Learn from Fischer - Strategy, Dynamics, Technique
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To many, Robert James Fischer, the 11th World champion, is the greatest player of all times. I have never hidden the fact that I share this opinion myself. Part of my judgement is influenced by the circumstance that I was making my first steps in chess when he became world champion in 1972. I was just 7 years old then. But the cold statistics also sustain such a point of view.
On his final ascension to the crown, Fischer showed results that were more impressive than anything that has been seen before or after. He won the Palma de Mallorca interzonal by a margin of 3,5 points, but this is just the most modest achievement from the series. He then eliminated Taimanov and Larsen with a flawless 6-0 score in the quarterfinals and the semifinals, respectively, and then defeated the ever-solid Petrosian with a convincing 6, 5-2,5 in the final. It should be mentioned that during these events he scored an incredible series of 20 consecutive wins at grandmaster and super grandmaster level! (the last 7 Interzonal games, two times 6-0 and the first game with Petrosian). The 1972 World title match with Spassky was no less impressive. About ten years before, Fischer had stated that he was ready to play a match with Botvinnik, starting from the score of 2-0 in the favour of the then World champion. The Soviets never accepted this challenge, of course, but Fischer "implemented" the plan against Spassky. He committed suicide in a dead drawn ending in the first game and did not show up for the second. And then he started showing his real strength. Just three games later he levelled the score, and despite a later loss he won the match by 12,5-8,5 - convincingly enough, even without discounting the first two games.
Of course, these are all statistics, and the purpose of this database is to show the most typical aspects of Fischer's play. In fact, it is not easy to decide what to start with as from one year to another Fischer grew into a complete player. He had a huge tactical talent and a natural inclination to attack, but from a young age, he was preoccupied with mastering the strategic part, too. To have some references about the way he progressed, it is worth knowing that, born in 1943, he played his first Candidates' tournament in 1959, at the age of just 16! Of course, he was not quite ripe for such a tournament and he finished in the middle of the field. But even though in many games he was clearly outclassed, he gathered a respectable number of wins, too. Fischer also dedicated a lot of work to the endgame, and it was not before long that he became an expert in this field. He would prove lethal technique in better or won endings, but also display patience and perseverance in completely equal ones, finding new and newer ideas to challenge the opponent until he would finally crack under the pressure.
Suetin once wrote that Fischer was studying the Soviet literature more seriously than the whole Soviet team taken together. In fact, he had learned Russian to stay up to date with the latest novelties. He was working a lot on openings, but the way I see it now, this was not his strongest point. A player like Geller would have deeper analysis than Fischer, but for the American, rather than to find the "absolute truth", it was essential to reach an interesting position out of the opening, where he could display his remarkable skills. To a certain extent, this applied to his approach in the early middlegame, too.
Quite typically, Fischer would provoke a moment of crisis, facing the opponent with a crucial choice. Usually, the most principled and best answer would imply certain risks (either real or purely optical) for the opponent, provoking him into making a suboptimal move in the search for safety. But Fischer would rarely let small concessions go unpunished. Once he gained a small but concrete advantage, and if the character of the position was familiar to him, he would play quickly and confidently. And if the opponent picked up the gauntlet - well, Fischer did not throw such a challenge as a simple bluff. His tactical skills and his accurate calculation made him dangerous in concrete play, quite probably after a short intermediate sequence he would create another moment of crisis and so on... The same Suetin wrote that in positions where Fischer knew what to do, he did it with absolute perfection! And Fischer seems to have been permanently working on enriching his arsenal of typical positions so that at his peak he would "know what to do" in virtually any position! It is also remarkable that Fischer used to play very quickly, spending an average of almost one hour less than his opponent for the whole game! And then Suetin adds that there is no dissimulation or masking in Fischer's play. The opponent would know in advance how Fischer would beat him, but he could not find any way to prevent that! I will develop some of the ideas above in the individual introductions to each section. Now I will comment on a few more general issues. Fischer has not commented too many of his games. There is not much more than his book "My 60 memorable games". His verbal comments are not very rich and they offer much less information than, say, Karpov's or Kortschnoj's. But at the same time, the quality and accuracy of his variations are amazing, especially if they have a tactical or concrete character. It is obvious that he took analysing his games very seriously, as this was how he was able to learn from his mistakes and improve. A few words about the game selection below: I have not included the endgame I used in my book "Learn from the Legends", featuring one of Fischer's favourite endings, with a strong bishop against a knight. I have tried to include games from several periods of his career. In general, the accuracy of his play and annotations was an important criterion, but some less known games got into the list if I felt they were instructive in a general way (let's call it a "Karpovian" way. Those who are familiar with my article on Karpov will understand).
