Nakamura’s Miracle

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the highest rated chess tournament in history. It was the Sinquefield Cup, held in St. Louis, MO from August 27 to September 6, 2014. It featured 6 of the top 10 players in the world, including the 23 year-old world champion Magnus Carlsen. Half of the field had ratings over 2800, and, indeed, the average rating of the players was just over 2801. To give some perspective, Garry Kasparov, widely considered the greatest chess player ever, had a peak rating of 2851. That is an astounding 21 points higher than anyone else until Magnus Carlsen. Only 3 active players in the world today have ratings over 2800, and all of them were in St. Louis for the Sinquefield Cup.

And one of these players was having the tournament of his life.

Fabiano Caruana, the world's number 2 chess player as of October 2014

Fabiano Caruana, an Italian player who is now the world’s number 2, was crushing everyone in the tournament. Things like this just don’t happen very often at the highest levels of chess. As chess fans are well aware, draws are the most likely outcome between players who may step out of book after as many as 20 or 25 moves (and yes, that is a lot of moves). In St. Louis, Caruana won his first seven games.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the highest rated chess tournament in history. It was the Sinquefield Cup, held in St. Louis, MO from August 27 to September 6, 2014.

It featured 6 of the top 10 players in the world, including the 23 year-old world champion Magnus Carlsen. Half of the field had ratings over 2800, and, indeed, the average rating of the players was just over 2801. To give some perspective, Garry Kasparov, widely considered the greatest chess player ever, had a peak rating of 2851. That is an astounding 21 points higher than anyone else until Magnus Carlsen. Only 3 active players in the world today have ratings over 2800, and all of them were in St. Louis for the Sinquefield Cup. And one of these players was having the tournament of his life. Fabiano Caruana, the world's number 2 chess player as of October 2014 Fabiano Caruana, an Italian player who is now the world’s number 2, was crushing everyone in the tournament. Things like this just don’t happen very often at the highest levels of chess. As chess fans are well aware, draws are the most likely outcome between players who may step out of book after as many as 20 or 25 moves (and yes, that is a lot of moves). In St. Louis, Caruana won his first seven games. Seven games in a row against elite competition is such a rare accomplishment that you have to go back to Bobby Fischer to find a comparison. In 1971, Fischer won 13 games in a row leading up to the final candidates match to determine who would challenge for the world championship. His victims included top 20 grandmaster Mark Taimanov, top 10 grandmaster Bent Larsen, and former world champion Tigran Petrosian who was then number 3 in the world. From 1970 to 1972 Fischer won 39, drew 21, and lost only 5, all against the best in the world (and that includes game 2 of the world championship match, which Fischer forfeited). Unheard of. Simply unheard of.

