Category: History

The Curious Case of Claude Bloodgood

Greetings, Campers!

Halloween is right around the corner so I thought it would be a good time to dig into some of the darker and more mysterious mythology that haunts our game. Perhaps no other story has confused or amused chess players and fans more than the story of the notorious Claude Bloodgood.

Robbery, Murder, and Life Behind Bars

claudebloodgoodClaude Frizzel Bloodgood, whose name alone conjures images of the great villains from classic horror films, was convicted of burglary in the 1960s and served his prison time in Delaware. Shortly after being released, he murdered his mother, Margaret Bloodgood, in 1969 and was subsequently sentenced to death in 1970.

Not content to sit behind bars and wait on his execution, Claude stayed active playing chess and appealing his sentence along with several attempts to get released from custody altogether.

  • Unsuccessfully filed two petitions for habeas corpus alleging that his death sentence was prejudiced by the fact that he was a repeat offender.
  • Unsuccessfully argued that he was not provided a defense attorney during his trial as required by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright.
  • Unsuccessfully argued to state and prison officials that he had been born in 1924 in an apparent attempt to be released due to his age.

As if things were not strange enough, Claude also claimed to have been a Nazi spy. Curious since he would have been around the age of 10 years old at the time of World War II if his claims of being born in 1924 were true (they were not).

Prison Chess and Ratings Manipulation

I think that few people would argue against the idea that Claude was a good chess player, but his claimed rating and the mythology surrounding his chess career are remain a topic of considerable debate and scorn. He organized countless prison tournaments during his life, most of which were filled with new US Chess Federation members that were dominated by the seasoned Bloodgood.

This has led to accusations of ratings manipulation due to Bloodgood’s control and influence over the closed group of participants in his prison tournaments. In a sense, it is the same as walking down the street and getting every person I met to sign up for a US Chess membership just so I could beat the ones with little to no chess knowledge. Although they would have no rating or a low provisional rating, I would still see an increase in my own rating. Curiously, fragments of his games are scattered across the web with offering the only collection that appears to have some coherence to it.

In addition to spending much of his jail time reading about and playing chess, Bloodgood also took the time to write chess books and work on his own opening, most notably his book on The Tactical GrobMore of a curiosity than a solid opening, The Grob has been the subject of much debate throughout the years and is available in several formats including free downloads across the internet (including Campfire Chess) and a print version available on

Claude Bloodgood is one of those characters that adds to the colorful mythology that often surrounds chess and its players. Eccentricity has been a hallmark of chess personalities for centuries from enigmatic kings playing chess during the destruction of their fortresses to Paul Morphy’s final days and descent into madness and on to the famous disappearance and return of Bobby Fischer following his famous 1972 match. Claude Bloodgood might be one of the biggest con artists in chess history after Wolfgang von Kempelen and his famous Turk chess automaton. Or, it might be that he really was a good chess player and not as much of a con artist as many believe he was. We may never know.

20 Years Later, Garry Kasparov Loves the Machine

Just over 20 years ago last month, former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov played a dramatic six-game match against an IBM supercomputer called Deep Blue, the second of two matches the grandmaster played against the technological behemoth. Up until that point, computers were very strong in their chess abilities but had yet to beat some of the game’s greatest players. Kasparov was determined to prove that machines lacked the beauty of truly deep chess thinking and simply could not beat him. Kasparov’s subsequent crushing defeat was merely a harbinger of things to come. The rise of the machines (chess and others) would come much swifter than almost anyone could have predicted.


(Credit: FOX)

Recently, Kasparov gave an incredible TED talk about the rise of intelligent machines and the need for humanity to embrace, not fear them. Obviously, he took the time to assure the audience that his defeat by Deep Blue overshadows the fact that he won the first match. Kasparov’s talk is deeply inspiring for those who can appreciate the beauty of chess and technology; its definitely worth watching if you are a fan of TED talks in general, technology, chess, or just curious how one of the world’s greatest minds sees the future under the influence of intelligent machines.

As technology leaps forward, the world’s greatest game has regularly been there to help it shine. If you need proof, then check out the recent fiasco with the iOS app in which the 32-bit version stopped working because the site’s 2.1 billion games exceeded the necessary math. Chess has always been a key component of technological evolution (and revolution) and Kasparov obviously sees that there is no reason to fear the rise of the machines.

