Saturday, May 26, 2012

My Review of Fischer Psychobiography

Let me start by saying that I dislike books on psychology.  One psych course as an undergraduate was enough.  It seemed to me at the time that psychologists wanted to turn us all into well-adjusted nobodies.  Since then, little has changed in my outlook.

That said, my first impression of A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer is mostly a favorable one.  Author Joseph Ponterotto avoids psycho-babble as much as possible in stating his opinion that Bobby Fischer suffered from a delusional disorder, not from schizophrenia or Asperger's Syndrome or paranoid personality disorder (although genetically predisposed to the latter).  Ponterotto also makes the case that Paul Morphy suffered from a delusional disorder, as well.

My view on Bobby Fischer is best summarized by this quote from grandmaster Mark Taimanov: "[Fischer] was a genius, which means he had the right to certain oddities, as after all genius is an abnormality in itself." The same is true of Paul Morphy.

My main criticism of Ponterotto's approach is that he attempts to solve the mystery of Fischer and Morphy by looking at the wrong side of the chessboard, figuratively speaking.  By that I mean, he fails to address the question of American society's role in driving both geniuses into madness.  As a chess master myself in the United States for over 30 years, I can speak to this issue firsthand.  Chessplayers are held in low regard here.  The current membership in the U.S. Chess Federation is approximately 79,000, fewer than the number of fans who attend a home game of the football Giants.  To be a chess genius like Fischer or Morphy in a country where chessplaying gets little respect is enough to send anyone off the deep end.  Both Ponterotto and Liz Garbus, in her documentary film Bobby Fischer Against the World, err in putting the victims on trial, rather than taking on the unpleasant task of criticizing America for its cultural backwardness.

In my opinion, Bobby Fischer's so-called delusional disorder in ranting against the Jews and the United States was nothing more than a game of dissociation that runs throughout his life.  Fischer was an individualist who wanted it all for himself.  Here is how FIDE master Asa Hoffmann described Fischer in the Game Show Network program Anything to Win: "He would sign his autograph, let's say, for a hundred dollars. But if you get a dollar and he gets ninety-nine, he feels he's entitled to get it all."  The Jews (by claiming Fischer as one of their own) and the United States (by claiming Fischer as a Cold War hero) tried to take "a dollar" from Fischer.  And so, he dissociated himself from both groups.