Yeah, I never heard of it.
Yeah, I never heard of it.
Is Fabiano Caruana on such a similar hot streak? Who knows? Caruana is currently playing (and winning) at the European Chess Club Cup, but the competition there is not as consistently high. I can say with confidence that Fabiano Caruana’s 8.5/10 score is one of the greatest, if not the greatest tournament victory of all time. You’d have to go to former world champion Anatoly Karpov’s 11/13 performance at the Linares tournament in 1994 to find a comparison. But this post is not about Fabiano Caruana. It’s about the US champion Hikaru Nakamura who was basically having a crap tournament in St. Louis.
Hikaru Nakamura, the top rated player in the United States, October 2014
Hikaru Nakamura, the top rated player in the United States, October 2014
Languishing in last place, Nakamura had 4 draws and 4 losses going into the 9th round in which he was to meet Caruana. Caruana had just had his win streak snapped by Carlsen in the previous round with a draw. But it was a game Caruana probably should have won. So if there ever was a time when you’d expect a one-siding drubbing, this was it. I know from experience how losses can wear on your self-confidence. The anger, the disgust, the contempt…all aimed at yourself for this blunder or that miscalculation. When your head is swirling with putrid emotions, you really cannot play chess well, and getting clobbered over and over is just the thing to do that to you. Remember, chess can break your heart. Well, a one-sided drubbing it turned out to be. [Those unfamiliar with chess algebraic notation should reference this chessboard. Every square has a lower case letter and a number. Note the e4 square in the middle. Pieces are denoted by upper case letters: K=King, Q=Queen, N=Knight, B=Bishop, R=Rook. Pawns are not denoted by letters at all, just the squares to which they move.] algebraicNotation Here’s the game after move 28 for white (Caruana).
28. Kh3 ... Black to move
28. Kh3 … Black to move
According to Grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian’s analysis from Chessbase.com, the position by move 28 is fairly even. But then Nakamura as black begins to find some inaccurate moves. First he plays 28…Rg6, followed by 29. c4 Ne7.
29... Ne7 (Yellow arrow). White is now threatening check along the white arrow.
29… Ne7 (Yellow arrow). White is now threatening check with his rook along the white arrow.
This last move basically allows a check on the back rank. This couldn’t have happened before since the king could have moved to e7 to threaten White’s rook and start blockading White’s passed pawn on e5. But now with his own knight occupying that square, Black has fewer options. Anyway, from that point on Caruana tortured Nakamura. He simply pressured his American opponent by advancing his pawns and his king, and by giving Black less and less breathing room with every move. At one point, Black had to sacrifice a pawn for nothing just to stave off imminent defeat. It got so bad that the commentators for the Sinquefield Cup were predicting Nakamura’s resignation. The computers were giving White an advantage of something like 4 points, which is crushing. No grandmaster should blow such a commanding lead. Indeed, by move 40, White had a forced win. It would involve a counter-intuitive yet elegant sacrifice that most amateurs would never see, let alone consider. Yet for chess grandmasters, finding such moves is their bread and butter. It’s elementary, actually. Here, see if you can find it.
40... Kg7 White to move and crush.
40… Kg7 White to move and crush.
No, I didn’t find it either. White captures the knight with his rook on g6, and then loses his rook when Black recaptures. This is called going down the exchange since a knight is less valuable than a rook, especially in an endgame. So why would White deliberately lose material like this? Well, because he can now march his pawn down the e file to the back rank where it can be promoted to a queen, and there is nothing short of sacrificing his own rook that Black can do to stop it. See for yourself. [pgn height=365 autoplayMode=none] [FEN “8/ppp3k1/r5nR/2p1PKP1/2P4B/8/P1P5/8 w – – 0 40”] 40. Rxg6+ Rxg6 41. e6 Kh7 {The king getting out of the rook’s way to let it defend. Going to the f file to blockade the pawn loses the rook} (41… Kf8 42. Kxg6) 42. e7 Rg8 43. Kf6 Rg6+ 44. Kf7 Rg7+ 45. Ke6 Rg8 46. Kd7 Rg7 47. Kd8 Rg8+ 48. e8Q Rxe8+ 49. Kxe8 {And Black is down a whole piece and completely busted.} [/pgn] At this point, Nakamura could have resigned. No one would have blamed him for it. His position was in shambles…again. Also, considering that he was playing a streaking wunderkind in the middle of a once-in-a-century rampage through the cream of the chess world, yeah…maybe he could have lived to fight another day. I’m sure by move 40 Nakamura was longing for the comforts of home. I’m sure whatever angst he was feeling about his impending defeat was nothing that some Ibuprofen, a tall glass of his favorite beverage, and a watching few Netflix reruns of Breaking Bad on a nice, comfy couch couldn’t cure. I mean, what’s one more loss after you’ve already been handed the big

goose egg 4 times in the same tournament? You get used to losing, really, and then after that it’s not so bad. And the guy who comes in last place still pockets $20,000. So there’s that. losingdemotivator But you see, Hikaru Nakamura didn’t resign. Wunderkind or no, if you’re gonna beat me, I am going to make you work for it every inch of the way. He must have been thinking something like this because he never once stopped fighting. Despite his previous sub-par performances, he never lost faith in himself. He never crumbled under the pressure. And sure enough, Fabiano Caruana missed his elementary win. Short on time, he played bishop to f2 instead, attacking Nakamura’s c pawn but at the same time taking his foot off the gas along the kingside. This allowed Black the time and space to mount sufficient defense to White’s attack. Black started with a check with the knight on e7, and then began threatening white’s pawns on the queenside with his rook.