Comprehensive coverage and review of the TED talk is available on Chessbase.

Ad Victoriam Ad Valorem

Editor’s Note: I am pleased to welcome my good friend Howard Darkes as a guest author today on Campfire Chess. Howard is a longtime philosophy and literary mentor of mine. I hope that you enjoy his heartfelt reflection of Memorial Day. -Wesley Surber

Hello, Campers! My name is Howard Darkes and I first want to thank my longtime friend Wesley for granting me control of the blog today to share reflections on the past and to address some troubling concerns for the future. Today is Memorial Day in the United States of America and I believe that this is something that needs to be said because there is much mourning going on across the globe today. As the professional chess world is knee-deep in the Shamkir Chess Gashimov Memorial tournament that commemorates one of the greatest players of our generation, my country takes time during the season to reflect and recognize the countless men and women who have sacrificed their lives to defend the sovereignty of our nation and to continue our way of life.  It is on this day that we recognize, remember, and honor the people whose lives were sacrificed in pursuit of this selfless service or whose lives have since expired upon returning from home to enjoy the freedoms they so valiantly fought for.

Originally from Germany, my family has a long history of military service with the most recent generation being among those to continue that tradition. In memoriam, my paternal Grandfather served in the United States Army during World War II against the Axis Powers. It is today that our nation honors men like him, who has long departed this earth but his children, grandchildren, and now countless great grandchildren continue to enjoy freedoms that generations prior could only have dreamed of.

Unfortunately, the memory of those sacrifices and the freedoms that came with them are being tainted by the very men and women who have sworn an oath to uphold and defend the laws of our nation and to promote the very way of life that sets us apart from the rest of the world. These days, it is popular to hate America. In fact, it is almost as though hating America is much more socially acceptable than to acknowledge America’s contributions to the rest of the world throughout history. That is why, when sitting US President Barrack Obama gave his speech at the Hiroshima Memorial on May 27, my blood boiled for a while but my patriotism and depth of knowledge about the sacrifices of military service and dedication to duty that comes with such service helped me to overcome those feelings.

There were many moments in the Hiroshima Speech that betrayed the memory of fallen service US service members, but I want to take this Memorial Day to highlight a few of them.

The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had given the world great cities and magnificent art. Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth. And yet the war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes, an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints.

In his speech, Barrack Obama paints a picture of World War II as some kind of playground dispute among the rich kids. It was the wealth, power, and quest for domination that drove the United States to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not the carefully calculated decision to avoid millions of casualties assured by a US invasion of the Japanese mainland. Furthermore, he asserts that the players in the war had advanced ideas of justice, harmony, and truth. Yet, the philosophies of Nazi Germany resulted in the execution of countless Jews, Soviets, homosexuals, and other minority groups that President Obama has championed throughout his reign. Although it is often lost in the sensational history reports of Nazi atrocities in Europe, the Japanese Empire was no better. Japan’s notorious Unit 731 killed 3,000 people while conducting horrific medical experiments and approximately 300,000 people died as a result of biological weapons developed at the facility.


Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

This is the crux of his speech because, in his opinion, American morality has evolved past the need for nuclear weapons and for war. His statements imply that if the United States, Nazi Germany, and Japan were engaged in a worldwide conflict that the American Government (and the American people) would never support the use of nuclear weapons against another nation. His words imply that Japan was attacked by the US out of fear because its people were different. Yet, it was the Japanese Empire that forced the US into a conflict with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Before that moment, the US had not been engaged in a war with the island nation. However, the attack prompted a response by America that raged across the Pacific Ocean and its myriad of tiny islands until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the fighting and forged an alliance of peace between the two countries that brought about a technological revolution!

While the devastation levied on the two cities is tragic in-itself, it cannot be said enough how those sacrifices most likely saved the lives of countless others whose lives would have been snuffed out when the US launched an invasion of Japan. The pending invasion, known as Operation Downfall, projected that 500,000 US service members would have lost their lives and the fanatical warrior culture of the Japanese Empire would have required hand-to-hand combat in almost every home on the island. Some estimates of the initial invasion suggested that around 100,000 soldiers would be killed in combat on the island per month, so at one point, 500,000 Purple Hearts were commissioned by the War Department to prepare for the losses. Yet, intelligence on the nature of the Japanese enemy caused the US Government to make its calculated decision to deliver the nukes in an attempt to stave off the need for such an invasion. Japan surrendered six days later, after around 130,000 people were killed in the blast.

