Fischer’s victory over Spassky -- played out against the highly-charged backdrop of the Cold War -- created a not-insignificant surge in the popularity of chess in America. Fischer biographer Frank Brady was interviewed for the segment, and he spoke about the profound effect the PBS coverage of the Fischer-Spassky match -- for which Brady was a correspondent – had on the nation.
“It really created a sensation,” says Brady. “People in New York City and throughout the nation were playing in restaurants, and playing on park benches, and playing all over the place. All of a sudden chess dominated the country like it normally would dominate in the Soviet Union. I mean, the U.S. Chess Federation had about 5,000 members before 1972, and around 1973 they had about 100,000 members. And people were playing in tournaments all over the country -- as they still are.”
This kind of talk made me think a bit about poker and, of course, Chris Moneymaker’s victory in the 2003 WSOP Main Event, a salient moment in the game’s history. Indeed, Brady went on to talk about how the “Fischer effect” (so to speak) continues to have its influence in America today. “We’re still feeling the strength and vitality of Fischer,” says Brady.
Of course it didn’t take that long -- maybe a couple years -- before people stopped buying the onyx chess sets and books about chess and the game again faded into the background of the general popular culture landscape. From the mid-70s onward, membership in the USCF declined rapidly (back down under 50,000), though today has built back up to around 80,000 members.
One factor causing the rapid decline in the popularity of chess was likely Fischer’s utter unsuitability to function as a spokesperson or “ambassador” for the game. In 1975 Fischer would end up forfeiting the world title to Anatoly Karpov after refusing to agree to terms for his title defense. There followed years of obscurity until he reemerged in 1992 to play –- and defeat –- Spassky once again in an exhibition match. That match took place in Yugoslavia, and the U.S. government claimed Fischer’s participation was in violation of U.N. sanctions against that country. Facing arrest should he return to the States, Fischer became a political exile.
He’d spend the rest of his life living in Hungary, the Philippines, and Iceland, occasionally surfacing via phone calls to radio talk shows via which he shared his increasingly bitter (and bizarre) views about Jews and the U.S. Though some dismissed Fischer as a madman, Brady disagrees, simply judging him to have been “a mean-spirited son of a bitch.”
People talk about the “poker boom” having ended or at least slowed down, but when you compare the recent history of poker to what happened to chess in the 1970s, it is clear that poker’s stunning growth in popularity following Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP victory is more than just a passing fad. And while there are a number of factors that have particularly helped poker (television and online poker being the most obvious), one has to give Moneymaker some credit for having been a much better ambassador for the game than Fischer was for chess. Had Moneymaker, too, been a “mean-spirited son of a bitch” and gone down some sort of self-destructive and/or hurtful path as did Fischer, poker surely would’ve suffered as a result.
There are other factors, too. The fact that poker isn’t as difficult to learn as is chess -- relative amateurs can jump in and even win at poker (not the case in chess) -- is probably the single biggest reason for poker’s endurance. Even so, poker players interested in the vitality of the game can’t honestly deny Moneymaker’s important contribution. Listening to Fischer’s story only confirms that to be true.
If you’re curious, here’s that “On the Media” segment on Fischer:
Labels: *the rumble