40... Ne7+ 41. Ke4 Ra4 (Attacking 2 white pawns and pinning one of them to the white king.
40… Ne7+ 41. Ke4 Ra4 (Attacking both pawns and pinning one of them to the white king.
Despite White’s brutal onslaught on the king’s side (a rook, 2 pawns, and his king vs. Black’s undefended king), Nakamura was able to gobble up two pawns, exchange his knight for the bishop, and produce a passed pawn of his own along the d file. Most importantly, he was able to get his rook behind White’s king. From such a position, he could harass it at will.
50. Rd7 Rf3+
50. Rd7 Rf3+
From this point on, it was Nakamura’s game to lose. With constant pressure on the white king, if Caruana made the wrong move, Nakamura could actually win. He gave a check on the f file, and the white king moved out of the way along the g file. Note that Caruana had no other choice. Had he moved his king to the e file, it would have been trapped there. Black’s rook controls the f file, and moving the white king the d file would block his own rook and allow Black to eventually queen his pawn. And without king and rook for support, White’s pawn attack stalls. Meanwhile on the queenside, Nakamura’s 3-to-1 pawn advantage looks mighty menacing indeed. Not about to let the king out of his sites, Nakamura followed him to the g file and checked him there. Of course, White’s king had to return to his previous square on the f file. This happened again and again, and a draw was declared after the position repeated itself 3 times. They say that everyone loves a winner. But that’s not entirely true when it comes to chess. In chess everyone loves a fighter. Someone who never stops fighting for the win will always endear himself to the fans. Bobby Fischer once complained about many top players don’t try their best. They play for draws in order to protect their reputations rather than taking risks and playing for the win. “I play honestly and I play to win,” said Bobby. And people loved him for it. Some still do. In round 9 of the Sinquefield Cup, the greatest American player since Bobby Fischer never once stopped fighting for the win. And his near Phoenix-like resurrection from the brink was remarkable to behold. It really does serve as an inspiration for all of us. It ain’t over until the fat lady sings…over your grave. Until then, you fight for the win.

The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 6

Welcome to Part 6 of the Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from Number 4 to Number 1. Please check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 for more on America’s greatest weirdos. Also, if you think this is the final post, you’d be mistaken. After we finish the countdown, I’ll post the honorable mentions followed by a post of also-rans, i.e., people I considered and rejected for not being weird or great enough. After that, I will include a people-to-watch-for post to discuss potential future inductees who have yet to shed their mortal coil, if you know what I mean.

Finally, there will be a single post about two individuals whom I could not include on this list. Both were undoubtedly great. Both were loony-bin weird. But one straddled the centuries, and I decided that he belonged more in the 19th rather than the 20th. The other was simply too notorious for this list. He was originally on it, but I removed him after determining that he should not be considered “merely” weird. He was something far worse.

Anyway, announcements are boring. On with the show.

4. Bobby Fischer (1943-2008)

File photo of former chess champion Fischer

Genius. Prima donna. Champion. Folk hero. Recluse. Kook. Fugitive. Madman. The great chess player Bobby Fischer had been called all these things. But was he weird? Oh, yes.

Welcome to Part 6 of the Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. Here we count down from Number 4 to Number 1. Please check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 for more on America's greatest weirdos. Also, if you think this is the final post, you'd be mistaken. After we finish the countdown, I'll post the honorable mentions followed by a post of also-rans, i.e., people I considered and rejected for not being weird or great enough. After that, I will include a people-to-watch-for post to discuss potential future inductees who have yet to shed their mortal coil, if you know what I mean.

Finally, there will be a single post about two individuals whom I could not include on this list. Both were undoubtedly great. Both were loony-bin weird. But one straddled the centuries, and I decided that he belonged more in the 19th rather than the 20th. The other was simply too notorious for this list. He was originally on it, but I removed him after determining that he should not be considered “merely” weird. He was something far worse.

Anyway, announcements are boring. On with the show.

4. Bobby Fischer (1943-2008)

File photo of former chess champion Fischer

Genius. Prima donna. Champion. Folk hero. Recluse. Kook. Fugitive. Madman. The great chess player Bobby Fischer had been called all these things. But was he weird? Oh, yes.

Fischer began with tremendous promise. His “game of the century” in 1956 is truly a thing of beauty. He sacrificed his queen against an international master and won brilliantly as black. He was only 13 years old.

Fischer made such a splash when he was young that that's how many remember him.
Fischer made such a splash when he was young that that's how many today still remember him.

