King's Gambit, Bobby Fischer, Bed

January 19, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen, who knows a lot about chess, has a brief obit for Bobby Fischer. Last September, Tyler also wrote that King’s Gambit by Paul Hoffman is “one of the few great chess books.”

I am no judge of chess books, but when I think about the King’s Gambit, I think of the first time I bought a bed, and I think about the pressures of grad school. And of course I think about Bobby Fischer.

In my junior year of college, I needed a bed. I had decided to live off campus, and I wound up sharing an unfurnished two-bedroom apartment with another guy. I looked in the want ads and on bulletin boards (this was in the 1960s, long before the Internet), and found what I was looking for – a double bed (I was an optimist, and overweight), cheap. The man who answered the phone had a Spanish accent, and he lived in Cambridge, not too far away. I drove over.

He was Mexican, in his twenties, short and soft-spoken with sad brown eyes. He was a graduate student at Harvard, and because of the anxiety caused by grad school, he was having trouble sleeping. His tossing and turning was ruining his wife’s sleep too, so they were going to get separate beds. It was a bit pathetic, and I paid him his asking price (probably $35).

As I was on my way out of the apartment, I noticed a chess board set up. “Do you play chess?” I asked. Yes, he said and immediately asked if I’d like to play. I’m a terrible chess player, but he seemed so forlorn, I figured it was the least I could do. Besides, it wasn’t even a real chessboard but a checkerboard with red and black squares. So how good could he be?

I let him play white. He moved out his king’s pawn. I did likewise. It was the only move I knew. Then he did something I’d never seen before. He moved out his king’s bishop pawn. Not his queen’s pawn, not his knight – the only two second moves I recognized as legal. I don’t recall what move I made, but after about four more moves, it was clear that I had lost.
“What was that?” I asked.

“It’s the King’s Gambit,” he said, “it was popular in the 1890s but hasn’t been in much use since the 1920s. It develops a strong king’s side attack.” Or something like that.

He offered to play again. Still thinking that I was doing him a favor, I accepted. Again, he moved out his king’s bishop pawn on the second move. I stared at the board and then tried the same second move I always played, the one my father taught me. I pushed my queen’s pawn to the center.

“Ah,” he said, “the Falkbeer Countergambit.” He added a capsule history, and a few moves later my pieces, those that were still on the board, lay in a disastrous position.

Now I felt even worse. Here’s a poor guy, living in a foreign country, stressed out by grad school, unable to sleep in the same bed with his wife, suffering from insomnia. And not only was I responsible for his taking financial a loss on his bed, but I couldn’t even provide him with a decent game of chess.

And Bobby Fischer? He too lost a game playing black against the King’s Gambit. Boris Spassky was playing white. That was in 1960, and Fischer left the match in tears. He went back to the drawing board and developed the Fischer Defense – a defense which, he thought, would relegate the King’s Gambit to the dustbin of history.

It didn’t. The gambit is still played – Fischer himself played it as white at times – but nobody ever played it against Fischer in a tournament. And everybody (well, everybody who follows chess at all) knows what happened in his Reykjavik match against Spassky twelve years later.

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