Thursday, November 8, 2018

"Playboy" Nov.-Dec. 2018 Article on Chess

American Chess Masters, an Illustrated History:
A Gallery of Greatness and Madness - and a Millennial Master Who Just Might Break the Cycle

by Brin-Jonathan Butler
Illustrations by Nathan Gelgud

This November, an American will have a shot of becoming the undisputed world chess champion - the first such opportunity since Bobby Fischer captured the world's imagination in 1972.  Fabiano Caruana, 26 years old and currently the world's second-highest-rated player, will face 27-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, reigning world champion and the highest-rated player in history.  Caruana has the chance to step out from under the long, dark shadow cast by Fischer and other tormented geniuses of American chess.  Join us as we profile Caruana and five others, weaving a tale of prodigious talent and unchecked obsession.

Paul Morphy

The rise of chess in America begins in antebellum New Orleans.  Paul Morphy was born wealthy in 1837 and was already a spooky child prodigy by the age of nine.  He traveled across Europe and toured royal courts, leaving a trail of vanquished adversaries.  American media declared a state of "Morphy mania." In 1859, Morphy, then 22, returned home a hero - and suddenly announced his retirement.  He started a law practice but, according to legend, alienated his clients with obsessive rants about chess.  After the practice went under, Morphy wandered the streets of New Orleans, talking to himself in French and thwarting his family's attempts to commit him to a mental asylum.  Reports abound that Morphy was found dead in his bathtub surrounded by a circle of women's shoes - all of which gives "Morphy mania" a very different meaning.

          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Wilhelm Steinitz

Born in Prague in 1836, Wilhelm Steinitz learned the game at 12 and by his mid-20s was known as "the Austrian Morphy."  Steinitz settled in New York in 1883, three years before he became the first undisputed world champion.  He would lose that title in 1894 to Emanuel Lasker, who was 32 years younger.  In his 60s, Steinitz suffered a complete mental collapse and was institutionalized in Moscow for 40 days.  During his confinement he incessantly challenged fellow patients to games of chess; by the time of his death, three years later, he was bragging about playing chess with God over an invisible telephone.

          *          *          *          *          *           *          *          *

Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer was only 13 when he played his famous "Game of the Century" at the Marshall Chess Club, displaying one of the most electifying queen sacrifices in history.  The ensuing years would see him go from America's cold war hero to a fugitive from justice: in 1992 he violated U.S. economic sanctions in order to compete in Yugoslavia.  Fischer became a Unabomber-like character who removed his dental work to foil suspected FBI surveillance and, following the 9/11 attacks, called in to a Philippines radio station to say: "This is all wonderful news.  It's time for the f***ing U.S. to get their heads kicked in."  Fischer died in 2008 at the age of 64 - poetically living a year for every square on a chessboard.

          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Peter Winston

"Boy Genius" proclaimed the cover of the December 19, 1964 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.  The story's subject was first-grade mathematics prodigy Peter Winston, who at the time had not yet encountered a chessboard.  A decade later, at the U.S. Junior Championships, Winston tied for first place against future grandmaster Larry Christiansen.  Two years later, Winston was reportedly diagnosed as schizophrenic; the medication he was prescribed severely hampered his chess game.  In early 1978, without I.D., money or even a jacket, Winston wandered into one of the most notorious blizzards ever to strike New York.  Four decades later, his body has not been recovered.

          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Josh Waitzkin

Back in 1988, New Yorker Josh Waitzkin was an 11-year-old chess phenomenon frequently touted as the next Bobby Fischer.  The top player for his age in America, he became one of two kids to earn a draw against world champion Garry Kasparov in an exhibition game. In his defense, Kasparov was simultaneously battling 58 other strong players.  Waitzkin did not become the next Fischer and abandoned competitive chess by the close of the 20th century.  However, Waitzkin's father wrote a book about their father-son journey into the chess world.  Searching for Bobby Fischer became a best-seller and then a critically acclaimed film.  Waitzkin would later find success in publishing and as a martial artist, winning a world title in tai chi push hands - and avoiding Fischer's dark legacy.

          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Fabiano Caruana

At the age of four, Fabiano Caruana moved from Miami to Brooklyn and took up chess at his synagogue's after-school program, a mile away from where Fischer had learned the game in his mother's apartment.  Starting when he was five, Caruana dedicated his life to chess, becoming the youngest American grandmaster by the time he was 14.  For the first time since Fischer gained global attention, a U.S. grandmaster is fighting to  become the undisputed world chess champion.  Caruana, currently number two in the world and the top American grandmaster, will play for the game's most coveted prize against the reigning world champion, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, in a 12-game match in London in November.  Beyond the seven-figure purse and the world title, Caruana is perhaps also fighting to break free from the long shadow of Bobby Fischer and the rest of his tormented forebears.