In January of 1958, three months after Sputnik triggered an educational panic in America much like today’s angst about the global talent race, a 14-year-old boy from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn made headlines: Bobby Fischer became the youngest U.S. champion in a cerebral sport long associated with genius—and long dominated by the Russians. The game, of course, was chess, and 15 years later—during his antic showdown with Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972—Fischer became, of all things, America’s best-known sports celebrity. For the football nation, heretofore bored by the slow-moving board game and generally ambivalent about super-braininess, Fischer (“the greatest natural player in history”) had become an emblematic figure: proof that innate talent will triumph in America, even—or especially—without Soviet-style systematic, elite, professionalized training. It didn’t hurt that Fischer, with his fabulous suits and snits—even the way he snatched up an opponent’s pieces—had a rock star’s gift for upstart drama.
It’s a whole different ball—I guess I should say chess—game now than when Fischer was growing up, due in no small part to Bobby himself.
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