Fischer vs. Carlsen… will history repeat?

Bobby Fischer and Magnus Carlsen

In the 1972 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace, then-championship challenger Bobby Fischer stated that he like to “crush a man’s ego”. He then played Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship and beat the Soviet player mercilessly even after forfeiting the second game and falling behind 2-0. Fischer had reached his zenith and never played competitive chess after that due to his own idiosyncrasies and sometimes unreasonable demands.

GM Hikaru Nakamura also shares history. Photo by

After years of being banned from his own country, shuttling around the Philippines and being abused in a Japanese prison, he settled in Iceland and lived out the last days of his life quietly before succumbing to a liver ailment. Fischer story has been recounted and the recent movie “Bobby Fischer Against the World” captures his evolution, but unfortunately many still focus on his post-chess era.

It is this circumstance that will cause young players like Carlsen and America’s top player Hikaru Nakamura to ponder ways to avoid falling prey to the same fate. Both draw Fischer comparisons for different reasons, but both have proven they have a variety of interests outside of chess.

While one may want to prove they are not as single-minded as Fischer, former World Champion Garry Kasparov chided both Carlsen and Nakamura for not being focused enough. He had training relations with both that ended relatively unfavorably. He did not believe Carlsen’s modeling helped his chess and was not keen on Nakamura’s debut in the World Series of Poker.

Watching the two films segments, the parallels the interviews draw between Fischer and Carlsen are stunning. Both had prodigious memories… both did what was required to get an edge… both had an unbreakable will to win… both were shown being rather isolated… both seem socially awkward in interviews.

Video by CBS News

In last Sunday’s 60 Minutes segment with Bob Simon, Carlsen was asked a question about Fischer. The young Norwegian said that as he watched the Fischer movie, he wondered, “Is this going to be me… in a few years?” He quickly assures Simon that it will not. Carlsen rise is similar to Fischer’s. Both were “boy wonders”… both met a meteoric rise… both were world beaters. However one fact remains… Carlsen has yet to play for the World Championship and his success will largely be measured by winning the world title.

Carlsen will have plenty of company, but his battle would not be facing a single behemoth as Fischer did against the Soviet Union. There is quite a bit of diversity in the field with players like Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Fabiano Caruana (Italy), Anish Giri (Netherlands). Perhaps the biggest threat to Carlsen is Levon Aronian of Armenia who has remained hidden under the shadow of Carlsen, current World Champion Viswanathan Anand and former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik. Aronian is only a mere nine points behind Carlsen on the Live Ratings.

Magnus Carlsen against world’s #2 Levon Aronian.
Photo by Frits Agterdenbos of ChessVista.

One of the qualities that Carlsen has is his ability to remain calm and to remain psychologically ready for the pending battle. However, Carlsen has never played in a match. This may be an Achilles heel, but certainly it was not Fischer’s. Fischer enjoyed the challenge of outperforming an entire institution. Carlsen also works alone, but takes a more carefree approach to chess. He has a variety of interests as opposed to the single-minded determination of Fischer. One may argue that this is what is needed to ascend to highest heights of chess.

While Carlsen is not far from Fischer’s resting place, it is doubtful that he will look to the American champion’s history for inspiration. Carlsen is his own man… in his own world, with his father as his confidante. This is quite a different world from Fischer. Time will tell whether we will be able to write more comparisons in the Fischer, but listening to the interview, Carlsen is probably bristling at such thoughts.

(Note: Thanks to Laura Kuhn of CBS for contacting The Chess Drum to encourage the use of the videos!)

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  1. Fischer/Carlsen: The Misconception: You take randomness into account when determining cause and effect.

    The Truth: You tend to ignore random chance when the results seem meaningful or when you want a random event to have a meaningful cause.

    Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were both presidents of the United States, elected 100 years apart. Both were shot and killed by assassins who were known by three names with 15 letters, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, and neither killer would make it to trial.

    Spooky, huh? It gets better.

    Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, and Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln.

    They were both killed on a Friday while sitting next to their wives, Lincoln in the Ford Theater, Kennedy in a Lincoln made by Ford.

    Both men were succeeded by a man named Johnson – Andrew for Lincoln and Lyndon for Kennedy. Andrew was born in 1808. Lyndon in 1908.

