One Night in Bangkok I Played Chess for World Domination

ChessThe song goes “One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble.”  It was by Murray Head and was featured in the musical Chess.  This was a story put to music about the battle between Bobby Fischer, the brilliant American chess genius and Boris Spassky the efficient machine like Russian chess grandmaster.   (In the play, the antagonists are an American chess champion and a Russian chess champion and Fisher and Spassky are never mentioned but the characters are thinly veiled portraits of Fisher and Spassky)  Ostensibly this was a chess match between two magnificent chess players.  However, only slightly beneath the surface it was in reality a match between the United States and the the-production-company-chess-michael-falzon-and-castSoviet Union for dominance of the world.  (If you would like to hear the song, click here)

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel the Devil walking next to me.

1972wc Fischer vs Spassky The New York Times bookThe match took place at the height of the Cold War between the Russians and the US.  Everything from sports to ballet to politics was imbued with the animosity that characterized Russian American relations during this time frame.  The match took place in 1972.  Spassky was the defending world champion and Fischer was the United States great “Western Hope.”  The Russians were well known for being the greatest chess players in the world and few would have ever hoped that the US could challenge them at what amounts to their national game.  For the previous 24 years, the Russians had defeated all comers to remain the world chess champions.  All eyes, all hopes, all dreams, all aspirations and all of the US national pride rode on the shoulders of Bobby Fischer.  People who would not know the difference between a pawn and a knight were tuned into what would become one of the most epic battles of the entire Cold War.

I grew up playing chess when my father taught me the game at about the age of 6.  At the age of 8, I could beat my father easily.  I played whenever and whomever I could and rarely lost a game more than once to the same person.  I thought of chess as my game since it was a game of logic and intellect.

Bobby Fisher could have easily been described by the following adjectives:  eccentric, idiosyncratic, unconventional, unorthodox, unusual, strange, bizarre, peculiar and odd.  At age 15, Fischer became both the youngest grandmaster in history and the youngest candidate for the World Championship.  Fisher died in 2008 in Iceland at the age of 64.  This was the same country where he had defeated Spassky in 1972.

At the time of his death, Fisher was no longer a national hero (if he had ever been one).  He had been considered a fugitive from US justice over some tax payments that the government believed he owed for more than sixteen years.  Haunted and hounded by the US Department of Revenue, he had to flee arrest several times.  He no longer had the support of the American public due to his rabid anti-Semitic comments as well as his other anti-American views.  Few in this country saw him as upholding American values or the American way of life.

I don’t see you guys rating
The kind of mate I’m contemplating
I’d let you watch, I would invite you
But the queens we use would not excite you.

PokerPoker is a more popular game in the United State than chess.  It is estimated that there are over 60 million poker players in the US, forty millions of whom play regularly.   It is estimated that there are 45 million chess players in the US but only a small subset of this play regularly and there are only 90,000 active tournament players in the US for chess compared to 10 million Americans who play poker regularly for money.  Poker is a game of bluff, luck and intuition.  Chess is a game of logic, cognitive ability and foresight.  Both are games of strategy.  Poker favors an emergent strategy which takes stock of trends, cards, people, bets, emotions, tells and previous history to determine the best odds on which to place a bet, hold em or fold em.  Chess favors a predictive strategy which takes stock of position, history, foresight, patterns and possibilities to determine the next best move.  There is no luck in chess since both players have the same pieces and the same possibility for moves.  Poker can be determined by the luck of the draw wherein one player gets dealt a full house and the other player gets a pair of deuces.  Nevertheless, it is possible for the player with the deuces to still win.

Russian chess players versus American poker players!  In many ways, the differences between the two games highlight the way Americans seem to pursue foreign policy versus the way the Russians have pursued foreign policy.  To beat the Russians at chess required someone like Bobby Fisher who was perhaps the most creative and innovative chess player in the history of the game.  There was little that was methodical or predictable about Fisher’s game playing.  In many ways, Fisher was a poker player who adapted his skills to the game of chess.

“Fischer was a master of clarity and a king of artful positioning. His opponents would see where he was going but were powerless to stop him. I like to say that Bobby Fischer was the greatest Russian player ever. All of his great opening moves came from the Russians. He studied all of their methods. But what made Fischer a genius was his ability to blend an American freshness and pragmatism with Russian ideas about strategy.” – Bruce Pandolfini

Bobby_Fischer_graveThere are many claims to the “Great American Tragedy” but in my mind, few equal the tragedy of Robert Fischer.  Perhaps at some level, I can find myself identifying with him.  Not in terms of his anti-Semitic or anti-American opinions but certainly in his idiosyncrasies regarding his playing and his involvement in tournaments.  When I was a child, we used to play a game called “King of the Hill.”  You could only be king for so long and eventually either one or the entire group would pull you down.  This game taught me that you can only “reign” for so long and eventually whatever greatness you have will be eclipsed by others.  Great actors become has-beens.  Great athletes become washed-up.  Great singers become past their prime.  Great politicians outlive their times.  Great thinkers are no longer able to think great thoughts. Whenever we become “King of the Hill” there is only one direction to go.


