Friday, January 18, 2008

Bobby Fischer and the longing for order

The NY Times headlines this morning refers to the death of Bobby Fischer, and by coincidence last week I finished reading Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How a Lone American Start Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine. Fischer has been insane for many years, and as far as his Jewishness, I believe he wrote a letter to Encyclopedia Judaica asking to be de-listed, denying his Jewish identity (aside from the many anti-semitic ramblings he vented during his life). But putting that aside, there has always been fascination with Fischer because of his tremendous genius on the chessboard.

I think chess perhaps satisfies some inner need to withdraw into a confined space where movement is restricted by precise rules, where logic and order reign supreme, but at the same time where creativity is not compromised. While Fischer was still sane he always carried with him a pocket chess set that he would pull out anytime and anywhere to study chess problems while ignoring his surroundings. I have been reading some other books on chess players and could not resist comparing their concentration and mindset to that which we use to approach learning. L'havdil, how many similar stories are told of gedolim who could have a gemara handy at all times and be learning no matter what was occurring around them. The yam hatalmud is a similarly confined space, with its own logic and rules (13 midos, what makes for a good kashe or teirutz, etc.), yet which also allows for brilliant creativity which can be aesthetically pleasing to behold as well as logically compelling. I wonder if enjoyment in learning, chess, or similar activites stems from some type of need to withdraw from the messy unpredictability of every day life into a world of ordered rules and logical calculation that we can mentally assert control over. Returning to this artificial world provides a safe harbor, and the greater the mastery of this artificial environment, the greater the almost addictive infatuation with it becomes.

(To avoid misinterpretation: I am not suggesting gedolim learn she'lo lishma, motivated only by psychological need. I am suggesting that chess and learning and math and other activities may be pleasurable in part because they satisfy a psychological longing for order.)


  1. 1) There has been speculation that Fischer (beyond any questions of insanity in later life) was autistic, and much of the behavior you cite was used as evidence.

    But that does not mean any of the gedolim to whom you refer were, of course.

    2)I've always thought that one of the key principles of Judaism can be stated this way: that the Holy One, blessed be He, ordered the universe in a particular way. On the physical level, this is reflected in the laws of science. On another level, this is the meaning of halacha--we do things a certain way because that way accords with the manner in which the universe is ordered. Moreover, in exploring and expounding halacha, humans have a unique opportunity not simply to discover the order that is already there, but to create order in places where it has yet to manifest itself in ways that humans can perceive it. Hence, halacha gives us a chance to become (very junior) partners with the Deity in the work of creating and maintaining the world.

    My idea, and one I came up with many years ago, and have never seen anything similar in anything I've read, but it does reverberate with what you wrote in the last paragraph.

  2. kisnevi,
    Sounds a bit like Halachic Man to me.

  3. kishnevi9:51 PM

    I read Halachic Man, and don't remember much that actually corresponds to what I was trying to express above--although the Rav was writing (as I recall) more from an individual existential view, and I am thinking more in terms of traditional theological statements.

    But I will make no claim to aquedately understanding Halachic Man.