Why We Come Here

President Obama ended his speech with this:

Those who died, they are like us. Ordinary people understand this, I think. They do not want more war. They would rather that the wonders of science be focused on improving life and not eliminating it. When the choices made by nations, when the choices made by leaders, reflect this simple wisdom, then the lesson of Hiroshima is done.

Taken out of the context of the rest of the speech, it is an accurate assessment of life and death. Ancient warfare philosophies have always taught that fighting should be done only as a last resort. When Hitler’s Germany and the Japanese Empire began systematically invading other countries and slaughtering innocents, the United States and its allies fulfilled their moral duty to intervene and to save those less fortunate. President Obama can speak all he wants to about the need for moral revolution, but a revolution is not the same as evolution. A moral revolution does need to occur in our society, but it needs to look to the heroes of World War II for the way ahead. The young men and women who laid down their lives for their brothers, sisters, and even for those who they did not know are the reason that I am able to sit here today and be critical of the man who stands up and claims to speak for the free world.


The reality is that Barrack Obama speaks for no one but himself. Even a half-hearted apology for the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a betrayal of the worst kind to the memory of the soldiers who gave their lives fighting to defend their homes and families. If anything, the bombs prove the American resolve to preserve life and to defend the lives of others. If that were not the case, then Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been just the first wave in a series of greater bombings and conquests that would not have ended with Germany and Japan’s surrender.

The Man Who Speaks for No One

Instead, I prefer to join the millions of people in the United States and around the world who disagree with President Obama’s self-loathing and anti-American sentiment. Those people in Europe whose families were rescued by the Allied powers continued to appreciate and respect those sacrifices. And I appreciate the sacrifices of every man and woman around the world who has decided to give his or her life for something greater than their own personal desires; to defend their homes, families, and the freedoms that they hold so dear. Today, we honor them all by reminding the world that the fallen Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen gave their lives not to defend the personal philosophies of the United States Government or the opinions of its leaders. These people pledged to defend the foundations that make us different, which are rooted in the United States Constitution, by sworn oath ad victoriam ad valerum.

February 29th? What is THIS Madness?

Life has been so busy lately that it was almost lost to me that 2016 is a leap year! For many people that only means another day to wait for their paycheck or one more day of putting their nose to the grind at the work to finish a big project. For me, it enabled me to squeeze out one more day at the gym before my physical fitness test. My job requires that I maintain a high level of physical fitness which is tested regularly throughout the year. To make this one special, I decided that I would take it on leap day. And, since this is a chess blog and chess players (typically) enjoy odd facts and history, I thought it would be nice to look into the origins of February 29th. Plus, it gave me a reason to post today…

An Imperfect Path Around the Sun

There have been many calendars throughout history including the Lunar, Julian, and the Gregorian Calendars. Most of us learn very early in school that the Earth orbits the Sun in a semi-perfect circle. Typically we celebrate a new year around the world every 365 days, but scientists observed that during the use of the old Lunar Calendar that seasons would shift drastically over time. This indicated that the calendar’s basic system for tracking the length of time it took for the Earth to orbit the Sun was inaccurate. Can you imagine having a snowstorm in Texas in July? If we still used the Julian Calendar, it is highly likely.

It takes the Earth on average, approximately 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds long (365.242189 days) to complete one full orbit around the Sun.1 To compensate for this seasonal shift, it was determined that an extra day was needed every so often to balance out the inaccuracy of the calendar. Julius Caesar’s Julian Calendar introduced the concept of the leap year, but its calculations were still not enough to compensate for the full effect of the uneven orbit. This was because the only rule used to calculate the need for a leap year was that the year had to be evenly divisible by four.