    What are the odds?

    Magnus is socially awkward? Really?

    1. Well… I read that Lincoln/Kennedy comparison many years ago as it circulated in a chain e-mail here in the states. It was intriguing to me since my father was one of Kennedy’s bodyguards at the White House. You are writing out of England, yes?

      There are certainly some parallels in Magnus Carlsen and Bobby Fischer, but there is no real scientific method to determine why. Perhaps there is even more in common between Hikaru Nakamura and Fischer giving their geographic roots and progression, but it is mere coincidence. However, 60 Minutes ran almost identical segment 40 years apart and are drawing a connection… not a cause and effect, but a mere connection. That’s all we see here… it is solely on a chess level.

      Yes… in my view, Magnus appears uncomfortable and awkward during interviews and sometimes has trouble collecting his thoughts. It’s normal. He’s 21 years old, still maturing and getting much more confident. Do we realize how much pressure it is to be a 21-year old and to have such attention and pressure to perform at high expectations? It’s a huge responsibility.

  2. Most interesting subject but we must consider all of the facts or question. Both are different men. While parallel can be drawn Magnus is a genius of unbelievable intelligence (he may not know what normal is ) He does have a supportive father and organization behind nim. (How much he was push by his father as a child is not apparent). The question must also be asked if Magnus will make chess his major life accomplishment or will his gift of genius be used for greater aspirations.
    Fisher on the other hand without a fatherly presence does not seem as intellectually gifted as Magnus although a very hard worker driven by a compulsion “to be” and “to beat” the best chess players in the world. Nothing really wrong with this except when your country you represent tell you that “you can’t go out to play”. I believe that this is what really causes Fischer to have a raw edge. In jest, I suggest Magnus will be ok unless he suffers from spontaneous combustion form being to ^#@*$!! smart.

    1. Well… Fischer had a very high IQ, if we accept those measurements. It was around 186 if I recall, so he was intellectually gifted by any measure. He had a prodigious memory as well and could recall games with alarming accuracy. There is no real way to compare their intelligence since Carlsen has benefited from a wider body of knowledge (including lessons learned from Fischer). These comparisons are always tricky.

      I believe some of these comparison are based on pure circumstance… that Magnus is number one, has done it primarily alone and has drawn a fascination from chess fans. You’re right… his family support is immeasurably valuable and will protect him from great harm. Time will tell whether Carlsen will reach the pinnacle of world champion. There are many sharks in the tank.

      1. Once thing that jumps out is the fact that chess seems to come quite easy for Magnus compared to the hard work Fischer put in. One thing of interest to me which Magnus stated has caused me to ponder the game of chess. He stated that he just knows the right move. Is it just instincts, or development of his own distinct set of principles and theory? Maybe he is computing move so fast that he think it come easy. To play ten simultaneous games without looking at the board is beyond my comprehension.

        1. Actually, this is a parallel with Jose Capablanca who claimed that he played ‘one move chess’. He claimed he just played ‘the right move’ and not a bunch of calculation. To me, that’s an inconceivable claim. I’ve seen it written that Capablanca played with an incredible sense of danger and simply didn’t step into it without an obvious way out (obvious to him, but not necessarily the rest of the chess world :)). It’s been described as ‘shunning complicated positions’. He played with minimal preparation and enjoyed the night life and was champ for years. Computer analysis shows that Capa made fewer mistakes than any of his contemporaries and was perhaps the most mistake-free player in recorded history.

  3. Hello Daaim. For most people outside of the chess world…playing 10 people simultaneously is a great feat but it is not that rare. Harry N. Pilsbury may have been the best at that. One more thing. There is a you tube video from his last tourney where Magnus says to the interviewer…I f____ked up! I had to rewind, I was so shocked. Hope I am around to see if he indeed becomes the World Champion and/or the strongest player in the world ( these two are not necessarily synonymous.

    1. You’re certainly right Robert. I know of regular masters that can play several boards of blindfold chess. In fact, Glenn Umstead is featured in the award-winning book “The Chess Artist” and he was playing several players at once blindfolded and he is 2100-2200 strength. Carlsen is not spectacular in that regard.

