This summer marked the anniversary of an extraordinary moment in U.S. history: the 1972 match in which the American genius Bobby Fischer defeated the Soviet wizard Boris Spassky for the chess championship of the world.
The battle probably should have been just one more headline in an eventful three months that saw the Watergate burglary, the expulsion of the Soviet military from Egypt and the humiliating dismissal of vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton from the Democratic ticket. Somehow the story of Fischer and Spassky and their epic match, which ended 40 years ago this month, captured our attention in a way that no struggle of intellect has since.
The two best players in the world were playing 24 games in Iceland, and everyone paid attention. Strangers who had never picked up a chess piece discussed the match on subway trains. Newspapers put out special editions announcing the results of the games, and vendors hawked them from the corners, shouting out the name of the winner. Book publishers were signing up chess writers by the dozens.
Chess is a very hard game, and what is most remarkable about that summer is that people wanted to play anyway. They wanted their minds stretched, and were willing to work for that reward. The brief period of Fischer's ascendancy — he quit chess three years later — was perhaps the last era in our nation's history when this could be said.
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Nowadays, we like things easier. We seem more interested in the doings of the “Real Housewives” than in the great intellectual challenges (except of course those intellectual challenges that yield a great deal of money, such as those on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley). Those who deploy their extraordinary mental gifts to do a difficult thing extremely well for a modest reward somehow cannot hold our attention.
In this respect, we may be lagging behind the rest of the world. This summer, via streaming video, I watched the Russian language broadcast of the Tal Memorial tournament in Moscow, one of the premier chess events of the year, as a dozen of the strongest players in the world battled for two weeks. Then a few weeks ago, I tuned in a relatively minor competition, the ACP Golden Chess Classic, from Amsterdam.
What the events had in common, besides being online instead of on U.S. TV, was commercials. Serious, high-quality commercials: Banks, corporate consulting firms, oil companies, automakers and beverage sellers all chose to run ads in the Russian-language and Dutch-language feeds. Watch other chess events from around the world, and you find more advertisements.
But when I watched online the U.S. chess championship, the most prestigious tournament on our shores, there were few commercials, and none for anyone with serious money. Companies invest where they expect a return. Elsewhere there is a return to online advertising to chess fans; here, there isn't.
Now, I am not saying that we would be better off if everybody followed chess. I am wondering, in this vast nation of ours, what intellectually serious pursuits attract a sufficiently mass following that major consumer-products companies would think it sensible to support them.
By intellectually serious, I mean pursuits that stretch and test the mind rather than merely entertain. The U.S. market for serious literature, which does exactly this, is dying. (It's a little better abroad.) True, the death of the literary novel has been proclaimed before, but now the patient is on the way to hospice. Authority has moved away from that which is written to that which is observed, so the most fleeting and transitory images become more important than the seriousness of complex argument.
We manage to make celebrities of young people with little to offer besides a willingness to express their vulgarity on camera, and the news coverage of our politics seems to bounce back and forth between talking points and gaffes. The great Ray Bradbury, who died this year, used to say that simplicity was the great enemy against which we should be doing battle — that theme is the subtext of “Fahrenheit 451” — but we are a long way from heeding the call to arms.
All of which makes our Fischer-fever of the 1970s that much more fascinating. Fischer, who returned to the chessboard briefly in 1992 before vanishing again, was never himself an admirable figure. Even at the height of his popularity in 1972, his childlike tantrums turned many fans against him. (Today his actions would be celebrated.)
As the years progressed, the madness behind the brilliance became increasingly apparent. He became infamous for his public rants against “the Jews,” and, on the very day of the Sept. 11 attacks, Fischer crowed with delight: “This is all wonderful news” and “It's time to finish off the U.S. once and for all.”
By that time he was a fugitive — he had played for a seven-figure purse in Yugoslavia, in defiance of U.S. sanctions — and after spending several months in detention in Japan, Fischer wound up settling in Iceland, where he seemed almost happy. He fished, he hiked, he dined with some of the great chess players of the day. Yet according to the affecting memoir by his Icelandic friend Helgi Olafsson, a fellow chess grandmaster, Fischer never surrendered his obsessions, particularly his virulent anti-Semitism.
When Fischer died in 2008, his passing went scarcely noticed. He was never an admirable man, but he performed an admirable service. By his brilliance and his antics he focused our attention, in that shining summer 40 years ago, on the life of the mind. He made an enormously difficult intellectual pursuit so alluring that, for a brief moment, everybody wanted to be a part of it.
We could use another moment like that. Bradbury was right: Simplicity is the enemy of democracy. Yet our images and arguments get simpler, and sillier, by the day. Unless we can become freshly excited about stretching our minds, the rest of the world — much of which still values complexity — may leave us in its dust.
Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University.