Bobby Fischer vs. The Rebbe
The chess genius denied he was a Jew, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe disagreed. Who was right?
The king is the most valuable piece on the chessboard. Protecting the king and attacking the pieces, which threaten the king’s “dominion” is the objective of the game, and the goal of all the pieces at the king’s disposal.
The same thing is true with all of created reality. The king represents the King of the Universe. When G-d created the world, He had an end-goal in mind—that this G-d-denying reality be made into place where His dominion is known. Just as all of the pieces in the chess game exist in order to fulfill this deepest desire of the King of kings.
While the king represents the transcendent quality of G-d, the queen represents malchut d’Atzilut, G-d’s immanent quality. This quality of G-d generates the rest of the spiritual hierarchy, including all the angels and souls.
The officers—rooks, bishops, and knights—represent the angels. They inhabit the spiritual worlds and channel Divine energy to the worlds below and are imbued with great powers.
And on the lowest rung are the pawns, which represent the souls of Jews as they are embodied in physical bodies in this world.
Every level of this hierarchy has a unique position and method of moving, in accordance with its mission.
On the lowest rung, but on the front lines, are the pawns. Like the pawn that can only go forward one step at a time, we make the world into a place where G-d can feel at home by moving slowly, step-by-step. We do our work with simple actions that are often not very glamorous. Although we can achieve a lot, we must work within the limits of the natural universe.
However, when a pawn finally completes its step-by-step progression and reaches the other side, it can be swapped and promoted to a higher level. It is even possible for a pawn to attain the level of queen.
This is also true spiritually: It is possible for a simple human soul to be united with its source malchut d’Atzilut, to be charged with the level of G-dliness that is higher than all the angels and souls. We are the only ones in all of the realms of created reality that are capable of this kind of drastic transformation. …
And what does it mean to win a game of chess? What is the future that even G-d Himself will drop everything to save? It means to win the war of all wars: when the world will be a place of good and harmony, peace and tranquility; when no part of G-d will be in exile; and when the essence of G-d will no longer be “removed” from creation.”
Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum, director of Chabad activities in Prospect Heights and Fort Greene, says that when the Rebbe sent Reshevsky to see Fischer, he was testing his theory; if Fischer could recognize his Jewish soul, his culture, his people, and his identity, he could overcome his inner hatred and embody malchut d’Atzilut—become the queen. In a recent interview in Kirschenbaum’s home, he read me an excerpt from a talk the Rebbe gave, influenced by his father-in-law, the sixth Rebbe, about what it means to be a Lubavitcher Hasid, which he says, can apply to Jews and non-Jews alike: “A Hasid is like a street lamplighter. In olden days there was a person in each town who would light the streetlamps with the light he carried on the end of a long pole. There must be someone to light even those lamps so that they may meet their purpose and light the lamps of others.”
While the Rebbe was not interested in using Fischer as evidence of Jewish genius, the chess master’s apprehension that he was being used was not entirely wrong. Saving Bobby Fischer’s troubled soul—his Jewish soul—would be proof of the Rebbe’s theory of the spiritual potential inherent in every Jew. But was the Rebbe’s theory right?
The first place to look for evidence of Bobby Fischer the lamplighter is within the game of chess itself—in America. When Fischer won the 1972 chess championship, he had to overcome a formidable Russian chess regime, one that was and continues to be subsidized by their government. The United States did not have, nor does it have today, federal chess scholarships. Brooklyn Castle, a 2012 documentary, tells the riveting story of a group of New York City middle-school students at “below the poverty line” I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, who use chess as a springboard for life—teamwork, individual focus, building character through failure, appreciating success. The school boasts one of the best chess teams in the United States, winning more national championships than any other middle school in the country—a testament to the inroads Fischer blazed himself, becoming the only FIDE world chess champion the United States has ever produced, at a critical moment in the country’s Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union.
While many viewed Fischer as a greedy diva, he saw a dearth of money within a game that took everything within an individual to reach the top, so he fought tooth and nail for every penny. Today, as a result, tens of thousands of dollars can be won in international play on a regular basis. Susan Polgar’s program, SPICE, currently grants scholarships to chess-playing students from eight countries. And Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, the world’s current No. 1 chess player, has made numerous national television appearances, including on 60 Minutes and The Colbert Report (he beat the host at rock-paper-scissors).
“I think everybody recognizes his genius on the chessboard,” said Susan Polgar says of Fischer. “I know for a fact Kasparov does. The younger generations they don’t give as much respect to older generations as they should because they grew up so much already in the computer era.” Therefore, she says, they take for granted the tactics that are considered standard for a club player. Polgar says the older generations, which includes Fischer, “invented them.”
There’s no memorial to or signs of Bobby Fischer in the small foyer of 560 Lincoln Place in Crown Heights, his childhood home. The lobby is dusty and old, and the paint on the ceramic moldings is faded. Upstairs somewhere, one can imagine Bobby, a boisterous boy falling in love with the game he came into by chance because sister Joan bought a chess set on a whim in a nearby store. Fischer became so obsessed that his mother used to lay an unhinged door over the bathtub so that her son could play for hours on end, his brain enmeshed in understanding the infinite game that would abet his extraordinary rise and fall.
In the lobby, a boy, about 10, comes home.
“Did you know Bobby Fischer used to live here?” I ask him.
“No,” he says. “Who’s he?”
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