Sports

The Next “Next Bobby Fischer”

Is it Fabiano Caruana? Is it someone else? Is it nobody?

Split image of Bobby Fischer and Fabiano Caruana, both playing chess.
Bobby Fischer and Fabiano Caruana.*
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ullstein Bild via Getty Images and Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for World Chess.

On this week’s edition of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis described the perpetual search for the “next Bobby Fischer.” An adapted transcript of the audio recording is below, and you can listen to Fatsis’ essay by clicking on the player beneath this paragraph.

Previewing the World Chess Championship between 27-year-old defending champ Magnus Carlsen of Norway and 26-year-old Fabiano Caruana of the United States, the New York Times declared in a headline, “Searching for the Next Bobby Fischer, the U.S. Finds Fabi.” iChess.net asked, “Is Fabiano Caruana the Next Bobby Fischer?” ESPN replied, “He’s being called the next Bobby Fischer.” The Wall Street Journal sighed, “This is how it goes in chess. Whenever a young American player makes waves on the international stage, the press is quick to call him the next Bobby Fischer.” And then the paper resumed normal breathing. “But in this case, the comparison may hold.”

On Sept. 1, 1972, Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union resigned the 21st game of the Match of the Century in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Fischer became the first American-born player to be crowned world chess champion—and, until Caruana this year, the last American to play for the title. The Brooklyn-bred Fischer was an eccentric genius whose Cold War proxy battle drew huge television ratings and inspired millions to learn how the knight moves. So, naturally, America immediately began searching, literally and metaphorically, for his successor.

Nineteen days after the match, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sun-Sentinel wrote that “everyone who isn’t running out these days to pick up a chess set and become the next Bobby Fischer is grabbing a racket and balls to emulate Billie Jean King and Rod Laver.” The next month, Florida Today said, “some observers feel” that 29-year-old Jude Acers “could be the next Bobby Fischer.” He was not, but Acers did become chess-famous for wearing a red beret and playing passers-by for money in a gazebo in New Orleans. He also set a world record by taking on 179 opponents at once.

“New Yorker, 5, May Be Next Bobby Fischer,” the Wilmington, Delaware, News Journal headlined a December 1972 wire-service story about Robert LeDonne of New York. LeDonne started playing during the Fischer-Spassky match and within a few weeks had big-name coaches at Manhattan’s renowned Marshall Chess Club. The publicity landed the boy on the Tonight Show and on the cover of a 1974 book, Chess and Children. LeDonne played (and lost to) Spassky in an exhibition, but he quit the game at age 8.

Other heirs apparent did, however, rise in the ranks. In 1976, the New York Times said that 13-year-old Michael Wilder of Princeton, New Jersey, “may be the next Bobby Fischer.” Wilder had just become the youngest player since Fischer to attain the rank of master. After graduating from Yale, he spent four years playing chess full time, won the 1988 United States championship, and then effectively retired from the game. Wilder’s competition to be T.N.B.F. was his childhood chess friend Joel Benjamin. “Fellow players and coaches say,” the Hartford Courant wrote in 1976, that the 12-year-old Benjamin “may be the next Bobby Fischer of the chess world.” Benjamin outdid Wilder and Fischer to become the youngest U.S. chess master, also went to Yale, won the U.S. championship three times, and remains a chess pro today.

Yasser Seirawan was a next you-know-who—but there were doubts! “Will he become the next Bobby Fischer, or is he too busy living it up to make it to the top?” chess columnist Larry Evans asked in 1982. “Yasser skis, surfs, dives, enjoys backgammon, ping pong, soccer and tennis. He is also a pool hustler, a raconteur, a bon vivant in tailor-made clothes and a dancer-til-dawn in discos.” Seirawan overcame his lifestyle to win the U.S. title four times. He is analyzing the Carlsen-Caruana match for Chess.com.

“Could John Viloria be the next Bobby Fischer,” the Journal News of White Plains, New York, asked in 1989 of a 10-year-old who had won two youth titles. Viloria competed in college for MIT and played tournament Scrabble for a few years. “Is He the Next Bobby Fischer?” the Wall Street Journal wondered about 12-year-old Jorge Zamora in 1991. Twenty-three years later, the Boston Globe asked Zamora, now Jorge Sammour-Hasbun, whether his student, 13-year-old Sam Sevian, “could be the next Bobby Fischer.” Replied Sammour-Hasbun, “Absolutely. Of course he can.”

