Saturday, January 6, 2007

2101: A Chess Odyssey

Someone with the initials G.A.P. [Glenn A. Petersen] was kind enough to present me at holiday time* with Searching for Bobby Fischer by Fred Waitzkin. This book review is my way of saying thanks to him. In case you're wondering, the 2101 refers to the rating of 11-year-old Joshua Waitzkin - Fred's son - at the time this book was published in 1988.

The title of the book is misleading. Actually, only one chapter is devoted to the chase of that chess chimera better known as Bobby Fischer, or "Mr. James" as he calls himself these days. The book's subtitle, however, is accurate: "The World of Chess, Observed by the Father of a Child Prodigy". And the author has keen powers of observation, whether he is describing a blitz game in Washington Square Park or a Karpov-Kasparov contest in the Hall of Columns. Through Mr. Waitzkin's eyes, I saw as though for the first time, players that I've played before: Israel Zilber, Roman Dzindzichasvili, and even young Josh.

Searching for Bobby Fischer is a love story on two counts. First, there is the author's near obsession with the game of chess, a love affair which began during the Spassky-Fischer match in 1972. As Mr. Waitzkin tells us, he is the same age as Fischer and, in the days following the match, dreamed that someday he too would be a great chessplayer. Hard reality dashed this dream. Mr. Waitzkin realized he didn't have "the right stuff" one day when an opponent resigned and someone had to explain to Freddie - as Josh calls him - that he had just forced a mate in three.

But, like so many fathers, Mr. Waitzkin has tried to fulfill his dream through his son. And that is the second love affair in this book - his paternal care for Josh. As one of the blurbs on the dustjacket says: "Who could resist Fred's son Joshua?" In fact, the Josh portrayed here comes across as so loveable a character that I may find it difficult to "psyche myself up" if I ever have to play him again (although, on second thought, no one could ever be that loveable!).

For an 11-year-old, Josh (or "Tiger", as his chess coach Bruce Pandolfini has nicknamed him) already has some remarkable accomplishments under his belt. Not only is he the National Scholastic Champion for his age group, as well as the most highly rated, but his picture has appeared on page one of Pravda and he has been interviewed on both Soviet and American television. It is easy to forget that, like all little boys, he also enjoys playing with dinosaur stickers and reading Hardy Boys books. Josh is also the unofficial chess champion of Bimini, but I won't spoil that story by describing it to you in advance. It reads like something out of Hemingway, who apparently is Mr. Waitzkin's favorite author since he refers to his books more than once.

There is only one factual error that I noticed. In playing over the 24th game of the first decisive Karpov-Kasparov match - the game which made Kasparov world champion - Mr. Waitzkin informs us he was so excited at the time that he kept forgetting who was White and who was Black. Then, in this book, he mistakenly credits Karpov with playing the black pieces, proving that he still hasn't gotten it right!

Moreover, I would like to suggest a possible solution to an unanswered mystery. In writing about Victor Frias, who drives a cab in New York City, Mr. Waitzkin tells us an anecdote about an unknown cabbie who - while driving the author through New York - once told him that he had defeated grandmasters. I don't know when this incident took place; but, if it was in the 1970's, it may have been the late GM Nicholas Rossolimo, who drove a taxi for a living when he wasn't running his little chess shop in the Village (where I once had the honor of playing him).

90% or more of this book is devoted to Josh and Fred's efforts to help Josh realize both their dreams. This chess odyssey takes the Waitzkins all across the United States, and even to Russia for a clandestine meeting with dissident Boris Gulko and a visit to the American embassy there which reads less like Hemingway than like LeCarre.

But the ultimate "deep search" of all, as the title suggests, is for Fischer himself whose presence or absence is felt throughout this book. At first, Mr. Waitzkin hopes to succeed where detectives hired by magazines have failed, to come face to face with Bobby himself. Of course, he fails in his quest. But he comes close. We meet people who have seen and played Fischer during his self-imposed exile from organized chess and from society itself. We hear fantastic stories - corroborated by Spassky himself, who played and lost badly a blitz match with Fischer in 1987 in California - that Fischer's playing strength, far from deteriorating, has increased exponentially since their 1972 encounter. A grandmaster tells us of playing dozens of offhand games with Fischer and not winning a single contest. Fischer, they say, is playing new moves, not to be found in the chess literature.

Unfortunately, we also hear the dark rumors of Nazism and of paranoid delusions that the KGB is trying to kill him. In a way, the reader is almost glad that Mr. Waitzkin's search proves fruitless. One fears that he would have discovered, as did the detective Marlowe in Chandler's The Long Goodbye, that even sadder than losing a friend is finding him again but so changed for the worse that one feels there is nothing left, not even the fondest memories now tarnished.

I must admit that I was so taken up by this book that the first thing I did upon completing it was to take out my chess pieces and replay the moves of my only game against Josh. Like Mr. Waitzkin, I found myself "searching for Bobby Fischer", looking for some telltale sign in my opponent's play of a future world champion.

*{This book review originally appeared in Atlantic Chess News in 1989 and won an Honorable Mention in the "Best Review" category from the Chess Journalists of America}