Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Must Read about Wilt Chamberlain & Bobby Fischer

I just landed in Seattle when I receive an email from David Friedman granting me permission to publish this story. David is a USCF expert and professional sportswriter. His work has appeared in Lindy's Pro Basketball, Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. Check out his basketball blog at Thank you David!

Wilt & Bobby: Not a Random Encounter (A fictional story)

by David Friedman

Chess is a matter of delicate judgment, knowing when to punch and how to duck."—Bobby Fischer

“Not unlike Mike Tyson, a later world champion from Brooklyn, Bobby Fischer loved to intimidate.”—Dick Schaap

“Where there’s a Wilt, there’s a way.”—Wilt Chamberlain

In his memoir Flashing Before My Eyes, Dick Schaap recounts having dinner with Wilt Chamberlain at the Hall of Fame center’s palatial Bel Air home. Schaap, the only person ever to serve as a voter for both the Heisman Trophy and the Tony Awards, loved to bring together eminent people from different fields and watch the sparks fly. He became acquainted with Bobby Fischer in the late 1950s and knew that the World Chess Champion was in the area, so he asked Chamberlain to invite him over. Schaap writes that Fischer expressed a great interest in seeing Chamberlain’s house but ultimately declined the invitation. Of course, much of Fischer’s post-1972 activities are shrouded in secrecy. At least one account suggests that he did in fact join Chamberlain that evening, just after Schaap had left…

Wilt Chamberlain was known to the general public as “Wilt the Stilt,” a nickname that only an unimaginative hack could love (or write). His friends called him “Big Dipper,” or “Dipper,” or even “Dippy” in reference to how the 7-foot, 300 pound basketball playing legend had to dip his head to go through doorways that were only designed to accommodate mere mortals.

Like the Greek gods who lived atop Mt. Olympus, Chamberlain resided in a sprawling pleasure palace with a majestic view. While the Olympians took their name from the mountain where they dwelled, Chamberlain named his house after himself: Ursa Major, the constellation containing the group of stars called the Big Dipper.

Ursa Major sat on a hilltop overlooking Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. The house’s most famous feature was the 10-foot long, triangular section of the roof that was retractable, providing an impressive view of the sparkling California sky. Bobby Fischer once dreamed of living in a house shaped like a rook and containing spiral staircases, so how could he resist an invitation to Chamberlain’s house, with its chrome spiral staircase, 20-foot high ceiling and one of a kind furnishings?

Chamberlain, who favored comfort over formality—particularly when he was at home—was barefoot and wearing only shorts and a tank top when he greeted Fischer. The World Chess Champion, clad in a tailor made suit from Argentina that had seen better days, gripped Chamberlain’s huge, outstretched hand a bit tentatively, his eyes guardedly taking in the mammoth basketball legend and the elegantly decorated home. They walked inside. Fischer looked around the house in silent appreciation.

"Hey, my man,” Chamberlain said enthusiastically. “Check this out.” Chamberlain directed Fischer’s attention to a one of a kind chess set: handcrafted pieces made out of real ivory sitting atop a gorgeous wooden board. Fischer picked up one of the pieces, delicately held it with his long, pianist-like fingers and nodded approvingly: “This is really first class.”

Chamberlain—an avid chess and backgammon player—challenged Fischer to a game. Fischer was reluctant but Chamberlain, whose eagerness to master new challenges was only exceeded by his boastfulness about his prowess, persisted: “I’m undefeated here. I never lose at cards or backgammon and I’ve yet to find a good challenge in chess.”

Fischer agreed to play, but said that to make things fair he would turn his back and announce his moves without sight of the board. He took white and played his customary e4. Chamberlain responded with d5, employing the Center Counter, his favorite defense.

The game unfolded rhythmically, a dance of the minds punctuated by each player calling out his move. Fischer declared his moves quickly and with great self assurance. Chamberlain was equally self assured, but deliberated over each move like a gourmand reading a restaurant menu.