He won the US Championship 8 times out of 8 tries from 1958 to 1967. One year he did it without losing or drawing a single game. He was world's youngest grandmaster at 15 years and 6 months (a record not beaten until 1991). After some setbacks in the 1960s, he went on a tear against the world elite not seen before or since, winning 39 out of 65 games from 1970 to 1972, and losing only 5. His victory in the 1972 title match against Boris Spassky wasn't really all that close. At his height, he was considered the greatest chess player who ever lived. He also generated more interest in chess than anyone in history. For as long as people play the game of chess, they will remember Bobby Fischer. 

Bobby Fischer at his height in the early 1970s
Bobby Fischer at his height in the early 1970s

But Bobby had always been strange. Before he won the title, he would make outrageous demands of tournament organizers. He would voice conspiracy theories. He could be aloof, contemptuous, arrogant. Once, when advised to see a psychiatrist, young Bobby replied that a psychiatrist ought to pay him for the privilege of working on Bobby Fischer's brain. In 1964 he did not play a single game of serious chess.

After he won the title, however, things started to get weird. He stopped playing chess. He also intensified his relationship with the controversial (and some would say cultish) Worldwide Church of God. By the mid-70s he was espousing his well-known anti-Semitism and foisting The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on his shrinking cadre of friends and fans (despite being a Jew himself). While living as an impoverished recluse in Southern California he would repeatedly turn down multi-million dollar offers to return to chess.

The love for a teenage girl got him to do what money couldn't. Unfortunately, she didn't love him back. Even more unfortunately, the 1992 rematch with Spassky in Yugolaslavia made him wanted by the US government since he was breaking a UN embargo by playing there. But Bobby didn't care. He publicly spat on the order forbidding him to play. This act caught up with him 12 years later when he was finally arrested in Japan.

The shocking photo of Fischer when arrested in 2004
The shocking photo of Fischer when arrested in 2004

Fischer's horrendous anti-American, anti-Semitic tirades after the September 11th attacks sealed the deal for most of us. So did his friendly letter to Osama bin Laden. This left many people wondering why. Fischer was a lost in a nasty miasma of paranoid weirdness that only seemed to go away whenever the cameras did. When in the spotlight, he never stopped calling himself the World Chess Champion, he never stopped calling his successors Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov frauds, and he never stopped ranting about the Jews. Maybe that was his way of telling us he wanted to be left alone? Because when he was alone he was somewhat less weird. This is the Fischer his friends remember, the man who doted on his Japanese wife and Filipino step-daughter. This was also the man who in the 1990s developed Fischer Random, an ingenious chess variant still in competitive play today.

In 2008, Fischer died after refusing treatment for a kidney condition because the religion he no longer followed forbade it. He was a weirdo, all right. But it was those years when he was singlehandedly taking on the Soviet chess machine with all its resources and political advantages and underhanded tactics and beating it like a kid brother that made him truly great. He showed the world what a properly prepared and motivated individual can do against an entrenched bureaucracy. So it seems you can beat City Hall after all. You just have to be a genius and really really weird to do it.

 3. L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986)

 LRonHubbard

L. Ron Hubbard is most famous for being the founder of the Scientology religion as well as for developing Dianetics, a revolutionary form of therapy which, among other things, prevents mental illness, cures minor diseases, and raises one's IQ. Supposedly. Hubbard was also a successful pulp science fiction writer who wrote hundred of stories and knew genre greats such as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. It is said that in his prime Hubbard could crank out over 2,000 words an hour writing fiction.

And he did it all with a feather.
And he did it all with a feather.

Most scientologists see him as a great visionary and philosopher and remain intensely loyal to him to this day. Many non-scientologists see him a quack, a charlatan, and a fraud. Hubbard’s claim for greatness rests in his unshakable cult-charisma and his vast and intricate imagination which not only netted him a brand new religion but enabled him to sell millions of books worldwide.

Works by L. Ron Hubbard
Works by L. Ron Hubbard

But a weirdo he was. While in California before publishing his breakthrough book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, Hubbard had practiced sex magic rituals with fellow weirdo Jack Parsons, stole his girlfriend, swindled Parsons over a yacht deal, and was arrested once for petty theft.

In 1950 however Dianetics brought him instant fame, as he claimed he could cure people of almost anything. He coined terms such as 'engrams' and 'the clear' to describe how the mind works and outlined intricate ways in which a person can reach a zen-like state of clarity. He even invented a machine called the electrometer which supposedly measures the “mental mass and energy” of a person’s mind. Hubbard used it to prove that fruits feel pain, asserting once that tomatoes “scream when sliced.”

