Red's Deal

Bobby Fischer: Poker's Greatest Fulcrum?

Last year’s death of Bobby Fischer brought about the predictable response from the mainstream media:

A) The guy was a serious anti-Semite.

B) Oh, and did we mention he was a flakeball and an anti-Semite?

C) He just happened to play chess pretty damn well, but that was a long time ago, so it’s not worth talking about. But you need to know he was an anti-Semite.

But what surprised me was no one — no holier-than-thou bloggers, no 2+2 forum junkies, no probability table memorizers — connected the obvious dot…Bobby Fischer’s biggest contribution to the 21st century may be well away from the black and white checkerboard and instead lie firmly on the green poker felt. Here’s why:

Let’s turn back the clock. 35 years after the fact it’s hard to imagine just how huge Mr. Fischer was as a personality and presence. This is definitely one of those cases of “if you weren’t there, you wouldn’t get it.” The cold war was white hot: Scythe Bearing Commies vs. Star Spangled Imperialists with Brezhnev and Nixon leading the way. We’ll point our missiles at you, and you damn well better quit pointing those missiles at us. People in the West with anything even close to a Slavic accent were shunned. At the Olympics beautiful routines would be pulled off by “amateur” Westerners, only to get laughably low scores from (undeniably ugly) Iron Curtain judges.

In the middle of all this rises Bobby Fischer.

For the non-chess-following American of the time (which is to say, “everyone”), it became clear that Mr. Fischer might have a chance to stick it to the Russkies. These would be the same Russkies that had set up an entire Soviet chess playing machine — picking children at a young age and grooming them to piece-pushing greatness. Yes, those same damn reds that make you duck-and-cover in the classroom every now and then. The feeling, in general was, “we definitely have to do something about those guys — if Bobby Fischer can poke them collectively in both eyes, then that has to be a good thing.”

Almost literally overnight Bobby Fischer went from being someone that nobody had ever heard of to becoming a household name.

In the same way that Chris Moneymaker was at the epicenter of the earthquake that popularized poker; Mr. Fischer was body surfin’ atop the chess tsunami. The big difference here, though, was that due to limited communication (which meant two wire services and three national TV stations), the effect was about ten times as magnified. In the past, without Facebook as a distraction, suddenly everyone cared about chess. Everyone started playing it. Everyone wanted to see the Soviet menace put down like the rabid dog that it was thought to be.

The match went off like an enchanting soap opera.

Mr. Fischer blunders in the first game of the best-of-24. US down 0-1.

Then he forfeits the second because those suspicious Icelandic TV cameras are too loud. US down 0-2.

The Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, knows a world calamity in the making when he sees one and writes a telegram imploring Bobby to get back to the board (can you imagine today, Hillary Clinton and General James Jones asking Phil Hellmuth to return to a poker table?). Other huge people follow suit and beg.

It’s unclear to me if his “celebregrams” mattered, but what is certain is that Bobby returns to his office chair with a vengeance and rips up Boris Spassky like a spurned lover’s wedding invitation. He pulls the unthinkable winning not one, but three, games while playing black. Mr. Fischer is so overwhelming in fact, that Mr. Spassky is only able to win one game as white (all the while knowing he’s going to have to go back East and get repeatedly bitch slapped by his government).

America goes wild.

There’s celebration in the streets. For the first time since the writing of the Constitution, being a nerd in the country is seen as being seriously cool. Playing a game for a living is seen as being something that’s not only acceptable, but possibly patriotic. Bobby Fischer is a true hero (and unlike the sports heroes of the time, we don’t have to hear him spout off about the Nation of Islam after he wins). I actually get to see my dad kiss my mom (yes, it still bugs me a little). And for the first time in the history of the world, everyone in America knew how to pronounce Reykjavik.

You may be wondering, what the hell does this have to do with poker?

Just this. Because of the communication throttle of the day, everyone was getting their information via chess writers (because there’s no way an average reporter could even think about the game) — the King of these was Larry Evans. For the West, Mr. Evans was the Carl Sagan of chess. He was the guy who could take the unexplainable world of top level chess and give you a glimmer of hope of understanding it. Chess notation was poured over, digested and understood — all because of Larry.

If you were caught up in the whirlwind as a chess playing kid in the 70’s (which is to say, “if you were breathing and a geek”), you were almost certainly were playing backgammon in the 80’s. As soon as those people flipped over their chess boards and learned how to play the game on the back, they started applying chess techniques to their new hobby: annotate the games and study them until your eyes bleed from the sockets.

It’s right here in the timeline that you see names you recognize from the poker world show up: Dan Harrington, Gus Hansen, Phil Laak, Erik Seidel and Tom McEvoy. All these guys are chess-players-turned-backgammon-players-now-poker-players.

Without Mr. Fischer, there’s almost certainly no notational interest in backgammon, and without that the poker world quickly dries up. Backgammon also adding the tipping point of allowing both wagering and chance into the game. You could play your absolute best and still lose — making it the perfect hustlers game because “dumping” was built-in. One glimpse at the opening pages of “Harrington on Hold’em” will show you the importance of chess generally, and Bobby Fischer specifically, to lives of Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie (also the writer of the world’s most definitive backgammon books).

Now you could argue that the actual Big Man here is Larry Evans — that he’s the guy who let people know what’s going on and without him, Mr. Fischer is a lot less. I won’t argue with that. Every messiah needs disciples, and just like everyone else, I read the writers, but I worship the figurehead.