Wilt & Bobby: Not a Random Encounter
By David Friedman   
November 10, 2006
NBAE Getty Images.

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*.


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.

David Friedman 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 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com.

*- CONTEST: Congratulations to Mark Ashland and John Stopas for e-mailing the first two correct answers: The game was played between Fischer and Robatsch in Varna 1962. It is included in My 60 Memorable Games. The first two USCF members to identify which real Fischer game this fictional one stems from will receive one of the following: Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth,2005), or a biography of Chamberlain, Wilt: Larger than Life by Robert Allen Cherry. First to answer correctly will choose. The author of this story, David Friedman wrote a chapter on the NBA in Basketball in America. Send your answer, along with your name, address, book preference and USCF ID to [email protected].