Under the headline, “He Could Be the Next Bobby Fischer (Without the Quirks),” the New York Times in 2005 profiled 17-year-old Hikaru Nakamura. Seven years later, NPR asked of Nakamura, “Next Bobby Fischer?” In 2013, Canada’s Globe and Mail headlined a story about 9-year-old Carissa Yip, “The Next Bobby Fischer?” which given her gender would be something. Yip is the current U.S. girls junior champion. The current U.S. boys champion is Awonder Liang. “The Next Bobby Fischer … From Wisconsin?” the online magazine Ozy asked about him in 2015.

As Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight noted in a profile of Caruana last week, many more players over the decades—Gata Kamsky, Jeff Sarwer, David Newmuis, Steven Zierk, Ray Robson, et al.—have been tagged as T.N.B.F. And there have been dozens more lines and headlines about local children who happened to be good at chess. “Brownsville May Be Source for Next Bobby Fischer” (2008). “The next Bobby Fischer could come from an unlikely place, the city’s oldest elementary school on the outskirts of a Latin barrio” (1994). “10-year-old chess wizard has all the right moves; Boy may be next Bobby Fischer” (1994). “Is Maitland boy to become next Bobby Fischer?” (1977). In 2002, the Honolulu Advertiser declared: “The search for the next Bobby Fischer may have ended with an 11-year-old boy in Mililani Mauka.”

All of this breathless second-coming elides an important question: Who or what exactly is “the next Bobby Fischer”? It’s not a child prodigy, because plenty of kids have surpassed Fischer’s early ratings. Is it an American world champion? An American chess celebrity? Or a transcendent chess figure irrespective of nationality? If that’s it, well, case closed, because in 2007 chess columnist Bill Cornwall declared that 16-year-old Magnus Carlsen “has risen to the top ranks so fast that many consider him to be the next Bobby Fischer.” Carlsen is seeking his fourth world title; Fischer never defended his.

“The next Bobby Fischer” is any or all of that—or nothing. It’s a hackneyed media trope fueled in part by the title of a book and a movie about another next one, Josh Waitzkin, in New York in the 1980s. It’s an intentionally undefinable narrative; a convenient shorthand for an elusive, incomprehensible beautiful mind; a glamorized reminiscence fogged by nostalgia. An idea. A ghost. “I knew him at the best time in his life,” Harry Benson, who photographed Fischer for Life magazine in 1971 and 1972, says in Brin-Jonathan Butler’s entertaining new book, The Grandmaster, about the exotic, sometimes toxic tug of the game. “Now you can’t write a word about chess without remembering him.”

I asked one of those next Bobby Fischers what it was like to be labeled “the next Bobby Fischer.” “At the time it was flattering, of course. But even then I didn’t read too much into it because there were these other good players,” said Michael Wilder, who is now 56 years old and a partner in a Washington law firm. “It clearly didn’t apply to me. I was never going to put all the work into it that Bobby Fischer did.”

Today, Wilder told me, “it would be mortifying for someone to refer to you as ‘the next Bobby Fischer.’ ” That’s because, in the three decades after winning his title, Fischer devolved into a reclusive, mentally ill, anti-Semitic paranoiac who praised 9/11 (“I applaud the act”) and spent his final years dodging extradition—for playing Spassky in then-Yugoslavia in 1992 in violation of U.S. government sanctions—before dying of kidney failure in 2008 in Iceland, which had a soft spot for him. He was 64, one year, it has been noted, for each square on a chess board.

That sad, loathsome endgame notwithstanding, even if Caruana wins the World Chess Championship, someone soon will once again be labeled “the next Bobby Fischer.” Why? Because Bobby Fischer will remain the name in chess that people who don’t know chess do know. Because Bobby Fischer is an irresistible and irreplicable combination of brilliance, enigma, reverence, revulsion, mystery, and myth. But “the next Bobby Fischer” is a phantasm, a mirage, a point on the horizon always receding, as it should, and the phrase itself should be exiled like its namesake was.

There won’t be another Bobby Fischer—the Cold War is long dead, computers have democratized chess study, artificial intelligence has narrowed the genius gap, and it’s hard to imagine modern America transfixed by a chess match regardless of who’s playing. The people whose brains merit the comparison don’t want it anyway. After a fifth straight draw at the world championship in London on Thursday, Carlsen and Caruana were asked about past players they admire. The American tried to be diplomatic. “In terms of playing, Fischer is still definitely up there,” he answered. “I mean, maybe not my absolute favorite player. But in terms of the results he achieves and the way he played at his peak, I think very few players compare.” Carlsen was clearer. “I’m not really the person to have idols,” he said. “I admire what people can do and not necessarily the people themselves.”

Correction, Nov. 17, 2018: Due to a production error, this caption originally misidentified Fabiano Caruana as Magnus Carlsen.