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Bobby Fischer - The Last Lone Innovator

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C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

'Chess is not something that drives people mad; chess is something that keeps mad people sane.' ' international chess master and psychologist Bill Hartston

When it comes to innovation, the idea of the lone genius is largely a myth. Although it's often easier to hold individuals up as innovators (if only because it simplifies our understanding and makes it easier to communicate), in reality innovation is largely a collaborative endeavor and typically manifests itself as such. Even an innovation stalwart such as Ben Franklin had his version of the local rotary club off which he could bounce ideas and develop concepts. Look deep enough and you'll likely find another person or persons associated with most of the individuals we deem great innovators. But that doesn't mean lone innovators don't actually exist.

A recent internet headline concerning the exhumation of former world chess champion Bobby Fischer made me think a bit more about this idea of 'the lone innovator.' By most accounts Bobby Fischer was a head case in a variety of ways and didn't have many, if any close friends. As American grandmaster and chess writer Isaac Kashdan once wrote, 'In a contest for the nicest guy in chess, Bobby Fischer would finish out of the money. But he is definitely the best chess player in the world.' Bobby Fischer was clearly a loner. And he was clearly a genius. I don't think anyone would deny this. But being a loner and a genius doesn't inherently make you an innovator. But Bobby Fischer was an innovator. And perhaps the last 'lone innovator'. Off the top of my head, I can't think of another that's come along since.

What made Bobby Fischer innovative was the psychological warfare-like tactics he brought to the game of chess. Some might argue that such tactics were coincidental and merely the result of being a paranoid, egomaniacal nut job, but I don't think so. Although Bobby had been quoted as saying 'I don't believe in psychology. I believe in good chess moves', he clearly upped the standards of psychological gamesmanship.

'When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive.' ' Boris Spassky, world champion (whom Bobby Fischer defeated in 1972 to win the world championship)

In the book Bobby Fischer Goes To War, authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow write:
Faced with Fischer's extraordinary coolness, his opponent's assurance would begin to disintegrate. A Fischer move, which at first glance looked weak, would be reassessed. It must have a deep master plan behind it, undetectable by mere mortals (more often than not they were right, it did). The U.S. grandmaster Robert Byrne labeled the phenomenon 'Fischer-fear.' Grandmasters would wilt, their suits would crumple, sweat would glisten on their brows, panic would overwhelm their nervous systems. Errors would creep in. Calculations would go awry. There was talk among grandmaster that Fischer hypnotized his opponents, that he undermined their intellectual powers with a dark, mystic, insidious force. Time after time, in long matches especially, Fischer's opponents would suffer a psychosomatic collapse. Fischer managed to induce migraines, the common cold, flu, high blood pressure, and exhaustion, to which he himself was mostly resistant. He liked to joke that he had never beaten a healthy opponent.

Bobby Fischer brought this innovation to the game of chess all on his own. The Last Lone Innovator.

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