Here are some interesting facts about the error rates in our common, Western calendars:

  • 365-day Calendar (with no leap years calculated).
    • Length: 365 Days
    • Error Value: 6 hours/year (1 day in 4 years).
  • Julian Calendar
    • Length: 365.25 Days
    • Error Value: 11 min/year (1 day in 128 years).
  • Gregorian Calendar
    • Length: 365.2425 Days
    • Error Value: 27 sec/year (1 day in 3236 years).
  • Mayan Calendar <– not saying it was aliens, but…
    • Length: 365.242036 Days
    • Error Value: 13 sec/year (1 day in 6500 years).


Did the Mayans know something we don’t? As some ancient astronaut theorists believe…
(hope you read that in the guy’s voice)

The Vatican Steps In

Pope Gregory XIII realized the problems with the Julian Calendar and comissioned a new calendar to be created that would fix the leap year issues. The result was a calendar adopted in 1582 in Italy, Poland, Portugal, and Spain known as the Gregorian Calendar. It is the most widely used calendar in the world today. Here are some specifics:

  • The Gregorian Calendar is a 365-day, solar calendar divided into 12 months of irregular lengths.
  • 11 of the months have 30 or 31 days, while February has only 28 days during a common year.
  • Nearly every four years is a leap year where one extra day is added to February (which is today), making the calendar 366 days long.
  • The formula for calculating leap days is much more complex than the old Julian Calendar, which makes the Gregorian Calendar far more accurate.
    1. The year is evenly divisble by 4.
    2. If the year can be evenly divided by 100, it is NOT a leap year, unless (see third rule)
    3. The year is also evenly divisible by 400.


An Early Example of the Gregorian Calendar (Credit: ScienceSource)

So, campers! Enjoy this extra day because it only comes around so often! Kiss your girl (or guy), phone a friend, play some chess, and enjoy it because you can bet that summer will be arriving at the same time it did last year thanks to the hard work of the people who watched the skies throughout history and helped us create one of the most essential tools in existence: our calendar.


  1. “Julian Calendar,” Time and, accessed February 28, 2016,

Chess History from the Motherland

There is something special about Russia and its chess history. Whether they were really as vile and deceptive in their efforts to maintain the World Championship title throughout the Cold War there is no arguing that some of the greatest chess minds in history have come from our on/off-again friends in the east. Recently I was browsing and came across an opportunity to buy two editions of a Russian chess magazine called The Chess Herald. One of them is a standard tournament coverage fare and the other is a dedicated issue to the rematch between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1992. I was pleased to see that they are in great condition and even contain some games and beautiful photos of chess powerhouse Judit Polgar! There is so much chess in these two books and I might translate/annotate games here if I can, but I wanted to share some photos first:

I am curious though about the cover art for the Bobby Fischer issue because the character inside the wreath has his mouth open and an expression on his face that seems to indicate madness. Its apparent to me that the illustrator was trying to convey the sense of insanity that had engulfed Fischer for so long at this point.

Pawn Sacrifice – A Movie Review

The Bobby Fischer biopic Pawn Sacrifice debuted this week in theaters across the United States. The film stars Tobey Maguire as the venerable chess prodigy Bobby Fischer and Liev Schreiber as the pillar of Soviet Cold War chess dominance Boris Spassky. A couple of years ago when I heard that Zwick, Maguire, and Schreiber were working on a film based on Bobby and the 1972 World Chess Championship I was very excited to see chess returning to the silver screen. Although I had high hopes for the film I was skeptical that it could usurp my favorite chess movie of all time: Searching for Bobby Fischer. The story of Pawn Sacrifice‘s production is almost as dramatic as the story it tells. For the entire production and a long time after its conclusion there were only two promotional photos made available online to promote the film. When it was completed, there was a time when the film rode into festivals without a major distributor. However, Bleecker Street Media picked up the film and distributed it to audiences around the United States starting on September 24th of this year following a special presentation in Saint Louis after the conclusion of the Sinquefield Cup.

