Thursday, October 1, 2015

Game Six

Last week I saw the new Bobby Fischer movie, Pawn Sacrifice. For those unaware, the movie is about the life of chess grandmaster Fischer, with particular emphasis on the chess world championship of 1972 between Fischer and the then-champion Boris Spassky of Russia. It was quite good and, I think, quite accurate. Tobey Maguire was wonderful as Fischer, and Liev Schreiber was every but as good in the role of Spassky.

Prior to this event—which was held in Reykjavik, Iceland—Fischer was regarded as something of an eccentric chess genius, while simultaneously being the best hope to end Russian domination of international chess competitions (a string of Russians had held the title since 1948). Of course, chess was hardly the most critical thing in the world, especially in the middle of the Cold War. Nonetheless, the hope that Fischer might prevail captivated the American media and thus the American public to some extent.

The problem with Fischer was that he could be a little unhinged, to put it mildly. And he had played Spassky before on five occasions, never winning (losing three, drawing two). So, there was some amount of trepidation among Fischer's supporters.

Now, there's a lot of backstory that I'm not going into and the movie is well worth seeing for those interested in chess, the Cold War, or in just a good movie. The gist of all this is that Fischer beat Spassky in the best of 24 match format, winning seven games, drawing eleven, and losing three (one of which was a forfeit). Spassky had jumped out to an early lead by winning the first two games, the second of which was the forfeit. Given the ability of grandmasters at this level to play for draws, few believed Fischer could recover. But he did. And in the course of his comeback, he and Spassky played one of the most memorable games in the history of chess: Game Six.

I'm not going to bore anyone with an in-depth analysis of the game here, but suffice it to say that it was an astounding thing, mostly because Fischer completely eschewed his usual strategies and instead opened with a surprise move that eventually drove the game into a Queen's Gambit. This particular strategy is one in which white (Fischer) offers black (Spassky) a pawn in exchange for a superior early game position. Black either takes the pawn, leading to a Queen's Gambit Accepted, or refuses to take it, leading to a Queen's Gambit Declined. In Game Six, Spassky predictably declined the offer and played into his standard Tartakower Defense (which involves supporting his center pawn and clearing his king-side pieces).

Spassky concedes to Fischer, Game Six, 1972
What makes all of this so fascinating is that Fischer clearly believed QG openings were weak. He himself regularly defeated them or achieved a draw with ease, via variations on his preferred Nimzo-Indian Defense. Playing a QG against Spassky was surprising, to say the least. But play it he did, and flawlessly. Spassky eventually resigned and actually applauded Fischer when he did, such was the mastery that Fischer had over him in this game.

Now for those unaware, chess players practice playing by themselves. One of the ways they do this—indeed, the primary way—is by replaying previous games between grandmasters. In doing so, they learn knew approaches, new variations, and the like, even as they hone their basic skills. And Game Six has been replayed countless times since it was actually played for real. Many have pinpointed mistakes by Spassky, moves he should have made and ones he shouldn't have made. Nonetheless, the principle learning moment in this game is the susceptibility of the favored Russian defensive openings (usually some variation of Tartakower) to a QG. Fischer would open thrice more in the series with a QG and all three times Spassky changed his typical response (all three were draws, to Spassky's credit).

As I write this, there's another Game Six taking place. And it's not in the MLB, the NBA, or the NHL. It's happening in the arena of international politics. In the latest round of rhetoric and action on the Syrian crisis, Putin has offered his own version of a Queen's Gambit. Feigning a new strategy—mberlthat of assisting the U.S. in talking ISIS—Putin has instead ordered airstrikes against anti-Assad forces. The offered pawn in this gambit is, of course, Assad. The U.S. could respond by taking it, by shelving the ISIS attacks and matching Russia move for move via airstrikes against Assad's forces (coupled with the same "get the hell out of our way" that the Russians served up).

Obama concedes to Putin?
But Obama, we know, is not going to take the pawn. After scrambling for a response, the Administration has now decided to play a passive defense and try to influence the Russians via media spin. The problem here is that Putin is playing a very different game than is Obama. Obviously, Putin is now Fischer and Obama is Spassky. And Putin is demonstrating that he's not interested in draws, nor is he willing to be constrained by the conventional wisdom of so-called experts. Obama, in contrast, is using the exact same playbook he's used for seven years—the one he got from Neville Chamberlain—certain that it still has all the right answers.

The question is, when Putin finally forces Obama to concede, will the latter publicly applaud the former?

1 comment:

  1. Shades of Brinksmanship! Fischer vs. Spassky was a nice analogy, but those matches didn't run the risk of either Russian or American troops being killed in some unforeseen incident. The way this thing has gone down, I think it's more probable than not that it will happen. Then what?

    Don't say "Hillary."

    And for Dawg's sake, don't say "Trump."