When artificial intelligence began beating the world’s greatest players, a chess grandmaster devised his own way to give human ingenuity an upper hand against the machine. The result, however, was not quite what he expectedby David Edmonds / November 13, 2020 / Leave a comment
On Sunday 23rd July 1972, the American grandmaster Bobby Fischer made the first move of the sixth game in the world chess championship—shunting his pawn two squares up the board.
Nothing, in itself, was unusual about that. Pushing either of the middle “d” or “e” pawns two squares forward is the most common way to begin a game. But this move involved neither of these pawns and took Fischer’s opponent—the reigning world champion Boris Spassky—by complete surprise. Moreover, because he had not expected it, he had not prepared for it.
Fischer began with square c2 to c4—the “English Opening” (so called because it was a favourite of a 19th-century English chess champion, Howard Staunton). To those who don’t follow chess, it might sound a comically small twist—the same move, just one or two spaces along. But it shook everything up, and shook Spassky up in particular. During the months he had been in training, the indolent Russian had pooh-poohed the notion that he had to be ready to respond to all of white’s opening options. Fischer almost unfailingly played e4. Surely he would not unleash a new opening in the most important match of his lifetime? It’s not easy to think of analogies, but imagine a fast bowler in cricket suddenly bamboozling the batsman with an over of leg-spin.
With both sides in unfamiliar territory, the game itself proved the most beautiful of the championship. After resigning, Spassky joined the spectators in applause at his opponent’s brilliance. Fischer was now ahead in the match; six weeks later he would be crowned the 11th world champion.
A quarter of a century on, Fischer called a shock press conference in Argentina. Since his headline-grabbing battle with Spassky, the American genius had become a recluse. In the past he’d been described as “troubled,” “turbulent,” “mercurial,” and had engaged in crude antisemitism despite being of Jewish descent; it was now clear that he’d tipped into paranoia. He’d resurfaced from isolation in 1992 to play a rematch against Spassky in war-torn former Yugoslavia, in defiance of US sanctions. After winning, Fischer disappeared yet again, this time as a wanted criminal.
The 1996 Buenos Aires press conference…