The Story

Robert James Fischer was one of the most electrifying personalities in 20th century chess. He taught himself to play chess when his mother left him alone for hours on end in their Brooklyn apartment overlooking Ebbets Field. At age 15 he became the youngest grandmaster in the history of the game and the youngest candidate to ever emerge for the World Chess Championship. The young boy from Brooklyn quickly took the chess world by storm and soon started winning the hearts of people outside the chess world for the way that he not only destroyed his opponents on the board, but also for the psychological damages he often caused. Bobby Fischer played chess at a time when the Soviet Union poured a significant amount of its national budget and effort into producing some of the world’s top grandmasters. Chess was seen as proof of Soviet intellectual superiority over the United States and its allies and the results of countless Chess Olympiads and World Championships seemed to validate that claim. However, Bobby’s emergence brought to light what had been known in secret for many years: the Soviet Union had been intentionally drawing games to stack the deck against players from other countries. The result was that key Soviet grandmasters were virtually assured a shot at the FIDE World Championship title, which was often played against another Soviet grandmaster. The player who had the most favor with the state at the time was allowed to win the title and hold it as long as it was beneficial for the sake of the Soviet system.

Bobby’s distate for the Soviet chess machine was put on prominent display in his now famous Sports Illustrated article in 1962, The Russians Have Fixed World Chess. If he was not a target of the red chess machine and the KGB, this article propelled him into the international spotlight and aired the dirty secrets of Soviet chess for the entire world. The rest of the story is pretty well known. Bobby went on to defeat some of the most powerful grandmasters of the day and win a chance to challenge Russian World Champion Boris Spassky in the 1972 championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. Yet, throughout the tournament and in the years leading up to it Bobby was plagued by a growing sense of paranoia and mania. He was obsessed with the Russians and convinced that they were tracking his every move. While its true that the KGB was keeping close tabs on Bobby, the fear and paranoia he was experiencing grew out of control and damaged practically every relationship he had. When the match was over Bobby emerged victorious over Spassky and the Soviet chess machine. After that he disappeared and was largely unheard from until his 1992 rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia.

Pawn Sacrifice covers much of Bobby’s life from his adolescence through some of his prominent chess appearances up to the 1972 World Championship match. For much of the film the chess takes a backstage to Bobby’s growing paranoia and personal struggles. When it begins, the World Championship match in Reykjavik is a powerful backdrop for what is often seen as Bobby’s final battle to maintain his own sanity. Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of Bobby as the self-confident Da Vinci of modern chess is a perfect recreation of the man that many watched throughout the years on television and in tournaments around the world. In contrast Liev Schreiber is a silent, towering man who more closely resembles a football star than a chess champion. There is a heavy sense of Bobby’s personal desire to beat Spassky than of Spassky’s desire to beat Bobby. At least, until Bobby fails to show for the 2nd game of the match and risks losing the championship to Spassky by forfeit. Spassky agrees to play Bobby in the back room away from the audience because winning the match by forfeit would rob him of a true victory against Bobby. The film’s climax comes in game 6, which is widely known as the best game of the match and one of the greatest chess games ever played.

The Good

There is a lot to love about Pawn Sacrifice for chess and non-chess fans alike. For the non-chess fan, the acting in the film is superb and the way in which it portrays Bobby’s descent into paranoia is well done. Some have complained that Bobby spent much of his time in the film yelling at people around him and this is certainly not what is portrayed in much of the archival footage of him. However, this is consistent with the testimonies of his friends and family. Bobby Fischer drove away pretty much everyone that ever stepped forward to care for him. The paranoia, which was grounded in truth, simply became too much for him to handle. Even the greatest chess player in history had a breaking point.

Although the chess itself takes a backseat to the story of Bobby and his struggles again himself and the Soviet chess machine, I was deeply impressed by the quality of the chess presentation. The producers painstakingly recreated the 1972 World Chess Championship with precision right down to the design of the Reykjavik chess set used in the match. In addition, the film does a great job of creating an authentic look and feel of the late 1960s and early 1970s without overdoing it with excessive hippies and peace symbols.

The Bad

Just as there is a lot to love, there is a lot to dismiss, loathe, or simply forgive and forget about the film. Obviously I have already discussed the use of incorrect notation in an earlier post. In addition to this, there was the general choppiness in the first half of the film as the producers struggled to fit so much of the story into such a little block of time. Given the depth of material I think that the producers did a decent job providing the audience with enough information to follow the nuances of the story without becoming overwhelmed by minutia. However, there were some elements that were unusual and seemed out of place given the pace and direction of the film narrative. The biggest example I can think of is Bobby’s brief obsession with the Worldwide Church of God in which he listened to countless recorded sermons prophesying the end of the world. Bobby became disillusioned with the church and it was a major portion of his life, but the focus of Pawn Sacrifice made Bobby’s brief time spent listening to the sermons seem out of place. There was never a noticeable change in his behavior, whether verbal or nonverbal, that would have enabled the hint of his religiosity to benefit the story.

