I think that the chess match between Bobby Fischer and Donald Byrne was one of the greatest single competitions in the history of games or sports. Imagine this: a child, 13 years old at the time, sits fidgeting in front of a regal statesman of the game. Byrne was a chess master out of the most stereotypical mold: thick-rimmed glasses, hand posed quizzically against his cheek, a peregrine’s stare. Opposite him: a snail out of it’s shell, defenseless, ready to become nothing but another inkstain on the belabored history of the game. At this point, Fischer was nothing greater than one for the future, your standard Jock Rodwell/Gael Kakuta/Marc Albrighton type. Known, but yet to make an impression, wearing king-sized tap shoes on a national stage– the 1956 Rosenwald Memorial.
The game was standard enough to begin with, your slightly unusual set of semi-standard opening moves. Combinations with names you’d find in only the worst historical fictions: the Grunfeld Defense; the King’s Indian Defense; the Russian System. Fischer played Byrne evenly for the first 12 or so moves, before his tactics seemed to go miserably wrong. To the modest but enthusiastic audience present, the motivations of the players, the sprawling heap of potential iterations of combinations of moves, and the strategies of the shell-less snail versus the philosopher couldn’t have been more than speculation. Here’s the thing about chess: although there are so many potential combinations of moves that most games end up becoming unique, it’s incredibly rare to see a master of Fischer or Byrne’s level do anything unexpected, anything out of the “Black Letter Law” that makes up chess tactics. Whereas watching two behemoths of the soccer world can be utterly fascinating, watching a similar chess match can be mind-numbingly boring, even to those who understand the game at the same level.
That’s why everyone was so shocked when Fischer made one of the most elementary errors possible in the game. He moved his Knight to the edge of the board, doubly reducing it’s effectiveness. Under normal circumstances, when the Knight is present in the center of the board, it’s power stems from its ability to jump any direction. By placing his knight on the edge of the board, Fischer essentially ran onto the pitch and threw himself into a two-footed tackle on one of his better players, rendering him virtually unable to sprint. There had to have been some exchanging of wide-eyed glances, those kind of looks that say, “well, that’s why he’s a kid,” perhaps a giggle here or there. Fischer kept his eyes trained on the board. If he was aware of his error, he didn’t acknowledge it. Byrne glanced up immediately, an then a few times while pondering his next move, somewhere between amused and confused.
To make matters worse, Fisher lost his queen a few moves later. No soccer analogy needed here. For all but the elitist of the elite in the room, the match looked over. Then something strange happened. A few moves later, Fischer had checked his opponent’s King several times and had taken several pieces. Byrne’s King found itself far, far outside of it’s comfort zone, with no protection. A few checks later, Fischer had captured Byrne’s Queen. The polite disdain of 20 minutes earlier had turned into pure shock at what was unfolding. A few moves later, the match was over. Byrne was defeated (to his credit, he could have resigned at a certain point, but chose to nobly-stoically stick it out till the bitter end). What had happened? How had Fischer’s fate turned so quickly from folly and disgrace to ingenuity and eternal fame? Well, it turns out, Fischer had a plan. That plan involved the most unlikely, the most unseemly, the most un-Chess-like set of moves, and it all began with the seemingly stupid Knight move. In other words, Fischer, despite being all of thirteen, could see what the the rest of the audience, including his opponent, could not: the one incredibly powerful set of moves that, despite appearing inane, was actually perfect.
I can’t speak for the world at large, but here in America we love a good movie or book with a “gotcha ending.” Whether it’s the realization that Andy Dufresne didn’t kill himself in The Shawshank Redemption, Keyser Soze revealing himself at the end of Usual Suspects, or Danny, Rusty and crew’s brilliant plan within a plan to rob Terry Benedict in Ocean’s Eleven, we can’t get enough of that moment when it turns out that everything you thought you knew about someone or something was wrong, and the truth was so much better or powerful. Fischer’s combination in what would become known as “The Game of the Century” fits this mold as snug as a shirt owned by Saloman Kalou being worn by Charlie Adams. This is no way official, but I like to call this trope “reverse dramatic irony.” Dramatic irony occurs when the audience of a show know things the actors do not; reverse dramatic irony then turns this on its head, positing things that the actors know, but the audience does not. It makes for fantastic drama, whether in sports or entertainment.
Which brings me finally to the question I have been setting up all this time: what’s soccer’s greatest instance of “reverse dramatic irony?” Where’s the Bobby Fischer moment, and why isn’t it celebrated as such? Is such a thing even possible in a sport where what happens on the field (even the tactics) is so largely physical? You can point to moments in other sports where such an event happened. Michael Chang’s famous under-handed serve, for instance. It’s quick, but who would have thought to attempt that during such an important match at the French Open, or that it would have worked? In (American) football, you could point to any one of the times that an opposing defense has let a team score, accepting the inevitable and giving themselves the opportunity to score the in the minutes which remained. But where is this in soccer? I pose the question to you, O87 reader. Answer us in the comments or on Twitter. I will try my best to answer it in the final part of this post.