Fictional Game

White: Fischer, Bobby
Black: Chamberlain, Wilt

1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 Qd8 4.d4 g6 5.Bf4 Bg7 6.Qd2 Nf6 7.O-O-O c6 8.Bh6 O-O 9.h4 Qa5 10.h5 Nxh5 11.Be2 Nf6 12.Bxg7 Kxg7 13.Qh6+ Kg8 14.g4 Rd8 15.g5 Nh5 16.Bxh5 gxh5 17.Rxh5 Bf5 18.g6 fxg6 19.Re1 e6 20.Qxh7+ Kf8 21.Qh8+ Ke7 22.Rh7+ Kd6 23.Nb5+ cxb5 24.Qe5+ Kc6 25.Qc5# 1-0
(Can you guess who actually played this game?) Click here to play the game.

Chamberlain shook his head. “I’ve never lost so quickly at anything.”

“You didn’t have a chance against me with that line,” Fischer replied. “I refuted that whole variation more than 10 years ago. One guy tried 10…gxh5 against me, but he didn’t last any longer than you did.”

Chamberlain, never one to either easily accept defeat or avoid a debate, considered this for a moment and said, “You just played this whole game from memory. You didn’t really outthink me. If we set the pieces up at random, I’ll bet I could beat you because you couldn’t use any of your pet lines.” Granted, that might not sound logical to an outside observer, but if you spent your whole life doing outsized things that nobody else could come close to doing then you might be able to convince yourself that beating Bobby Fischer can be accomplished by changing the starting position of the pieces.

Chamberlain set up the board to start another game, but after putting the pawns on their usual squares he put the rooks where the knights should go, put the bishops on the rooks’ home squares, placed each knight on bishop one and transposed the king and queen. “Let’s play again.” Fischer looked at the new formation for about 10 seconds, then turned his back and announced his first move. Within minutes Chamberlain’s position looked more bedraggled than the New York Knicks did when he scored 100 points against them. Chamberlain looked at the board silently. Chamberlain knew what Schaap would say: “Maybe you should play blindfolded. Then at least you won’t have to see the carnage.”

Undaunted, Chamberlain set up the board with yet another different starting alignment and the two men resumed combat. What happens when two stubborn insomniacs are determined to prove that they are right? In this case, an all night session of a variant form of chess. Chamberlain was right that shifting the starting formation rendered Fischer’s knowledge of book openings useless—but that actually increased Fischer’s advantage, because he could fully utilize his well honed creativity and positional understanding. Chamberlain, on the other hand, could neither play the opening lines that he knew nor could he devise suitable alternatives.

Chamberlain grew more and more frustrated but Fischer saw the light—and it wasn’t just the rays of the early morning sun shining through the retractable roof: this type of “shuffle chess” had real possibilities. Chamberlain never did win a game, so he shifted the contest to a different level: what the new game should be called. Chamberlain favored “Dipper Chess” or “Ursa Major Chess.” Fischer retorted, “Who is going to play something called ‘Dipper Chess’? Besides, I’m the World Champion and I won every game, so it should be named after me.”

When Fischer left Chamberlain’s house, no one knew that—other than an unscheduled engagement in a Pasadena jailhouse—he would not be seen in public for nearly two decades. When he came back, he was heavier, had more facial hair and was a little more (ahem) eccentric and he also spoke of a new version of chess that would stump computers, eliminate pre-arranged draws and revitalize the sport: Fischer Random Chess.

So how come Chamberlain’s autobiography didn’t mention his role in creating Fischer Random Chess? The answer is simple: he did mention it in the first draft but one all-nighter of chess versus Bobby Fischer inexplicably did not make the cut over 20,000 other “nights” that Chamberlain enjoyed. Oh, one more thing--that digital clock that Fischer patented and has become standard fare at chess tournaments—there is a great story about its creation, but that will have to wait for later…

Published by permission from David Friedman. Thank you David for sharing this with us. It is a fantastic piece. This piece was orginally published on Please check out many other wonderful articles and features at the official new and improved USCF website.
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Knicks Fan said...

