I got my introduction to chess the same year I was converted to Christianity: 1972. For anyone who knows anything about international chess, the summer ’72 featured the most famous chess event of all time: the world championship match between the Russian Boris Spassky and the American Bobby Fischer. Young Fischer was a phenom—a young American super-genius challenging the Russia chess dynasty.
Fischer was almost a god to reporters covering the event, because in year preceding world championship match, he had demolished the best players of the world in the candidates matches that were held to determine Spassky’s challenger. First, he beat Mark Taimanov of the USSR at Vancouver by 6–0. Less than two months later, he astounded the chess world by beating Bent Larsen in their Denver match by the same score. Next he wiped out Petrosian. This gave Fischer an extraordinary run of 20 consecutive wins against the world’s top players. This was so remarkable, it would be like hitting for the cycle and pitching a perfect game–twice in the same World Series.
The press went ballistic covering this match not just because Fischer was such an amazing player, but also because this match was a news story that went far beyond the game of chess. It symbolized the struggle between American idealism and Russian totalitarianism. In the fascinating book “Bobby Fischer Goes To War: How The Soviets Lost The Most Extraordinary Match Of All Time”, authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow chronicle all the ins-and-outs of this amazing slice of history. Fischer was a genius—and Amazing chess player, but one of the most tempermental people who ever walked the face of the earth. But we will leave that for another day…
Boris Spassky, the reigning world champion was a real gentleman–an intellectual Christian who loved reading Dostoevsky. A Russian patriot, he spoke out against the Soviet system–which was not a wise thing for any Russian to do at the time. But Spassky was the champion of the world, the pride of the Soviets (who used their domination of chess for PR leverage), so Brezhnev and the Soviet leaders didn’t make an issue of the champion’s independent streak.
Up until the summer of ’72, most Americans hardly knew anything about international chess. To them, it was a game that sat in a box in the kids section of the department store. But Fischer changed all that–for me and for millions of Americans like me. Like Forrest Gump, I stumbled upon something that I would never forget. The summer of ’72 was my “wonder year” moment in time. While my conversion to Christianity certainly eclipsed anything that had ever happened in my life (July ’72), my love for chess that was ignited that summer has never faded. So I guess you could say I experienced a chess conversion of sorts.
Edmonds explains in his book that it has been calculated that the number of possible move variations on a grandmaster chess match (or any chess game of 50 or more moves) would outnumber the atoms in the known universe. You don’t have to believe that, but hey, it sounds impressive to me!
Which leads me to my point…what would it be like to play a chess game with God? More on that in my next blog!