Waiting for Bobby Fischer

When I was a teenager, my father decided it was worth a little of his money for me to learn the rudiments of self-defense. So he paid for me to attend a series of lessons at Ozzie Sussman’s Gym in Rochester, New York. Ozzie was a Jewish middleweight whose heyday had been the late 1940s. Photographs of a younger, more belligerent Ozzie in action poses adorned the gym walls.

I gave no thought to becoming a serious boxer. All parties concerned understood I would have no further connection with boxing when my lessons were done. Meanwhile I would gain some familiarity with skills that might come in handy if I were ever physically attacked, though that was not likely to happen in the white-collar life I was expected to lead. Perhaps I would gain some self-confidence. No doubt my father believed I would become a more well-rounded person.

And so once a week for several weeks I drove myself downtown to Ozzie’s small gym, where Ozzie and I would spend a vigorous half-hour together. He taught me the names of various punches, demonstrated them for me, then stood in his boxer’s crouch with a red pad strapped to one arm while I tried to deliver the correct punches on demand, one by one and in combinations. Now and then he would reach out with his free hand and forcefully poke my bony chest, effortlessly penetrating my flimsy guard. A stocky man in his sixties with Levantine coloring, Ozzie was still remarkably fit. I remember the sweat gleaming on his rounded muscles. I was tall, pale, scrawny, and uncoordinated: hopeless as a boxer, much better suited for chess.

One week I forgot to go to my lesson, or was late; I forget which. After that incident Ozzie referred to me as “The White Hope”—explaining to his audience, “He’s white, and I hope he shows up for his lesson.”

I look back on this brief interlude of pugilism as largely irrelevant to my development, but harmless, perhaps even mildly benign. Was it worth my father’s money and my time? I have not yet been physically attacked by another adult, but you never know, it could happen. If it does, I hope I don’t let Ozzie down. Perhaps I learned a few things about the art of boxing, foremost how exhausting it is to box even one round. Ozzie certainly benefited: the modest fees my father paid helped him earn his living. Perhaps not a very good living, but Ozzie was his own boss and got to do work that was at least related to what he loved, which is worth something.

There has been some discussion here about the proper training of young chessplayers, and I expect there will be more. I don’t make my living from chess, so perhaps I can afford to be laissez-faire, but my attitude is, Let the people who want to be serious about chess be serious, let the other people find their own level of engagement, and good luck to everyone.

We all know from experience that the best way to engage people with the game is to offer them compelling role models. For a few brief years, Fischer was that role model in the West. There is no one remotely as interesting to the Western public nowadays, or on the horizon. If I had to identify any American player who might conceivably be able to make an impression on the public psyche, perhaps I would name Sam Shankland, a young GM who recently received the lucrative Samford chess fellowship that will help pay his expenses for a couple of years while he works on his game. Shankland is a goodlooking young fellow who also has an edge to him—qualities that will appeal to the mainstream media. Whether he is ever going to make a significant impression on the American public partly depends on how dedicated to chess he decides to be.

Meanwhile, many chess professionals, especially in the U.S. and U.K., have decided that dependable money is to be made not by competing in tournaments or trying to develop serious players, but by serving the transitory youth market: teaching in after-school programs, giving lessons, and selling chess sets, videos, books, and software to the kids, i.e. to their parents who write the checks. Few of these kids will ever amount to anything in the long run, if we define “anything” as strong chessplayers who persevere to gain master titles and more.

What is wrong with this picture? I say, maybe nothing at all. Every year many kids are getting exposure to our wonderful game, chess retains a toehold in the mass culture, and a few people are able to make a living (or part of a living) from the game they love.

I do agree the current system is not likely to produce a large crop of elite players, and I also agree we could probably devise a system better calculated, in theory, to give such a result. But is the public ready to engage with a chess training program that demands significantly more effort and long-term dedication from American or U.K. youth and their parents? I think not—at least not till that next compelling chess figure emerges to inspire others to emulation. In the meantime, we are all waiting for the next Bobby Fischer to arrive and transform the scene, which is much the same as waiting for Godot.

Tim Hanke