Wow! This is such a cool story! And David has such a cool blog too. Thanks Susan!

Anonymous said...

Very nice article. Didn't know they knew each other.

Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable read and I'm not even Bobby's fan.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Susan!!!

Anonymous said...

this is fiction. not real.

eyes_of_a_child said...

What fun!

In the 1950s, as kids, we used to switch all the major and minor pieces around on the back rank and then play chess, as well.

I'm sure that children have been doing it as long as chess has existed, too.

greatest_winner said...

I liken Bobby more to Bill Russell: Professional basketball's greatest champion. Russ was the starting center and leader of the Boston Celtics during the late 1950s, 60s, and early 70s during which he led them to 11 National Basketball Association (NBA) championship rings, more than any other NBA player or coach ever, and more than Wilt Chamberlain (2 NBA championships) and Michael Jordan (6 NBA championships) combined (8).

greatest_winner said...

On the other hand, perhaps basketball's greatest winner--Russell--shares more with baseball's greatest winner: the Yankees' Yogi Berra. Both placed winning above any personal statistic.

Ultimately, I suppose it is difficult to draw fair parallels between a chess player's 1-on-1 (game) accomplishments and a team sport participant's contributions.

greatest_winner said...

As Celtics player Don Nelson told the Boston Herald, "There are two types of superstars. One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the floor. But there's another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that's the type Russell was."

Anonymous said...

Guess who played it? They claim on the USCF site: the first to guess which fischer game this is based on....

Anonymous said...

I recall that somebody tried this opening against Fischer in an Olympiad. Somebody with a name starting with R.

Not Reshevsky.

Richter? Rauzer? Robatsch?

MayanKing said...

Well written! At last we now know how Fischer Random Chess was invented.

Anonymous said...

Nice article. Cogratulations.

Anonymous said...

David Friedman wrote (W.Chamberlain speaking to B.Fischer):
If we set the pieces up at random, I’ll bet I could beat you because you couldn’t use any of your pet lines.”
Granted, that might not sound logical to an outside observer,
you might be able to convince yourself that beating Bobby Fischer can be accomplished by changing the starting position of the pieces.


Friedman sees it as absurd to think a merely good chess player could be suddenly more competitive against a great player, just by switching to chess960. I agree.

I am confident that the best players of traditional "chess1" would also be the best players of chess960 (FR Chess). Both are valid implementations of the general concept we call chess.

Chess1 requires much pre-game memorization, in order to play the opening phase at world class levels. Chess1 involves much repetition of identical moves among sets of games.

Chess960 requires different types of opening training and skills, but the details of those skills are not yet deeply understood.
Thus we still have much more to learn about general chess than has yet been widely realized or acknowledged.

We are not going to make those gains in chess knowledge until more chess960 friendly Tournament Organizers appear on the scene.

Gene Milener

David Friedman said...

Thank you all for the positive feedback. Just to be clear, the story is indeed fiction--but the introduction is true. Schaap knew Fischer and Chamberlain did invite Fischer to come to his house at Schaap's suggestion. Fischer declined, however...

Chamberlain did play chess and was fiercely competitive at any game that he tried. There is a picture of him with his chessboard in his autobiography A View From Above.

Chess researcher Bill Wall wrote that the Center Counter was Chamberlain's favorite opening.

The Chamberlain-Russell debate will go on for eternity. My selection of Chamberlain for this story had nothing to do with Rusell, though--the link between Fischer and Chamberlain came via Schaap. I know of no "hook" to link Fischer and Russell.

This story was originally published at, the U.S. Chess Federation's new and improved website. Editor Jennifer Shahade is doing a great job there and I encourage everyone to visit the site.

Polo_Mateo said...

I am confused here. So this story is all made up.
I just don't get the hook ...
Why is there no disclaimer?
Some people can read this as a true story.
Such garbage should not be published.

Miguel said...