Chess Champion Bobby Fischer

Bobbie Fischer was the greatest chess player in history.  But the more he won the higher up the hill he went.  The higher up the hill he went, the farther he had to fall down.  I stopped playing chess regularly many years ago.  The more games I won, the harder it was to play.  I could not bear the idea of losing or the possibility of losing.  Despite the fact that I had always learned from losing in my early years of chess playing, I could no longer accept the idea of losing.  I told myself repeatedly that one has to lose to get better and that even if someone beat me, I could adapt and overcome.  Something inside me lost the drive to win.  I lost the will to power. I no longer aspired to be a “higher” man.   It simply seemed like too much work.

“The higher man is distinguished from the lower by his fearlessness and his readiness to challenge misfortune.”  ― Friedrich NietzscheThe Will to Power

russia versus US chess setI can only imagine what it must have been like to be Fischer. The entire esteem of the United States was riding on his match with Spassky.  All minds and all hearts needed him to beat the Russian.  We had to show the world that we were not only the economic and physical match for the Russians but we were also their intellectual match.  The Free World, democracy and God were riding on the outcome of Fischer’s match with Spassky.  Can you imagine the pressure that was riding on Fischer’s shoulders?  The stress that he had to cope with would have been incomprehensible.  I think it would have driven most people stark raving mad, which I sometimes suspect it did to Bobbie.

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel the Devil walking next to me.

Obama-and-Putin-s-International-Chess-Match--115652It is now almost 50 years later and we are still playing chess with the Russians.  Obama and Putin have taken the place of Kennedy and Khrushchev.  The game of chess is still pitted against the game of poker.  World fortunes and prestige still ride on the outcome of matchups between us and the Russians.  The pawns have become the Arabs while the rulers of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, ISIS, Iraq, Jordan and Europe fill in for the knights, bishops and rooks.  Putin is the King for the Red side and Obama is the King for the White Side.  The head of the Sunnis will fill in for the Red Queen while the head of the Shiites can fill in for the White Queen.  Let the games roll on.

“The more things change, the more they are the same.” — Alphonse Karr

Time for Questions:

Do you play chess?  Do you play poker?  Which do you prefer? Why?  Have you ever played in a tournament?  What does it take to be great?   Which strategy works best in politics?  Why?

Life is just beginning.

“I believe every chess player senses beauty, when he succeeds in creating situations, which contradict the expectations and the rules, and he succeeds in mastering this situation.” — Vladimir Kramnik


13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. gapawa
    May 31, 2016 @ 04:52:34

    Hey there John! Just trying to connect with the other chess guys on WordPress:)



  2. johnpersico
    Jun 01, 2016 @ 12:11:06

    Thanks, I posted your reply but how do they connect with you?

    Liked by 1 person


  3. calgaryrob
    Mar 01, 2017 @ 18:18:22

    Enjoyed your post John. I’m a “retired” chess guy, but still play poker. I remember Fisher Spassky like it was yesterday. I once got to play Nunn on the stage at Lloyd’s Bank in London in 1984. Spassky was on stage sitting right behind me. Fun day, particularly for Nunn who was 9th ranked in the world at the time and made short work of me. So many years ago…



  4. escher
    Dec 14, 2018 @ 11:33:40

    You are an idiot who doesn’t understand anything about poker. You showed a less than layman understanding of the game with your assessment.



    • johnpersico
      Dec 14, 2018 @ 13:17:53

      Thanks for your comment Escher. I am sure I could learn a great deal more about poker and as is usually the case any glib characterizations by someone who is not really knowledgeable can come across as vapid and superficial. Nevertheless, in my defense, many strategists have seen the two games as being almost diametrically opposed.



  5. Lance Maenpaa
    Jan 06, 2021 @ 20:30:44

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  6. Etha Okrent
    Mar 01, 2021 @ 08:09:58

    What’s up, all is going nicely here and ofcourse every one is sharingdata, that’s really good, keep up writing.



  7. Lindsay Mt
    Apr 17, 2021 @ 20:18:22

    Good day! I know this is kinda off topic however , I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in trading links or maybe guest authoring a blog post or vice-versa? My site covers a lot of the same subjects as yours and I think we could greatly benefit from each other. If you might be interested feel free to send me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you! Fantastic blog by the way!



  8. Jerrica Schermann
    May 05, 2021 @ 23:08:33

    This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something that helped me. Thank you!



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