Produce abuse: the face of a notorious tomato torturer L. Ron Hubbard
Produce abuse: the face of a notorious tomato torturer

Hubbard quickly cashed in on all this attention by writing more books and selling licensure and therapy sessions. Dianetics then grew into Scientology with all its rules and terminology dealing with reincarnation, galactic confederacies, and immortal beings called thetans which inhabit our bodies and are slowly losing their supernatural powers. Hubbard’s behavior and that of his followers was so strange that many nations would either investigate his church, refuse to recognize it, or ban it altogether.

To operate outside the laws of various nations, Hubbard took to the seas, dubbing himself the “Commodore” of his “Sea Organization”. He ran a tight ship, and if any of his followers said or did the wrong thing, they could face draconian punishments such as being tied up and thrown overboard for a certain amount of time.

“…an open smile on a friendly shore…”

Paranoia set in by the 1960s as Hubbard squabbled with enemies and friends alike over his religion. It got ugly. It got litigious. At one point he even instructed his followers to infiltrate and burglarize government offices. He spent his final years in hiding along the West Coast of America.

Of course, Scientologists will reject almost all of the above. For example, Hubbard never joined that California magic cult. No, he infiltrated it as a spy for the Navy. And he didn’t steal Jack Parsons girlfriend, he rescued her (and later married her). For Scientologists, Hubbard was The One, a great man and a great leader. That he was both is undeniable. Depending on whom you talk to he either spiritually divined or cynically contrived a bona fide, out-of-this-world belief system. Today there are around 8 millions Scientologists worshipping in some 3,000 churches in 54 countries. You have to be great to produce numbers like that. You also have to be more than just a little bit weird.

I mean, who wouldn't follow this guy to the ends of the Earth?
With shades like that, who wouldn't follow this guy to the ends of the Earth?

2. Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956)

AlfredKinsey

Perhaps the one thing the enemies and allies of Alfred Kinsey can all agree on was that the man was pretty weird. Known as the “father of the sexual revolution” or the “Columbus of sex”, Kinsey’s studies on American sexuality were about as landmark as you can get. Since when do 800 page scientific reports shoot to the top of the bestseller lists? This is basically what happened when Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). And the world really hasn’t been the same since.

Kinsey’s purported approach was to simply report the facts of human sexual behavior in scientific fashion. He interviewed thousands of subjects and had a way of making them feel at ease so that they would, um, bare all.

Go on. Go on. I'm all ears.
Go on. Go on. Don’t be shy.

He had a canon of around 500 survey questions, some of which got curiously nitpicky about sexual deviancy. To his credit, Kinsey took confidentiality seriously and recorded all his answers in nigh-unbreakable code. His books contained statistics that shocked, inspired, and infuriated Americans. Did you know that 1 in 10 white American males are exclusively homosexual? If you did, it’s because Alfred Kinsey told us so. Alfred Kinsey told us a lot of things.

“Well, you take your thing, and you go from here…to here. See?”

Today sexuality is everywhere – magazines, movies, television, music, video games, internet. All this pretty much began when Alfred Kinsey got Americans talking about sex. By not taking a moral stand on it all, however, he changed what was considered moral (and normal) about it. When his books were published obscenity laws were still being enforced and sodomy was a punishable crime. Kinsey's work helped allow millions of otherwise law-abiding people to be open about their sexuality, to be more knowledgeable about their sexuality, and to not fear persecution.

But with all his attention on sex, you had to know something else was going on. Although he had a wife and family, Kinsey was by no means the wholesome dad he was making himself out to be. As a young eagle scout he'd share his collection of nudist magazines with scouts in his tent. As a professor of zoology between the world wars he'd take students on camping trips where they would engage in group masturbation sessions. Once an established sex scientist, he and his inner circle would swap wives and film pornographic movies in his attic. It was all part of his “research”, you see.

Nothing to see here. Just a bunch of good old American scientists practicing good old American science. Yes, sir!
Nothing to see here. Just a bunch of good old American scientists practicing good old American science. Yes, sir!

More troubling however are the accusations of scientific fraud. He detractors claim that he skewed his samples hard towards sexual deviancy in order to get his shocking results. Many subjects were prison inmates. He would even collect data through the mail – including testimony from pedophiles and rapists whom he neglected to report to the police. There is evidence that Kinsey even wrote back to these people encouraging them to send him more data. What many found just as reprehensible was that his reports catalog the sexual activity of not just adolescents, but small children as well. This includes infants as young as 5 months. Comparisons to Josef Mengele abound.

