Confusing A Game With Life -- Chess, Madness And Bobby Fischer

TWENTY years ago in Iceland, the last time Bobby Fischer played chess in public, I was there.

I had stopped in Reykjavik on my way back from Europe. I remember thinking: Someday I'll tell my grandchildren that I saw Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky to become the first American world champion.

The reason this event comes to mind, of course, is that last week Fischer and Spassky began a rematch at a Yugoslavian resort barely a grenade's throw from the war in Bosnia.

The U.S. government sent Fischer a letter warning that the contest would breach United Nations sanctions against Yugoslavia and that Fischer could face 10 years in prison for playing.

Fischer spit - literally - on the letter.

I'm not a very good chess player but I've always been fascinated by the game. And as an exchange student in Russia years ago, I played often.

Almost all the students did, partly out of tradition - most world champions have come from Russia - and partly because there was little else to do on long, cold Russian winter nights. Might as well sit down with a mug of lukewarm vodka and a plate of sour pickles and play.

Chess is the intellectual equivalent of boxing. Like all sports, boxing ritualizes combat. The difference is that when two guys stand in a ring beating each other's brains out, the ritual isn't that far removed from the real thing. Chess is cerebral violence, a different way for people to beat their brains out.

Yet chess may also be viewed as an art, both because it has its own aesthetic and because it tends to drive many of its greatest masters mad.

Three years ago, for example, Soviet emigre champion Viktor Korchnoi won a match against the Hungarian master Geza Moroczy. That doesn't sound so crazy unless you happen to know that Moroczy died in 1951. The Korchnoi-Moroczy match was played with the help of a medium.

Paul Morphy, America's only truly great chess player other than Fischer, retired from the sport at the age of 21. He died in New Orleans in 1884 after living the remaining 26 years of his life as a paranoid recluse and practicing shoe fetishist.

A year after Fischer's victory in Iceland, he visited Denver, where he lived for a while with members of a group called The Church of God. Stripped of his title in 1975 for refusing a match, he has since lived among religious sects in Southern California.

Both half-Jewish and virulently anti-Semitic, Fischer, 49, is obsessed with conspiracy theories. He is said to have removed the fillings from his teeth to prevent his enemies from beaming radio signals at him.

Einstein would have understood. Master chess, he once said, so shackles "the mind and brain" that even "the strongest character cannot remain unaffected."

Like Luzhin, the chess-player hero of Vladimir Nabokov's brilliant novel "The Defense," Fischer appears to confuse chess and life. And the point of chess, as anyone who has played knows, is to lure one's opponent into a trap from which there can be no escape.

Part of the sport's cruel elegance is that a great player knows he's doomed long before it becomes apparent to lesser observers.

If Fischer beats Spassky as he did 20 years ago, he will no doubt challenge Gary Kasparov, the current world champion. Kasparov, who is 28 and of Jewish and Armenian descent, appears to be quite sane. When not playing chess, he writes essays on foreign affairs for the Wall Street Journal.

I suspect Kasparov will crush Fischer. But if so, Fischer will be the first to see the defeat coming.

Clifford D. May is a columnist and the associate editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.