Bobby Fischer: the chess prodigy who could not fulfil his destiny

It is called the chess game of the century. 13 year old Bobby Fischer playing against International Master Donald Byrne. A crowd has gathered after about the 11th turn because of some powerful moves. Everyone in the crowd thinks that while Fischer has future potential, his position for this particular game was lost.

On the 16th turn, Byrne threatens Fischer’s queen. On the 17th turn, instead of saving the queen, Fischer ignores and sacrifices her. 

He instead gives a windmill of discovered checks to Byrne and forces him in situations that leave only one move to play. By turn 25, Fischer has captured a rook, two bishops, and a pawn in return for the queen. It’s a series of moves that leaves the audience gasping. Its the reason why the game is called the game of the century. 

For all intents and purposes, the game is over. Byrne’s queen could not make a move to save his king the whole time. Fischer dominated the board from a losing position. And won!

A legend was born on that day. Everyone knew Bobby Fischer would become a grandmaster. The next year, 14 year old Fischer won the US championship. And a few years later, in 1972 – Fischer won the world championship – and took the crown from the USSR after 24 years!

But do you know what? One of the greatest chess players we have ever seen managed to win the world championship only once. What made Fischer under perform his potential?

Winning and losing the world championship

By 1972, Fischer had experienced a winning streak of 20 games against various grandmasters. He had a rating of 2785 – which was 125 points higher than the reigning champion Boris Spassky. Fischer was allowed to challenge the world champion.

But then something unusual happened. Fischer refused to compete if the prize money was not doubled. The day was saved when a London financier stepped in with a hefty donation.

But then more demands cropped up. Fischer asked for the first row of seats to be removed. For the games to be played on a new chess board than the one presented. The lighting wasn’t right, and must be changed before Fischer would play. It went on and on. Eventually Henry Kissinger had to call Fischer and convince him to compete.

Unfortunately Fischer lost the first game. He blamed it on the video cameras that were set up for the live telecast. He asked for them to be removed and the game to be shifted to the backroom far away. When his demands were not met, he forfeited and lost the second game.

Spassky did not want to win by forfeiture and so he gave in to all the demands. And then the prodigy awoke. Fischer won 5 and drew 3 out of the next 8 games. After 21 games, Fischer’s lead was unassailable and Spassky conceded the 24 game tournament. Bobby Fischer had become the world champion!

The world had never seen anyone as good as Fischer. Or as ready to pick a fight as Fischer either.

The champion is challenged

After a couple of years, when Anatoly Karpov challenged him for the title, Fischer said he would not play the standard 24 game tournament. And sent a long list of demands. Not to count draws, not to limit the number of games, play till the first person wins 10 games. And the worst of all: the challenger would have to defeat Fischer by 2 games or else Fischer would retain the title.

When his demands were not met, Fischer refused to play. 

Bobby Fischer was stripped of his title. He had lost the world championship without playing a single game.

Fischer didn’t play chess for the next 20 years. At one point, he became homeless. He had an IQ of 181. And yet, he could not do the right thing. He could not give up and compromise on small issues. He picked a fight with the whole world. And gave up the one thing he was world best at!

On one spectrum, we have people like Beethoven. Who despite going deaf, persevered and continued making music – showing the world their brilliance. In fact, Beethoven composed some of his finest music after going deaf! And on the other end, we have people like Bobby Fischer. Who had everything needed to conquer the world – but were held back by their own crazy.

How do you become more like Beethoven and less like Fischer? Show more grit? And not let issues – especially minor issues – stop you?

“I will have to remember ‘I am here today to cross the swamp, not to fight all the alligators.’” — Rosamund and Benjamin Zander

You’ve got to do two things.

  1. Right size your perspective. Prioritize long term goals over short term wins. This means gaining clarity. Keeping your eyes on the prize. Imagining how it would feel to win. Self reflect. First to visualize your long term goals. And then regularly to remain on track and not let the alligators distract you.
  2. Be ok with pain. Because as Bryan Johnson says: everything amazing happens at the other side of pain.

Seneca teaches pain management

Seneca was the Roman Emperor Nero’s tutor and chief advisor. He had immense power and considerable wealth. And yet, from time to time, he lived as though he was in deep poverty. 

In his letters to Lucilius, Seneca writes: “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?'”

Seneca’s greatest fear was losing everything. By experiencing poverty by choice, he wanted to alleviate the fear of it. By experiencing hardship on purpose, he became resilient. 

Action Summary:

  • To win, you must not be distracted by minor matters. Your aim and efforts should be on the long term goals.
  • Self-impose small hardships to strengthen your ability to cope when real hardships truly occur. Be ok with pain and irritation.