David, thanks for the entertaining story and I'm glad it's published here. I usually don't bother checking the uscf site. Most of the stories there don't interest me.


Anonymous said...

I only go to the USCF website to check my rating. Even though the new site is improved, it doesn't do much for me.

Anonymous said...

David got me good! I really believed in the story! Very good!

David Friedman said...


Ever heard of "War of the Worlds"? Some people heard that radio show and really thought that the world was under attack. Kosinski and many other writers have produced works where the line between autobiography and fiction is intentionally blurred. That is not the case here, though; it is plainly stated at U.S. that the story is fiction. Susan's reprint includes the notation "fictional game" before providing the moves. USCF is holding a contest in which the first two people who guess the real game that provided the basis for the fictional game will win a prize.

I'm sorry if you felt deceived in some way--but that is also tribute to how realistically written the story is. My intent, though, was not to deceive, but to write the story in a way that those who are familiar with Chamberlain and/or Fischer would recognize certain traits and those who are not familiar might glean something about their personalities.

I also think that the idea that randomizing the pieces would favor the weaker player is widely believed by a lot of people but not really the case. This is analogous to something that I've heard a lot of players who are below a certain rating level say: the way to beat a strong player is to "get him out of his book" by playing unorthodox moves. The orthodox moves are orthodox for a reason and unless one's innovation represents a significant improvement on centuries of chess theory--an unlikely achievement for most people--deviating from sound principles will only lead to a quicker loss. So there is a message or "hook" in the story but not in a heavyhanded way; hopefully, most people will simply find it to be an entertaining read.

strong_families said...

Chamberlain and chess?

Surely this is merely a publicity stunt. With his prolific bedroom exploits, Wilt had little time or energy for chess...much less being a role model for strong families, family planning, or being a strong, dedicated, faithful, reliable father figure:

"In his second autobiography, A View from Above (1991), Chamberlain claimed to have had sex with almost 20,000 women. This would have meant, on average, having had sex with more than one new woman every day of his life since the age of 15. Because of that, many people doubt his specific number, though few question the fact of his promiscuity. He drew heavy criticism from many public figures, who accused him of fulfilling stereotypes about African Americans, and of behaving irresponsibly, especially given the AIDS crisis, which was well underway by the 1980s (when many of the encounters occurred). Chamberlain defended himself, saying "I was just doing what was natural — chasing good-looking ladies, whoever they were and wherever they were available."

"Negative role models:

Wilt Chamberlain brags of 20,000 sexual conquests; Magic Johnson admitted having over 200 sexual partners."

From Publishers Weekly review: Wilt Chamberlain The View From the Top

"...among his [Chamberlain's] many records is the almost incredible scoring of 100 points in a single game. [...] Chamberlain also gives details of his prodigious sexual appetite, the number of his bed partners having passed 20,000 and still climbing."

Polo_Mateo said...

Thanks for the disclaimer. The story would be more appropriate on April's fool Day. The story was misleading as posted on Susan's blog. Most of us read fictional game as the game being recreated but the story as true. Fischer in his twisted mind may still see the story as another veiled jewish conspiracy to cast doubt on his achievements.

David Friedman said...

I think that Chamberlain citing the 20,000 number was certainly a publicity stunt designed to sell more books, but my story is not a publicity stunt.

Less well known about Chamberlain is his dedicated, long term support of women's sports, particularly volleyball, and his numerous charitable contributions, particularly to physicians without borders.

Sadly, just as it is possible to find aspects of Chamberlain's life to criticize it is also very easy to find aspects of Fischer's personality that would offend most of us. My story is a lighthearted look at one of the greatest basketball players ever and one of the greatest chess players ever.

As for how much time Chamberlain spent playing chess, he had enough interest in the game to include a picture of himself playing chess in his autobiography. He enjoyed playing many games--not only chess, but also backgammon and cards.

I would not even pretend to be able to imagine how Fischer might react to this story but it is certainly not meant to discredit his claim to developing/promoting FischerRandom chess.