I also could not help but notice that Michael Stuhlbarg who played Bobby’s friend Paul Marshall in the film was wearing a standard issue US Air Force blue overcoat during much of the movie.

Finally, I could not help but laugh when my wife poked me in the side at the end of the film as Bobby rode away in his car from the tournament at Reykjavik. When he has cleared the crowd of people he reaches into his pocket and unzips a pocket chess set. And, this is not just any chess set…its a Chessmate Wallet! My wife recognized it because its from the same company that makes the Chessmate Ultima that I reviewed back when I first started this site.

The Final Verdict

Pawn Sacrifice is a solid psychological drama and a great historical pic about one of the greatest moments in chess history. Despite its few flaws and creative liberties taken by its creators, it stands on its own as a powerful representation of the tormented world of Robert James Fischer who, despite having his ELO eclipsed by other chess players, remains the greatest and most influential chess player in history.

What the Pawn Sacrifice Poster Says About Chess Players

I am one of those guys who spends most of his life wishing that he could go to film festivals to catch the latest and greatest independent films from across the globe. Instead of actually going to these festivals, however, I am most likely doomed to tracking the films that interest me as they spend years in distribution limbo awaiting a mainstream theatrical release. This has especially been the case with the movie Pawn Sacrifice, the upcoming biopic about the 1972 World Chess Championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. I remember hearing about it for the first time and was filled with excitement! That was over a year and a half ago, with Pawn Sacrifice just now preparing for its theatrical debut. In any case, I digress.

For most of the time that the public has been aware of the existence of the movie, the only real promotional material available for it was a publicity photo showing Tobey McGuire and Liev Schreiber in their respective roles as Fischer and Spassky. Of course, the initial reviews of the movie from the premier festival have not been great although these days it is impossible to trust most movie reviews, especially the ones coming from independent film festivals. Yet, I still held on to my hope until the official poster for the film was finally revealed.

The Mind of Robert J. Fischer

At first, it struck me as a fairly standard piece of modern poster art. Earth tones are all the rage in Hollywood’s digital arts factories. I guess that it is because faded browns and grays increase the audience’s sense of the character’s pain and struggles. I also like the subtle complexities of the picture. There is much for the audience to discern from the look on Bobby Fischer’s face and the chess notations coming out of his head. For the people who knew, played with, and experienced the real Bobby Fischer, the notations coming out of his mind represent the whole of who he was as a human being and as a chess player. Bobby lived his life only to play chess. When he played, he was the best that the world had ever seen, but the darkness of his dichotomous existential paradigm eventually took him from the game, and eventually…sanity itself.

Just a hint of emotional struggle…
An Algebraic Quandary

I did not give the poster much thought until I started seeing the reactions from other chess players on and on various Facebook chess groups. Where most people might decry a lack of creativity in Hollywood these days or the overemphasis on brown colors, but instead, chess players know exactly what is most important in life, and that is the accuracy of the chess!

You see, the chess notation coming out of Bobby’s head in the poster is historically inaccurate. Although Bobby might have annotated some of his games in algebraic notation (shown in the poster), it is a well known fact that he exclusively used descriptive notation when playing in tournaments. This might not seem like mich of a big deal to the casual observer, but to a chess community flustered and running out of patience with Hollywood’s inability to even set a board up correctly, it means everything in the world. I realized that I saw the commenta as petty and obnoxious mainly because I am a huge Bobby Fischer fan and I have been looking forward to the film for quite some time. However, after some introspection and examination of the poster, the trailer, and the comments from others within the chess community, I came to the conclusion that:

  • 1) It is historically inaccurate.
  • 2) It does not matter to 99% of the audience that will see the film.
  • 3) It does not change the film at all.
  • 4) It does matter to the remaining 1%, who are those of us that go to bed at night and solve tactical positions in our sleep.