Really, Alfred. Really? Really?
Really, Alfred? Really?

For many, however, Kinsey is a hero. People around the world wrote to him and thanked him for helping them become more sexually fulfilled. Stigmas were no longer stigmas, thanks to Kinsey. Certainly magazines like Cosmopolitan and Playboy were inspired by him. So was the gay liberation movement. Women's lib, to an extent. The pill, definitely. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association . Sexual repression is a thing of the past in many parts of the world. For all this, we can thank Alfred Kinsey.

This is the charitable take on the man. The uncharitable states that he was a pervert who used fraudulent science and deceptive statistics to make the world safe for perversion. Those who knew him best knew that he was pathologically fond of self-abuse. And by self abuse, I mean quite frankly sexual self-torture. It is said that after he lost funding for his work in the 1950s, Kinsey was so distraught he tossed a rope over a ceiling pipe in his basement, tied one end around his scrotum, and grabbed hold of the other end. Then the world's foremost sex expert stepped on a chair, pulled the rope tight, and jumped off. He remained suspended in air for God knows how long. Hard to spin that as anything other than weird.

1. Howard Hughes (1905-1976)

HowardHughes

It seems almost unfair to include Howard Hughes in this list because his weirdness degenerated into madness at a time when madness was nigh-untreatable. Had he been born 50 years later his end probably would have been a lot less weird. In his prime, however, Hughes was a great man, the avatar of the unconquerable American spirit. The world didn’t stand a chance once Howard Hughes got rolling. He had a genius for technology and finance. He was charismatic and indefatigable. He was generous with his fortune. He had historic ambition. It is said he never wore watches because time didn’t matter to Howard Hughes. He could work through the day, through the night. Didn’t matter. Sleep is for the weak, don’t you know. But it was his incipient as well as the lasting effects of a few airplane crashes that eroded this giant of a man into the reclusive weirdo he became in late middle age.

Since he was such a recluse, few photos exist of Hughes in his old age.
Since he was such a recluse, few photos exist of Hughes as an old man.

Very few people can boast of the accomplishments of Howard Hughes. He constructed a radio transmitter when he was 11, a motorcycle when he was 12. He produced and directed Hollywood movies such as Hell's Angels and The Outlaw. He designed and piloted airplanes, engineered the world’s largest helicopter, broke numerous airborne speed records, and made billions in business.

The unstoppable Howard Hughes in his prime
The unstoppable Howard Hughes in his prime

The , which he founded in 1953, remains the largest institute of its kind in the world. Its endowment is currently over $15 billion, and the institute remains on the . Hughes was also an on-par golfer in his youth, an expert dancer, and inventor. He invented the adjustable bed, now universal in all hospitals. Not least in this humbling list of triumphs are his legendary exploits with some of the most beautiful women in the world.

It's people like Howard Hughes who make you realize how little you've accomplished.
It's people like Howard Hughes who make you realize how little you've accomplished.

But his weirdness was pretty much always there: his phobia of germs (he wouldn’t touch doorknobs without tissue paper), his erratic behavior and unpredictable mood swings (after one divorce he burned all of his ex-wife’s furniture), his strange bursts of insecurity (he once offered a teenaged Liz Taylor a million dollars if she’d marry him), his incessant television and movie watching (as early as the late 1940s, he spent four months in a darkened studio room screening movies and never once leaving). Surrounded by aides, he would write thick procedural manuals about how they should open cans of food and do other common chores. Of course, no one could ever touch him or speak to him. He would scotch tape the windows shut and keep the curtains drawn. He’d abstain from bathing and spend entire days naked before his television or movie screen. And this was all before the 1960s when he moved into the top floor of a Las Vegas hotel and officially became a recluse.

By the time of his death, none but a handful of people had even seen Howard Hughes for nearly 15 years.

1948 to 1976: What a difference weirdness makes.
1948 to 1976: What a difference weirdness makes.

His wife divorced him in 1971 after not seeing him for three years. As a result of his various airplane crashes, he had become addicted to codeine and lived in constant pain. He also consumed large amounts of valium. The man who once controlled so much essentially wasted away into a bearded corpse with famously long toenails and 7 broken hypodermic needles lodged in his arms. He passed away from kidney failure en route to a hospital. It’s fitting that the greatest American weirdo died the way he lived best, flying in an airplane.

