentary I saw on YouTube yesterday helped me with a better perspective. This is what happened.

Bobby Fischer became a world class Chess player at the age of 13. By the time he was 15, he was a grandmaster. Fischer was an American but growing up without a father made him out to be somewhat of a recluse. He dropped out of high school and gave his life to Chess. In 1956, at the age of 16, or thereabout, he trounced a grandmaster in ten moves. In the 1960s, he was quickly recognized to be an upcoming world champion.

Chess championships work in this manner: a grandmaster is challenged by the winner of a Chess tournament once in three years. So between 1969 and 1972, Bobby Fischer entered into a series of Championships so as to challenge the then world champion, Boris Spassky. The interesting thing about a potential Fischer versus Spassky match up was that Fischer was American and Spassky was Russian. This match was coming at the height of the Cold War. Russians dominated the Chess world but Fischer was a major threat to their dominance. During the match up to meeting Spassky, Fischer was trouncing grandmasters in games and was almost loosing none. It was obvious he was going to be different. In 1972, Fischer won the right to play Spassky and take the title off him. Then the politics began.

America was excited because they saw that Fischer gave them an opportunity to embarrass the Soviet. The Soviets were keen because they had always maintained that Communism birth the greatest thinkers and their dominance of Chess proved this. Fischer told the Americans he was not representing them but himself. Fischer also told the organizers to look for a neutral ground: Iceland was settled on. Fischer then insisted that the price money be doubled. The organizers couldn’t do this, until a wealthy Brutish man provided the funds. A sum of $250,000 was made available for the game in all. Then Fischer flew to Iceland for the much awaited game.

In game 1, Fischer lost to Spassky. In the end game he made a blunder and lost his Bishop to a pack of puns. In game 2, Fischer did not show up. He was given a walk-over and Spassky went two game to zero. The championship are a game of 24 but the first person to get twelve and a half takes the day. By the time they went into game 3, all the world were on their toes. Fischer took game three and only lost one game until the end of the face-off. Fischer beat Spassky in 1972 to become the world title holder in Chess. Then in 1975, Fischer needed to defend his title, he again laid out his conditions for the games – he listed 179 of them. The organizers agreed to 178, yet Fischer will not play. He was given a walk-over and lost his world title to another man. Bobby Fischer never returned to play chess in Championships again. He retired to his home in the USA a recluse. In 1992, 20 years after his match with Spassky, he was convinced to return and play another series of games with the Russian. A price money of $3.5M was placed on the game. Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky again, and went away with millions of dollars in price money. Yet he did not return to playing professionally. One commentator in the documentary said this about Fischer almost choking on tears: “…the worst thing in this world is a waste of human potential…” If Fischer had continued to play Chess championships after 1972, he would have redefined the game, not to talk of the millions he would have made.

Bobby Fischer would eventually imbibe anti Semitic views and also clashed with the Americans, making him unable to live in the USA for the last two decades of his life. He died in Iceland in 2008 at the age of 68.

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Those thoughts on wasted potentials in human beings got me thinking very deeply about my own life. Bobby Fischer was born a Chess guru and if his potentials were better channeled, he could have changed the world with it. Instead he allowed his own personal demons to totally incapacitate him.

How many people have lost potentials and opportunities to a nine to five job every day? How many footballers have lost their skills to wine and the butt of cigarettes sticks? How many sons and daughters have lost great opportunities in life to be something because parents believe that their children can only study Medicine, Engineering or Law? Recently I had the opportunity to serve in a structured denominational setting but I know in my heart that the moment I submit to this denomination, everything I know how to do will shrivel up and die. I will be like David wearing Saul’s armor to battle.

May God give parents ability to see potentials in their children and help those children channel their gifts to a life of usefulness. The mind of Wole Soyinka would have excelled in Medicine, Engineering or Law. But the young Soyinka knew better. He understood his strength in literature, grammar and spoken English. He went to England in the 1950s and studied under the best literary minds of that time and then, out of the blues, and of all his writings, his Prison Memoirs won him the Nobel Laureate in 1986.

Bobby Fischer was a blessing and a tragedy. Lessons from his life can make us to be blessing and not end in the tragic way that many people with such potentials end.

Posted by Deji Yesufu

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