I regret my initial impressions of the response to the poster in some sense. Yes, perhaps the complaints (if taken seriously) are a bit on the obnoxious side, but those comments represent the passion of a community that has dedicated itself to the game. For us, chess is not just a game…it is our game. At this point, I am willing to attribute the algebraic notation to simple human oversight since watching the trailer reveals that a key shot of the chessboard that actually reflects a position from the original tournament. Perhaps these small details will make up for the algebraic notation in the minds of most chess players, or perhaps it does not really matter at all. Even great historic films like Schindler’s List and Amadeus are filled with historical inaccuracies, but the small details did not effect the overall quality of the final product.

Despite the initial reviews, I am hopeful that Pawn Sacrifice will be an excellent re-telling of one of the Cold War’s defining moments. Tobey McGuire might be the best Bobby Fischer to ever hit the silver screen, or he might be the worst. The character of Bobby Fischer himself was so unique and so far off of the charts of what we would consider normal that I think it is practically impossible to find anyone who could play him in a way that truly expresses the torment he lived with.

Ultimately, any criticism of Pawn Sacrifice’s historical inaccuracies demonstrates that for those of us who live their lives in the world of chess, it will always be more than a game.

For some excellent analysis of the movie and some of the issues I discussed here, check out FM Mike Klein‘s awesome article on Pawn Sacrifice will be arriving in theaters this September. Check out the official trailer here.

Jon Stewart Chess Update

Jon Stewart is not someone who comes to mind when I think about chess, but a recent episode of The Daily Show poked fun at the game and the international chess community. Much has been said recently about Wesley So and his decision to switch to the United States Chess Federation along with some unconfirmed reports that the United States might also be pursuing Fabiano Caruana. The video hits all the right spots to show how chess has always operated in the shadow of international politics, but has had monumental influence. Check it out:

“What’s the only thing Russians love more than filming their own car accidents? Chess.” — Trevor Noah

Exploring the Master Class – Bobby Fischer

Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen hold much higher ELO ratings and have won more World Championships than he ever did, but Bobby Fischer is still considered one of the greatest chess players in history. This is due in large part to his absolute domination of the chess world and his single-handed defeat of the Soviet chess machine in 1972. Some of us, who grew up hearing the stories of Bobby and watching the world as the Cold War came to an end attribute the fall of the Soviet Union to cultural icons such as Bobby Fischer and Rocky Balboa to winning the war more than politics or diplomacy. Bobby’s victory that year in Iceland was as much a Cold War event as the Cuban Missile Crisis because the honor and intellectual supremacy of each nation. These days, you would be hard-pressed to find a hobby or club-level chess player that has not studied Bobby’s games and game theory. His depth of knowledge on openings and his talent in the endgame remain legendary among the world’s top players. His book My 60 Memorable Games (download games: PGN | ChessBase) is a staple in most chess player’s libraries.

To take things to the next level, ChessBase has a special DVD called Master Class: Bobby Fischer. Featuring five hours of video instruction from world-class chess players such as GM Dorian Rogozenco, GM Mihail Marin, IM Oliver Reeh, and GM Karsten Mueller. The DVD covers almost ever aspect of Fischer’s games including extensive insight on opening preparations, tactics, strategy, and deep analysis of his endgame. As with all ChessBase DVDs, the course is interactive with a responsive chessboard and notation to keep the viewer engrossed in the world of Bobby Fischer’s chess. The tactics on the DVD are presented as interactive puzzles that provide responsive feedback to help sharpen your game and bring Fischer’s games to life.

The Good

There is a lot to love about this DVD. ChessBase has long been a pioneer in developing interactive software and the integration with the ChessBase database software or the reader software is excellent. I use ChessBase 12 for my analysis and DVD play, but the free ChessBase Reader software will allow anyone with a windows computer to use Master Class: Bobby Fischer without having to own the full ChessBase Software.

The instruction on the DVD is first-rate. There is a wealth of information ranging from the cross tables and tournament information to a full biographical history on Bobby Fischer. All of this comes together to bring the user a comprehensive picture of Bobby Fischer as a man and as a chess player. In addition to the training, there is an exclusive database included with the software that holds all of Bobby Fischer’s games along with many additional cross tables and annotations. Perhaps one of my favorite features in the software are the trees. Fischer’s games as black and white have been divided into two book trees that can be reviewed and analyzed using the ChessBase software. This is a valuable resource for someone wanting to explore the themes in Bobby’s games.

