Feb 01, 2023, 05:57AM

Bobby Fischer’s Greatest Chess Move

Fischer Random creates over 900 possible starting positions, way too many for any player to study before a game.

54730d7b acb8 41c9 8b63 942ca80ec3dd.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1

In ancient Greece there was a practice called Ostracism. It banished anyone from the society who was becoming too powerful and thus threatening Athenian Democracy. One leading citizen, Aristides, banished himself, an act which earned him eternal fame and the sobriquet “The Just.” It’s hard to visualize George Soros, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, the Clintons, Barack Obama, Klaus Schwab or any other modern power figure following his example.

There is a popular saying, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” As an idea it suggests to me a group of people moving together towards some particular, unquestioned goal. At some point, one of the group, “the boss,” notices that another member is complaining so, drawing him or herself up to full height, proclaims in a stentorian voice that bit of received wisdom. This shames the recalcitrant straggler who now “gets out of the way,” shuts up and gets back in line, no longer daring to express any dissatisfaction. It also serves as a warning.

I recall seeing The Poseidon Adventure, the 1970s disaster film about a cruise ship hit by a tidal wave. It overturns and a small group of survivors head towards the hull, now above the surface, in hopes of rescue. As a teenager I was struck by the scene where that group crosses another group of survivors who are going in the wrong direction. Despite Gene Hackman’s attempts to persuade them, it’s futile, they go on and a couple minutes later there’s an explosion and they all drown.

The problem with the expression is it leaves out a fourth option, one that may be the most important. I suggest that this fourth option would rephrase that bit of questionable wisdom to make it : “Lead, follow, get out of the way or change the whole scenario from the bottom up.”

One might argue that revolution can be seen as “changing the scenario from the bottom up.” The problem with every revolution is that, whatever good intentions they may start out with, usually they just act, once the dust has settled, to rearrange things in a new fixed order. After the initial victory when the yoke is lifted, usually followed by a period of brotherhood and optimism, soon there emerges a new power class, new laws, a new invariable reality. People have a very hard time imagining a society without fixed leaders. The idea of a leaderless society is anathema to the ruling class, because it doesn’t benefit them. The British Royal Family’s motto “God and my Right” could be transferred to anyone once they get into control. So we’re taught that a stateless, leader-less society can only lead to Mad Max-like chaos. Are we doomed to the endless repetition of power-mad leaders?

Maybe not. The best example of “changing the scenario from the bottom up” that I know was effectuated by the American chess champion Bobby Fischer just before his death. Fischer, still recognized as the greatest chess player in history, said that he no longer liked chess because the actual play in the game didn’t begin until around the 16th move, and before that it was just memorization. He complained it was no longer a creative game and that without creativity, what point was there in playing? Fischer, an expert strategist, invented Fischer Random, where, using random chance, the back rank on the board – King, Queen, Bishop, Knight and Castle – are rearranged. This creates over 900 possible starting positions, way too many for any player to study before a game. This means that freedom and creativity are reintroduced into the game, from the first move. The starting situation is one of constant variability. And it’s interesting that the standard chess position is still among the possible random options, just not the only option. Nothing’s lost while much is gained. I see this as Bobby Fischer’s final and greatest chess move, in which he essentially reinvents the game and demonstrates to the world that there’s always a way to be free and creative if we look for it.


Register or Login to leave a comment