      I saw that cursing video. I’m not sure he meant it as a curse word and maybe he was not really aware of how bad that term is, but I found it rather amusing because he rarely shows that type of emotion. I do like his family support and that will pay dividends, but he needs to start building more of a chess cadre or “posse”. Players these days seem to be content in working alone.

      I believe Carlsen will have difficulties in his first attempt at the World Championship. He continues to avoid matches and eventually he will have to face that format. The tension is so much greater and I don’t believe he is as mentally focused and has the work ethic that Fischer had. I am also not sure what type of team he would be able to put together. He has his own way of training and his episode with Kasparov is revealing. Will he work alone? Can he find someone he can trust over a series of games?

    2. Oh man, you guys HAVE to be American to be so prissy about the F-word on television. In Carlsen’s country, Norway, as well as most other countries here in Europe, you’re allowed to say such words without any BLEEPING added to censor it.

      To hear people say they were so “shocked” they had to rewind to see whether he actually dropped the F-word makes me laugh and wonder whether we actually live in the same universe.

      American even invented the word, didn’t you? Yet you go all Gestapo whenever someone utters it on television. The only shocking thing is the hypocrisy in Americans when it comes to swearing.

      Don’t get me wrong. I love the US, and its people, but the double standards when it comes to naked skin and swearing being evil, while violence is okay, on television is unbeliaveble.

      1. Maybe the shock wasn’t the word itself, but that fact that Carlsen said it. He doesn’t usually show these types of emotions. Understand that not everyone who lives in America and is born here agrees with everything that goes on here, either politically, socially or culturally. That seems to be the impression the U.S. media gives you from the outside since people make general statements about “Americans”.

  4. There are a series of videos from “The Great Chess Movie” that provides an interesting insight in the history of chess from the Fischer-Spassky era. It was produced by French International Master Camille Coudari.

    Part 1

    Part 2

    Part 3

  5. Nakamura is more likely to go crazy… why? He doesn’t win as much and loses much more than Carlsen, thus it might bruise his ego and he might go crazy.. seriously!

    Carlsen has different hobbies and he seems to not play chess a lot outside of tournaments, he rarely loses and he is looking fine so far.

    Only time will tell.

    1. The point isn’t about who will go crazy (which I don’t believe Fischer was). It was who will be the next chess player to get mass media success as champion. As for Nakamura, he has quite a number of interests as well. Carlsen certainly loses fewer games, but also loses horribly in some games. In my view, both have a legitimate shot to obtain some of the magic of Fischer, but there will never be another.

  6. Fischer crushed the entire Soviet chess machine, let alone Spassky, Petrosian, Larsen, Tal, etc. I like Magnus, and he may truly be the `Mozart` of chess, but Fischer is clearly the `King` of chess. IMHO, Fischer is the greatest chess genius of all time…

  7. There were many GREAT chess players before and after Bobby Fischer, but there was never ever anyone that came even remotely close to what Bobby Fischer was.

    He was not only a genius, he studied chess theory so hard that calling him a maniac workaholic would be an – understatement.

    At 14 years of age he became a US National Champion.
    At 15 he qualified as 5-6 to the Candidates tournament, a feat yet to be seen by someone else.

    If it wasn’t for Soviets cheating BF would have been the WCC at 17, not 27… a fact many times overlooked.

    His 20-0 streak is litterally unheard of: demolishing w/o a loss 3 of then Top 10 players. Can you imagine Carlsen today beating say Topalov 6-0, than beating Nakamura 6-0 and finally beating say Kramnik 5.5-2.5. I can’t… Fischer did it.

    Than in 1971 there was the first (unofficial) W rapid/blitz chess championship, all the greatest were there – Tal, Korchnoi, you name it. Fischer scores 19.5 out of 21… Tal is 2nd with 14 points.
    ANd than the 1972 match – starting with 0-2, he demolishes Spasky 12,5-8,5. No one ever won a WCC match being 2 points behind. Bobby did it like a breeze.

    Last, bit not least – the Elo rating – Bobby in July 1972 has 2,785, with 70 point/decade elo-inflation, that is worth well over 3,050 point today.

    3,050 that’s right, which is 200 more than Magnus Carlsen has or that Garry Kasparov reached at his peak-time.

    No one ever like Bobby…

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