Friday, January 18, 2008

Bobby Fischer, 1943-2008

Bobby Fischer died in Iceland at age 64, dead, as my wife Alice put it, of acute eccentricity. Fischer went from a paranoid, neurotic youth to a stone-crazy adult. He was proof of a sentence I wrote in the Herald years ago. The sport chess most closely resembles is boxing, the only difference being that in chess you get the brain damage from the inside out.

Fischer is one of a long and distinguished line of chess immortals who were hopelessly, often dangerously nuts. He was the picture of well-balanced moderation compared to 19th century American champ Paul Morphy, for example. That, however, is not the part of Fischer's life I wish to commemorate. He and his rival Boris Spassky deserve a place in American sports history for their 1972 world championship match. It marked what should go down as the Golden Age of Trashsports.

Despite a Winter and Summer Olympic Games (Munich massacre, not a sports related event, aside), the World Series, Super Bowl, etc., the most ballyhooed and discussed event in U.S. sports that year was a chess match! In Reykjavik! And the U.S. tiger was a complete ass! People actually watched a chess board recreation of each move on television, on PBS, natch. Well do I recall the fey color commentator who exclaimed. "That move is either a brilliant one or a tremendous blunder! I have no idea which!"

I submit that's one hell of a lot stranger than any UFC broadcast will ever be. And in the years to come, big-time sports got even more divorced from old-time reality such as, well, sports.

In 1973, the most ballyhooed and discussed sports event of the year, which got killer ratings, was the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. King entered the Astrodome (what, you were thinking Wimbledon?) lazing in a sedan chair carried by six muscular chorus boys in Egyptian slave outfits! The entire board of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association suffered a simultaneous death by WASP embarrassment.

Then, in 1974, came the ultimate non-sports sports event. That's when the most ballyhooed and discussed event of the year was Evel Knievel's (himself dead last month) Snake River Canyon jump, or non-jump. Hype was so intense that Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon the day of the event in the hopes the nation, its eyes focused on Knievel, wouldn't notice.

After that, trash sports died down, at least until Tonya Harding entered the picture. But Fischer's triumph remains in the books, and so does the triumph of the marketing system, far more insane than he ever was, which led the world to Iceland in 1972.

This country turned a paranoid, anti-Semitic, self-hating recluse into a national idol, because he was good at a game 0.0007 percent of its citizens can play, or even understand. You have to respect that. That, or emigrate.


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