10 January 2013

Fischer Psychobiography

It's been two weeks since I first opened Ponterotto's 'Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer' (see The Broken Bridge) and I've had plenty of time to reflect on my comment that 'I can't remember reading a more depressing chess book'. Yes, suffering from a flu and fever certainly had something to do with that assessment, but there is more to it than that.

Perhaps most significantly, depressing chess books are few and far between. I'm looking at my chess library right now and I don't see another example. Chess, for those who are intimate with its subtleties and depths, is an uplifting subject. There is so much beauty in the game that, short of a study on chess and the criminal mind, it would be hard to write anything other than an uplifting book.

What puts Ponterotto's 'Psychobiography' in its own category is that it is not really a chess book. It is a psychological study of one of the greatest chess players, where the game of chess takes a back seat to the role of psychology. Going inside someone's head can't be a pretty experience in the easiest of personalities, and Fischer was far from an easy personality.

Five years after Fischer's death, we can observe his entire lifetime in a single wide-angle view and the image is also not easy. We know that the super intelligent, quirky kid was destined for greatness, but the odds of getting there seem insurmountable. His single parent mother had no money and few prospects as she shuttled around the country with her two young children. His absent fathers -- one legal, the other biological -- left no positive marks on the boy. FBI agents were always out-of-sight just around the corner as they compiled a 1000 page dossier on his mother. The chess powers-that-be were reluctant to interfere with a phenomenon that promised to be their bread and butter for years to come (see Not So Funny). Is it any wonder that the boy was tortured by demons for his entire life? Ponterotto, a professional psychologist, explains how and why.

'A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer' by Joseph G. Ponterotto; Charles C Thomas Publisher; May 2012; 189 pages; • 'The world knows the story of Fischer's ascent to the pinnacle of chess genius and brilliance, and it knows of his psychological decline into social isolation, paranoia, and likely mental illness. Now, for the first time, we come to understand the inner workings of Fischer's mind the genetic, personal, family, cultural, and political factors that collectively provide a penetrating window into the why of Bobby Fischer's genius and bizarre behavior.' (from the back cover) • Contains no chess games or chess positions.

Let's look at the logical flow of the book. After 30 pages of an academic style introduction, we get a short lesson on the nature of psychobiography.

Ch.1 - BRIEF NOTES ON PSYCHOBIOGRAPHY, PROFESSIONAL ETHICS, AND RESEARCH METHODS

This is followed by two chapters on Fischer's childhood, career, and position in chess history.

Ch.2 - DRAMATIC RISE AND MYSTERIOUS FALL OF BOBBY FISCHER, and Ch.3 - IN THE BEGINNING: THE EARLY LIFE OF BOBBY FISCHER

For veteran Fischer followers, like me, the most original material here is 'How did Bobby Fischer Get so Good?' This is followed by two chapters on the relationship between Fischer and his (three) parents.

Ch.4 - MOTHER LOVE: UNDERSTANDING REGINA FISCHER'S RELATIONSHIP WITH SON BOBBY, and Ch.5 - WHO IS MY FATHER? THE MYSTERY OF BOBBY FISCHER'S PATERNITY

Then we get to the heart of the book, Fischer's psychology.

Ch.6 - THE MIND AND INNER LIFE OF BOBBY FISCHER, and Ch.7 - A PSYCHOLOGICAL AUTOPSY OF BOBBY FISCHER

As I hinted in the article behind Objective About Fischer, I'm not competent to comment on the medical aspects of Fischer's condition. After numerous cautions on the limits of blind diagnosis, Ponterotto offers two known medical conditions to account for Fischer's behavior: Paranoid Personality Disorder (PPD) and Delusional Disorder. His discussion dismisses the numerous speculations, whether informed or uninformed, made by other Fischer observers to account for his peculiar behavior. It also lays the foundation for further discussions as new information is brought to light. For a first hand summary of Ponterotto's analysis, see A Psychological Autopsy of Bobby Fischer (psmag.com; December 2010).

After this unique analysis, the book takes a strange, perhaps even a wrong, turn. It is unclear to me why Morphy makes an appearance, other than to introduce the unpleasant topic of a connection between chess mastery and madness.

Ch.8 - THE PARALLEL LIVES AND MENTAL ILLNESSES OF PAUL MORPHY AND BOBBY FISCHER

Once again the diagnosis, this time for Morphy, is Delusional Disorder, once again after numerous cautions. This leads to what is now becoming a standard chapter in 21st century popular chess literature.

Ch.9 - ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GENIUS AND MADNESS - ARE CHESS MASTERS MORE VULNERABLE TO MENTAL ILLNESS?

Ponterotto cites both David Shenk's The Immortal Game: A History of Chess and Paul Hoffman's King's Gambit, two popular books published in the last ten years; the links are to my (archived) reviews of those books. After this digression, he returns to the nominal subject of his own book.

Ch.10 - IF ONLY? PSYCHOLOGICAL TREATMENT OF BOBBY FISCHER AND FAMILY

Missing in this final discussion is another favorite subject of amateur Fischer psychologists: Did chess make him crazy or did chess keep him sane? It's often pointed out that the Fischer's most bizarre behavior came later in his life, well after he stopped playing professionally. The 1992 match against Spassky served mainly as a checkpoint to confirm his decline.

Also missing is any mention of his two major accomplishments from the last two decades of his life: the Fischer clock and Fischer random chess (chess960). Both inventions have already changed the course of chess history and the idea for random chess might eventually turn out to have been his most important contribution to chess, eclipsing even his overthrow of the Soviet chess hegemony in 1972.

Fischermania will continue to be an important aspect of chess for a long, long time. So will Joseph Ponterotto's conclusions.

1 comment:

ChessClues said...

Very interesting topic.

I'm a huge Bobby Fischer chess fan but I think most of the books about him outside of chess really miss the essence of Fischer.

He was anything but a genius off the chessboard. From what I know through 1972 anyway, he could barely write, had little knowledge about the world, and couldn't really carry on a conversation unrelated to chess.

It seems his whole existence was related to winning at chess which I think far exceeded even his like of the game.

Probably considered disabled related to a "normal" person even in 1972 should it be surprising that given he devoted 100% of his life to reaching a goal and having made it with nothing to fall back, he basically wandered aimlessly without any future goals or aspirations for the rest of his life.

I would think that any not-too-bright individual with nothing to do for years and maybe even a little bitter about what he had accomplished would come up with plenty of crazy ideas, why would Fischer be any different.

Again, I think Fischer's one of the greatest chess players ever and his feel for the game is probably the best ever and I believe he was a decent enough guy. But as a well-rounded, intelligent human being, even through 1972, he probably doesn't rate very well and whatever craziness he showed should be viewed in that perspective.