The strange life of Bobby Fischer


Bobby FischerForty five years ago this month, a momentous event took place in Iceland that shook the world. After 21 games spread over almost two months, the eccentric American chess master, Bobby Fischer, ended 24 years of Soviet dominance in chess after beating Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky. It shook the world at the apex of the Cold War. I watched it unfold, a memory I will always  carry.

Many years later, former Russian grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, commented,

…in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. That’s why the Spassky defeat […] was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War.

Back in those days, I played chess with more enthusiasm, skill and grace than I can muster today. Bobby Fischer was one of my early chess idols whose games I followed (I still have books of his games on my shelves). I remember very clearly that year when he was playing Boris Spassky in Iceland. 

I was working in a bookstore in Toronto back then, in that summer of 1972. Every day after a game had been played, I would go out at lunch and get a newspaper. With my chess-playing co-workers, we would go over the match move by move. Try variants, explore alternatives, discuss the results. And look in awe at what masterpieces he wrought on the chessboard.

It wasn’t just the game or the skill of the moves that fascinated me (not all of those games are great, I admit). It was the sudden appearance of chess in the forefront of Cold War geopolitics and the larger implications of the match on the world stage. If you didn’t live through the era, it’s hard to explain how the Cold War affected international and domestic politics, or how a chess match could be the fulcrum of boisterous nationalism on both sides of the divide.

But in the summer of 1972, chess was newsworthy, gaining front page status, and time on the evening TV broadcasts. Chess was cool, chess was sexy, chess was in – not just for me, but for all of pop culture. Chess sets sold faster than they could be stocked. And 29-year-old Bobby Fischer was its golden boy. 

Last week, I started reading Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady. It is the most comprehensive biography of Fischer yet and reminds me somewhat of Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs: both subjects were troubled, difficult but brilliant men. Both ran off the rails, but Jobs always managed to get back. Fischer never did. It’s a heart-rending, troubling, but fascinating story.

I had been a pretty fanatic player back then. I travelled with a chess set, I played all-nighters, I read chess books and practiced openings, I did chess puzzles, played everyone I could. I’d been playing since I was around 7 or 8 – about the same age Fischer was when he began to play – and although I never got to competition status, I was a pretty good patzer. I loved all aspects of the game. Fischer’s victory in Reykjavik was, for me, as big as Armstrong’s walk on the moon. Chess was that big a part of my life then.

Fischer was a genius on the chessboard, up there with Capablanca, Alekhine, Lasker. His best games were works of art to be studied and examined. And in 1972 he stood alone against the well-trained, well-disciplined and seemingly invincible Soviet chess machine. Like that photograph of the lone protester standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. It was a historic moment.

But his meteoric rise came to an end. Crashed down, really, a fall from stratospheric heights. A Shakespearean fall from grace worthy of Lear. Fischer went from national idol to despised wingnut almost overnight.

My own hero worship of Fischer began to fade somewhat before he crashed and burned; about the same time my obsession with chess did. By the time Fischer began to go off the rails, I had turned my chess interests elsewhere (the three Russian Ks: Karpov, Korchnoi and Kasparov among them). But others were turning away, too. Even his most loyal fans found it difficult to defend his increasingly erratic behaviour, especially since he had left the chess world.

After Reykjavik, with no hook to hang a story on, chess sank in the media, too. Chess again got relegated to weekly columns in the back section of newspapers, where it languishes today alongside horoscopes and sudoku puzzles. Bobby Fischer disappeared too, although the sensationalist media kept up a patter of gossip and speculation about him. He was hardly even visible, hiding out in run-down dives, avoiding publicity.

A couple of years passed after Reykjavik. In them, I discovered wargames (those great board games from Avalon Hill and SPI…) and they took up an increasing amount of my spare time and socializing. I played games like Panzer Blitz, War in the East, Waterloo and Napoleon’s Last Battles with my friends and acquaintances instead of chess. I started reading military history instead of books about chess openings. I learned to play go, Diplomacy, backgammon. In fall, 1977, I got my first computer and learned to program. I became a techie. I started writing for computer magazines. My attention shifted from the chessboard.