Next up: Weirdos Part 7: The also-rans.

Bobby Fischer: Endgame

A couple months ago, I pretty much swallowed Endgame, the latest Bobby Fischer biography by Frank Brady. Brady’s first biography of Fischer, called Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, was written in 1965 and later revised in 1973 at the height of Bobby’s power as a chess player. It was a fairly positive portrayal of the chess champion and a pretty good read besides. When it was first published Fischer was the only possible American answer to Soviet chess dominance. Before him, the Soviets easily outdistanced the Americans, embarrassing them in match after match. But Bobby emphatically changed that. By the mid-1960s, there was much excitement surrounding the mercurial American genius who threatened to singlehandedly topple the mighty Soviet chess machine. This was better than any story, and back then the ending hadn’t even happened yet. So of course much of Fischer’s ugliness and cruelty was either omitted or minimized by Brady. Who would want to malign the hero of such a great story?

The subtitle to Brady’s second biography, “Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness” (published in 2011 – almost 3 years after Fischer’s death) promises to deliver the tragic ending to the story as it actually happened. Since the publication of Profile of a Prodigy, Bobby Fischer quit chess, went into seclusion, grew into a virulent anti-Semite, and more or less went mad.

Despite delivering on Fischer’s madness and the ugliness, however, Brady still seems to pull his punches. He still seems to withhold a certain amount of charity for the man who praised the 9-11 attacks and called for the destruction of America and Israel. And you know what? I do too.

A couple months ago, I pretty much swallowed Endgame, the latest Bobby Fischer biography by Frank Brady. Brady’s first biography of Fischer, called Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, was written in 1965 and later revised in 1973 at the height of Bobby’s power as a chess player. It was a fairly positive portrayal of the chess champion and a pretty good read besides. When it was first published Fischer was the only possible American answer to Soviet chess dominance. Before him, the Soviets easily outdistanced the Americans, embarrassing them in match after match. But Bobby emphatically changed that. By the mid-1960s, there was much excitement surrounding the mercurial American genius who threatened to singlehandedly topple the mighty Soviet chess machine. This was better than any story, and back then the ending hadn’t even happened yet. So of course much of Fischer’s ugliness and cruelty was either omitted or minimized by Brady. Who would want to malign the hero of such a great story?

The subtitle to Brady’s second biography, “Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness” (published in 2011 – almost 3 years after Fischer’s death) promises to deliver the tragic ending to the story as it actually happened. Since the publication of Profile of a Prodigy, Bobby Fischer quit chess, went into seclusion, grew into a virulent anti-Semite, and more or less went mad.

Despite delivering on Fischer’s madness and the ugliness, however, Brady still seems to pull his punches. He still seems to withhold a certain amount of charity for the man who praised the 9-11 attacks and called for the destruction of America and Israel. And you know what? I do too. The book at times reads like an apologia for Fischer written by someone who knew and loved him. Now that Fischer is dead I cannot imagine a Fischer biography being written any other way. Despite being such a loathsome person (at least in public), Fischer had inspired so many people and given so many so much to to cheer for that all is forgiven.

All is forgiven…Like Beethoven.

A nice example of how Brady seemingly inadvertently glosses over some of Fischer’s nastier moments is how he describes the ride home Fischer shared as a boy with other chess players after Fischer won the US Junior Championships in 1957.

The car kept breaking down, and everyone chipped in to have it repaired so that they could keep going. Riding through the hot desert with no air conditioning led to petty arguments, and a fist fight broke out between Bobby and Gilbert Ramirez (who’d taken second place in the United States Junior). Bobby bit Ramirez on the arm, leaving scars that remain fifty years later. (Ramirez proudly displays them, as if to say, “This is the arm that was bitten by Bobby Fischer.”) Eventually, the car broke down entirely and had to be abandoned.

See what Brady is doing here? It was the heat and the car that did it. Not Bobby. Under normal conditions, Bobby would never have bitten Ramirez. Notice also how Brady conveniently distances the reader from the action (“a fist fight broke out” – as if the fight caused itself). And anyway, it was Ramirez who came out smelling like a rose. I mean, who wouldn’t want a Bobby Fischer souvenir left on his body for the rest of his life? Granted, we don’t know if Bobby started the fight or not (and he reportedly did get a black eye courtesy of Ramirez). However a bite that long and powerful indicates something more than just belligerence or self-defense. If Bobby were my kid (he was 13 at the time) I would have spanked his backside raw, thrown away all of his chess sets, and grounded him for a month for such disgraceful behavior. Genius or no, you don’t act like that.