To describe Fischer in a few words while comparing him with the other players I have written databases about: He was practical to a no lesser extent than Karpov, but more accurate than him (especially when analysing). His tactical skills were comparable to Tal's, but he did not incite fireworks for the sake of fireworks but chose the moves he found most promising to achieve the desired results. His style was no less universal than Kortschnoj's. At a superficial glance, he may seem less deep than Viktor L'vovich, but this may be an illusion provoked by the fact that his methods of using his understanding were more straightforward. Time has come to examine in some detail the multiple facets of Fischer's style.
The database is divided into the following sections: Classical Strategy, Positional Attack, Flexible/Dynamic Strategy, Development/Initiative, Tactics/Calculation, Endgame Technique, Persistence in the Endgame, Grandiose Fights.
The database also includes 20 test positions which are attached to the different sections.
There is little doubt about the fact that Fischer was an excellent positional player. But it is precisely in this field that we can notice his progress along the years. In the beginning, he was aiming for simple and stable structures (when he was not going for a straightforward attack, of course - more about that in a later section). But over time, "his" structures became more and more complex. This can be observed by looking at his treatment of the positional Chigorin variation in the Ruy Lopez. In his early years, he was keen on releasing the tension in the centre with dxc5, to fight for the square d5. But later he learned about the benefits behind maintaining the space advantage in the centre for a longer time.
In this section, we will examine a few games in which strategy will play the main part, with little or no interference from concrete play or tactics.
Below, I provide one of the games dealt with in this section.
Fischer often used a positional advantage to steer his play towards the enemy king. Building a slow attack out of positional elements was one of his favourite methods. In the final phase, some tactical fireworks would conclude the job done before, but in the games from this section, the focus is on the whole preparatory phase.
Even though Fischer has won a handful of "dry" positional games, his understanding went much beyond that. Strategy cannot work better than with the help of dynamic elements, or, vice-versa, at their service! Moreover, Fischer was not keen to play "manual games", in which the character of the position remains the same until the end. He was always open to changing the course of the game as long as this would maintain or increase his advantage. He could, for instance, exchange his active knight for a passive bishop if that would create new weaknesses in the enemy territory.
Below, you can find one of the most stunning examples:
At the beginning of his career, Fischer lost a few games in which he neglected his development for the sake of some illusory achievements. But later it became obvious that he had learned his lesson well and he made development the highest priority in the initial phase of the game. Moreover, he punished a few very strong opponents when they delayed their development. In the middlegame, the equivalent of rapid developing is the initiative. And in this field, Fischer excelled even more than at positional play. He was an active player, so it is understandable that he could not do without fighting for the initiative.
As we move from a chapter to the next one, each time I have the feeling that the new one is even more relevant than the previous. When talking about Fischer, many people think of the tactician first of all. I would add that the real measure of his tactical and calculating skills are offered by his comments. In the game, the opponent cannot allow ALL the combinations, as he can play just one line at a time. But when commenting, one is free to show everything he had calculated during the game (or analysed afterwards).
In this section, I will examine a few examples in which Fischer will display his usual qualities (of positional, dynamic or tactical nature) in positions with only a few pieces on the board. It makes one feel that the endgame is not so completely different from the middlegame, but just a logical continuation of it.
Below, you can find one of the examples.
Persistence in the Endgame
As part of a campaign designed to minimize Fischer's merits during his ascension towards the World title, the Soviet commentators used to criticise Fischer for playing on in obviously drawn endgames. But judging from the effectiveness of this policy, which yielded him many wins from seemingly dead drawn positions, we should see this "habit" more as a quality. In principle, what Fischer was doing in such cases was "examine" the opponent's knowledge of concrete simple endings. The opponent may pass the first, the second and a few more tests without knowing in advance how many more would there be. The only one who could tell it was Fischer, whose endgame culture was immense. And usually one single "wrong answer" would be enough for Fischer to win the game. I would also like to add that in the endgame the "crisis moment" issue was no less typical than in the middlegame.
Returning to Suetin's statement that Fischer was very strong when he "knew what to do", we should say a few words about the thing he could not do so well for quite a long time. The Soviets had noticed that no matter how skilled in tactics Fischer was, he would feel less confident in irrational positions, in which he apparently failed to find reference points. This is how Spassky defeated him three times before their match in 1972. And this was what most of the specialists (including former world champions) based their optimism on when asked to advise Spassky for the match. There was only a solitary voice who warned that at that moment Fischer was in such abrupt progress that his real strength during the match was hard to predict. It was the voice of Kortschnoj, of course, the eternal rebel and freethinker. Kortschnoj was right and during his final campaign, Fischer proved that he could be very strong in irrational positions. I have named this selection grandiose fights because this is what they really are. Not always flawless but memorable and breathtaking fights!