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December 2016

1972: The Summer of Chess How Chess, Temporarily, Became My Life

Right during my all-consuming chess mania, competitive chess players were abuzz with the latest news of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. To understand his mastery, you need to understand two things: that the hardest thing to do in the chess world is to defeat a grandmaster, and that over 60 percent of top-level matches end in draws. Fischer marched forward with an unmitigated streak of 6-0 shutouts, a completely unheard-of level of success. Grandmaster after grandmaster followed, falling to Bobby Fischer. This unprecedented dominance made the chess world go crazy — coincidentally, right in the middle of my own chess frenzy. It was 45 years ago this July that Bobby Fischer made his way to the world championship in Iceland, against defending champion Boris Spassky — the first American to challenge the world title after decades of Soviet dominance. At the time, my cousin and I were at summer camp. Fischer’s success had garnered uncanny American attention, to the point that chess activities were included alongside the softball, volleyball, and swimming activities at the camp. A local PBS broadcast station assembled a panel to offer commentary on the Fischer-Spassky matchup, comprised of a few strong, local players and two younger chess enthusiasts: my cousin and me. There’s a reason the match is still referred to as “the match of the century.” This was a brilliant American from the mean streets of Brooklyn

coming up against a Soviet chess superstar at the height of the Cold War. Everyone expected fireworks. The world was transfixed by the showdown. On national TV during the very first game, I wondered aloud to the rest of the panel, “Why doesn’t Fischer just take that pawn?” The experts clearly demonstrated to me why Fischer should not take the “poisoned pawn.” But, against everyone’s expectations, Fischer took it — and it was the worst mistake of his career. Though he went on to win the match, I still boast that I predicted the worst move of the best chess player that ever lived. When I got back from summer camp, my dad surprised me with a gift of 20 lessons from grandmaster Samuel Reshevsky, an experience I’ll never forget. The chess craze died out after Fischer forfeited his crown in 1975, and I moved on to new obsessions. After all these years, I may be rusty at the game, but there is one thing I can say: Since that fateful morning, my cousin has never beaten me again. – Ron Drescher

Sometime around the time of my 1972 bar mitzvah, my 10-year-old cousin and I were thick as thieves. One morning, he challenged me to a few games of chess. I was dimly aware that he’d been taking chess lessons from a local master, but I did not foresee the slaughter that was about to ensue. He proceeded to repeatedly bait me into the classic newbie-slaying four-move checkmate. Worst of all, after every effortless victory, he’d reach across the board to shake my hand — a common gesture of sportsmanship in the chess community, but one that my untrained mind found deeply offensive. Obviously, this insult could not stand. In front of the mirror one morning, I made a solemn vow that my cousin would never again defeat me at chess. I became utterly obsessive, tearing through chess strategy books and playing against myself and others. As a result, I got decent at the game pretty quickly.

Obviously, this insult could not stand. In front of the mirror one morning, I made a solemn vow that my cousin would never again defeat me at chess.

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