Only you do, and you can. If Brady’s biography tells us anything it’s that genius has its privileges. And if anything, Bobby took cruel advantage of that privilege almost his entire life.

One of Brady’s best passages describes how in 1960 Brady himself had asked Bobby how he would prepare for some top Soviet players in an upcoming tournament. They were at a pub in Greenwich Village seated in the same room as Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, and John Cage. Fischer got up and sat alongside Brady in his booth and delivered a tour de force of chess memory, insight, and strategy. He spoke at length about his opponents, their games, and dozens and dozens of other games dating from the 19th century to the present. All off the top of his head. Fischer forgot numerous times that Brady was even there as he expertly moved his pieces across his well-worn pocket set.

Brady was a chess player himself, but when Bobby had asked him if he had read a certain Soviet master’s book, Brady responded, “No. Isn’t it in Russian?” Fischer seemed annoyed and urged Brady to learn Russian just so he could read this book.

As Bobby then continued playing and replaying his opponents on his little set and describing every avenue of attack and defense in games both real and imaginary, Brady began to silently weep, because he knew he was in the presence of genius.

Bite me. Bobby, bite me in the arm. Please. And do it hard. Would you please do it hard, Bobby? And leave a mark. Don’t forget to leave a mark. I want something of you to stay with me for the rest of my life.

Of course, Brady does not omit any of Bobby’s post-retirement ugliness: His asinine rejections of million-dollar purses, his religious kookery, his obsessive anti-Semitism, his pig-headed slander of Karpov and Kasparov (the chess champions who followed him), his ingratitude towards his friends and hosts, his little-known philandering. Fischer was a jerk, plain and simple.

Brady relays a story about how Fischer visited the home of a friend during his seclusion in the late-70s. Fischer was moving around a lot at the time and was relying more than he should have on the charity of others. Shortly after arriving Fisher makes a long distance phone call and stays on the line for four hours. And when his host told him that he couldn’t afford such a call, Fischer was offended and stormed out, never to talk to him again.

So how to make such a person likeable? Well, Brady makes an admirable effort. He delves into Bobby’s religious doubts and various regrets. He mentions how Bobby might have been depressed at some point. He goes to great lengths to show that Bobby and his mother had a positive and loving relationship up until her death in the late 1990s. (Regina Fischer had often been described as overbearing and a negative influence on Bobby.) He faithfully describes Bobby’s haunts in places like California, Hungary, Japan, the Philippines, and Iceland, where he died in 2008. He tells of how Bobby doted on his Japanese wife Miyoko Watai. He gives us a harrowing account of Bobby’s arrest in Japan in 2004. He even describes the books Bobby was reading in Iceland leading up to his death, as if to prove that Bobby was more well-read than people gave him credit for.

This is all fine and good. If anything, Brady proves that Bobby Fischer could sometimes be a perfectly nice guy, as long as you weren’t Jewish and you left him alone. But there are two other things that make Brady’s job a lot easier. One is Bobby’s genius and nigh-invincibility on the chessboard. No more needs to be mentioned of that. And two is Bobby’s death.

Remember that scene in Disney’s Jungle Book in which Baloo the bear supposedly dies after helping vanquish Shere Kahn the tiger? Bagheera the panther delivers a touching eulogy to Baloo’s memory to the boy Mowgli, only to heap scorn back on Baloo once he realizes that the bear isn’t really dead after all.

Bobby’s death makes Brady’s job as a biographer that much easier. Fischer is no longer a threat to anyone and there can be no redemption, no heroic return. His story is finally over. There is only what was, and we take of it what we find useful. Fischer’s greatness is useful to many of us. It reminds us that we can stand alone…against the odds, against the societal bureaucracy that is mankind, against whatever it is that oppresses us or tells us that we cannot be what we want to be. Everything else can be forgotten or left to fade away like teeth marks on an arm.

So if Frank Brady tries a little too hard in his wonderful biography to make Bobby Fischer a sympathetic character, we should forgive him. Just like we do for Bobby.