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GUEST OP-ED - Bobby Fischer and me

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Though I never met him or saw him in person, my life will forever be entwined with Bobby Fischer’s. Like any kid in America who embraced chess in the sixties, my father’s interest in the game was largely stoked by the international renown that Fischer won through his successes over the board. Not only was he an astounding prodigy, who like Tiger Woods grew up to dominate the sport, by the summer of 1972 Fischer had been elevated to iconic status by our government and our media — a stirring symbol of America’s inevitable victory over the Soviets in the Cold War. A boy from Brooklyn had taken on the Russians at their own National Pastime and put them to shame, wrestling away the World Championship from the U.S.S.R. for the first time since 1937. Instantly following the World Championship, Fischer cemented his legend by disappearing like J.D. Salinger, never playing a single game to defend his crown. Soon after, the exponential growth in popularity chess enjoyed in America during Fischer’s meteoric career waned, and the game returned to relative obscurity. But many of those whose lives Fischer touched in that era never forgot their love of chess. When I was only two-and-a-half years-old, my father taught me how to play the game and I took to it, primarily, at that time, because the pieces tasted good. But, almost immediately, my affection and aptitude for the game grew and by the age of six I was already competing in tournaments. Fischer was always an essential part of my career. From the beginning, I studied his games in awe, marveling at his moves as if they were Michael Jordan’s. And then, of course, as every talented American scholastic player experienced, there was always someone who would inappropriately compare myself or my rivals to the Great One himself. In chess, there was no escaping Bobby Fischer. Though I never ascended anywhere near Fischer’s heights, the game was kind to me. By the time I retired in my teens, I had won multiple New York City and State scholastic titles, captured the National Junior High School chess championship, and even had the privilege of representing the United States in the 1990 World student championships — a tournament that was captured artfully on film by director Lynn Hamrick in her PBS documentary “Chess Kids.” But just as my career was winding down, I again crossed paths with Fischer’s specter. In 1993, Paramount Pictures released the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” and though the movie wasn’t so successful as to inspire the pandemonium that Fischer himself had once wrought, it did spark the most mainstream interest in the game since the movie’s namesake disappeared. Through no doing on my own, I found myself a side note to the excitement. The movie had been based on a non-fiction book by Fred Waitzkin, not about Fischer, but about his son, Josh, and his successes as a young player. I was a close friend of Josh’s and his teammate at The Dalton School in Manhattan and, as a result, I wound up a character in the book, and eventually as the character “Morgan” in the film, portrayed by the actor Hal Scardino. While I was by no means central to the movie, my character’s part in the picture’s denouement was enough to win me a degree of notoriety in the chess world, and even now from time to time I get asked about the film from its many fans. More often than not when the subject arises, the first question I am asked is, “So, you knew Bobby Fischer?” No, I did not. Nor did I even ever see him in person, when he finally surfaced 20 years later. Those who loved and admired the great grandmaster, who know how this second chapter in the Fischer saga — when he was found, so to speak — played out until his death, cannot help but feel embarrassment or contempt for the man. Personally, having heard countless tales of his lifetime of lunacy, I am inclined toward the former judgment. But it was never the man that inspired us, it was his genius. Reading through Fischer’s obituary on Friday morning, I suddenly realized something about myself. Of all the people in the world I’ve never met, I am hard-pressed to think of anyone who has had a greater impact upon my life than him. Morgan Pehme is a filmmaker and adjunct professor of journalism at St. John’s University. He blogs on all things Brooklyn at www.brooklynoptimist.com.

Updated 6:58 pm, October 10, 2011
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