The Bad

Because of the diverse nature of the chess world, I try to give as much leeway as possible when reviewing a product. Therefore, many things that others may call annoyances or problems with a piece of software, book, or DVD, can often be attributed to a simple cultural, language, or other variation. In Master Class: Bobby Fischer, the only drawback I could find comes in the form of the opening analysis with GM Dorian Rogozenco. Although that part of the DVD is supposed to be an in-depth look at Bobby Fischer’s openings, GM Rogozenco skips most of the moves and proceeds directly to where the opening transitions more into the middle game. He does comment on the fast moves in these game reviews by stating that these are easy moves and that they have been made hundreds of times, but dismissing many of these opening moves, regardless of how mundane it may seem, does devalue the lesson in some respects. Bobby Fischer was a master of chess openings and I believe that more attention should have been paid to why he chose to play certain openings and opening variations.

Back to Class

Master Class: Bobby Fischer is an excellent product for anyone interested in chess history, the story of Bobby Fischer’s games and his life, or a person looking to expand their knowledge and skill at chess. This five hour DVD includes some invaluable knowledge and insight into Bobby’s thinking that could possibly change the way that you view and play the game of kings.

Bobby Fischer the Maniac?

It is a common misconception that Bobby Fischer, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest chess players of all time, was a maniac. Unfortunately, the man once known as a hero of America for ending Soviet domination of the World Chess Championship descended into hate-filled rants and reclusiveness immediately after his victory over Boris Spassky in 1972. When Bobby completed his destruction of the Soviet chess machine, he promised that his next goal was to relax and play a lot more chess. However, as most people know, he famously disappeared and was not publicly seen or heard from until roughly 1992 when he emerged to challenge Spassky to a rematch in Yugoslavia. The United States embargo against Milosevic in Yugoslavia resulted in Bobby Fischer becoming an international fugitive once he received a $5 million payoff for beating Spassky again.

Most contemporary images of Bobby Fischer involve his intense anti-semantic rants and hatred of the United States. According to his claims, he believed that the United States was a puppet nation and that it was out to destroy the world, just like the former Soviet Union. Immediately following September 11, 2001, Bobby phoned in to a radio talk show from isolation in Japan and declared his joy over the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon. These painful images of a hateful Bobby Fischer have caused many inside and outside of the chess world to label him as psychotic. Is it possible that Bobby Fischer was acting irrationally in his tirades against the Soviet Union and the United States?

Ultimately, there appears to be little evidence to support any assertions that Bobby Fischer was psychotic. There is a common misconception in contemporary society that a person could only make intense negative or hateful comments if their judgment has been compromised and that there is some underlying psychosis causing them to act irrationally. We see this a lot in the media whenever a mass killing or other unfortunate crime strikes in the United States. Often psychologists and other experts are brought in to help find an answer to the tragedy. However, in the case of Bobby Fischer, none of his statements were incredibly irrational per se. Instead, his comments belittled and marginalized a group of people (the Jews) and were wholly incompatible with such a diverse and multicultural society, but they were not irrational in the sense that Bobby Fischer could find a legitimate basis for his beliefs. If Bobby was suffering from some form of psychosis, it is quite possible that it would have manifested in his chess games. However, his chess games still provide scholars, enthusiasts, and players of all ages with a treasure trove of material to review. In fact, one of the most popular collections of chess games is called Bobby Fischer: My 60 Memorable Games.

Fischer is often compared with another reclusive chess player, Paul Morphy, who experienced a significant mental breakdown following years of intense international gameplay. While Fischer’s experiences do mirror Morphy’s in some respects, there is still much to his life that does not. Fischer continued his intense analysis of games throughout the 1980s as he traveled to various international locations and spent time with famous chess players like the Polgar sisters. If Bobby Fischer was a madman, it was chess that kept his mind together. When he set down at the board, there was a grace and beauty to the way he moved the pieces that is unparalleled even to this day. Chess was a protective element of his life that defended his identity, and calmed his soul. Unfortunately, the humanity and final memories of Bobby Fischer were banished to the frozen ground of a small Lutheran church not far from where he took down the Soviet chess machine.

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