You heard me right the first time.  Played a game of chess against Bobby Fischer, the late, great, crazy-as-a-coot former World Champion.   Bobby beat me, slaughtered me in fact, though I held on and kept playing despite the fact that I had few pieces left at the end.

When I was a kid I had one great dream— to play major league baseball and take the field alongside my hero Mickey Mantle, who played center for the Yankees.  I played the game every day, played Little League in southern California for the Yankees, knew that somehow I’d wind up pitching in Yankee Stadium, and on days when I wasn’t pitching, playing third base and hitting home runs, being celebrated by other kids all over the country and have my photo on a bubble gum card.  By the time I was in high school, it was pretty clear that my dream of playing in the major leagues wasn’t going to come true.  I wasn’t a good enough hitter, not fast enough, not strong enough, not enough of an athlete.  My right arm hurt from years of throwing unsupervised curve balls and it looked like I was going to have to earn a living in the real world, rather than continuing to be a kid and play a game during the summer.  I turned to other sports, and became infatuated with the chess world.

I learned to play the game from books and joined a chess club.  I stayed up late playing through master games, learning about openings and end games, reading histories of all the world champions.  Early in high school I entered some sanctioned tournaments and got a rating, then began playing what then were called “postal games”, signing up for a league and communicating with my opponents by sending moves and counter-moves by mail.  I collected Chess magazines and my hero was Bobby Fischer, the teenager who astounded the chess world by challenging Russian domination of the game in the early 1960s.

By 1964 Bobby was world-famous.  He was an individualist and an iconoclast, throwing barbs at the Russians and making demands from tournament organizers and opponents alike.  Back then, world champion challengers gathered at tournaments and when Bobby went to Curacao to play for the right to challenge the champions he confronted three or four Russian players who regularly played short draws with each other in collusion.  It was pretty obvious what they were doing—making it easy on themselves to make it harder on Bobby.  He pitched a fit and went on a tour of the United States to promote himself and his new ideas about how to run a fair and honest championship cycle.

So, Bobby came to Wichita, where I was in school and living with my folks.  At the University, a lecture and simultaneous exhibition was announced and I signed up right away.  On the appointed day I was in the audience when Bobby appeared looking fairly impressive in brown suit and tie.  He was tall and spoke in a dramatic authoritative voice, giving a lecture and demonstration about a game he’d played that year against one of the Russian players, Ewfim Geller.  It was fabulous.


Then came time to play.  There were forty-four of us ranged around a large, rectangular area.  All the challengers played black, Bobby walking briskly from board to board, making resoundingly quick moves after a glance at the game.  At first, Bobby didn’t come by too quickly, and I felt I had a chance to think.  I was nervous and wanted to give him a tussle.  But, other players began dropping out and Bobby came by more and more often.  It didn’t seem like I had any time.  I lost a pawn and then another and maybe a piece or two, I don’t recall.  After about fifteen moves or so, my position was utterly hopeless but I played on to the bitter end, getting checkmated in an embarrassingly horrid fashion.  That day, Bobby won forty-three and drew one.  I have no idea what person managed a draw, but my hat is off to him.

Bobby died a couple of years ago, schizophrenic and raving.  His loss was a tragedy of enormous proportions given what he could have done for American chess and what he actually did do.

One thing I remember clearly.  I looked at his suit and tie and was impressed.  But I noticed he wore mismatched blue socks and clunky shoes.  So, when it came time to create Mitch Roberts, my Wichita private-eye, he was (like Philip Marlow) a chess playing sleuth and didn’t have much of a fashion sense.