I also played guitar (since 1965) and in the 1970s and 80s, I jammed regularly with new, musically-inclined friends. But although I still liked to play chess, I had always lacked the intellectual focus and dedication to the game Fischer had. The obsessive dedication. But then, Fischer – seven years older than I – never faced the distraction of the Sixties and the pop cultural revolution it entailed (not to mention the sexual revolution which occupied me…). 

Bobby Fisher, and indeed most things about chess, disappeared from my personal radar. The people I used to play with moved, or also changed interests. Chess for me became a now-and-then thing, something I dabbled in with increasing infrequency (today I barely can beat a computer app at its easiest…).

But it wasn’t just me. The whole world was changing rapidly; new technology, new politics, new interests, new games. Intellectual pastimes like chess gave way to “reality” TV, smartphones and  Facebook. In the era of personal computers, chess programs, Deep Blue and the internet, he was terribly old school. 

Fischer’s fame and celebrity status affected him, assaulted him. Already awkward in social situations, after Iceland he became more reclusive, more difficult and anti-social. He dropped out of the competitive chess circuit, refusing to play in public for 20 years. Stories surfaced about his odd, often troubling behaviour. He stopped paying his taxes in 1977.

His obsession with strange groups and fringe conspiracy theories, his anti-semitic (even more disturbing, since his own mother was Jewish) and anti-American rants pushed people further away, even those who tried to befriend him. His bizarre attachment to a fundamentalist Christian cult (followed by his subsequent rejection of it as a con game) estranged him further. When he needed health care, he increasingly chose alternatives – so-called “natural” and homeopathic “remedies” – instead of actual medicine.

He refused all offers of sponsorship not from some ethical position, but because he wanted more. He demanded more. He was obsessed with money and saw any attempt to negotiate as an assault on him. He made absolute – and often outrageous – demands that were routinely rebuffed. In the end, no one was willing to pay what he demanded for an interview or a photograph. As a result, he became impoverished.

Fischer retreated from the mainstream into what can only be called insular madness. He disappeared from the media, stopped playing chess in public. Gave up his title and vanished. Only rarely was something heard or read about him, and then unflattering. Today, we would call what he became an alt-right conspiracy nut; I suspect if alive today, he would be a Trump supporter, even a member of his staff, had he not been an exile from the USA.

But,as Brady tells it, his chess brain remained as active and as sharp as ever. WHile he seldom played even privately, he did share his game analysis with many of those in his dwindling circle. But the public never heard any of it.

Fischer resurfaced briefly in 1992 when he fought a highly-publicized rematch against Spassky for several millions of dollars (the only reason he would play again was money; he won, but they weren’t his best games and Spassky was far down the ladder of the world chess hierarchy by then). 

The match was held in Montenegro, at the height of the Balkan civil war, but because it had sanctioned the region, the American government refused to allow him to attend. He went anyway, and the government crashed down on him, demanding his arrest (the only person to be so charged under this law). He became a fugitive, further powering his paranoia and his anti-American sentiments. He spent the next eight years in Hungary (and sometimes travelling in Europe) until media found him and he fled again.

He ended up in the Philippines in 1999. He managed to find himself a spot on a small, local radio station where he could voice his wacky ideas and conspiracies, his anti-American and anti-Jewish rants between the oldies they spun for him. He junketed between Japan and the Philipines for several years, fathering a child (a girl) with a young Filipino woman, and giving his acerbic screeds to radio stations. Just after 9/11, in an interview on Philippine radio, he cheered over the attacks, swore invectives against America, wished it was destroyed and called for the death of the president and thousands of Jews. Thanks to the internet, his broadcast was heard worldwide. If nothing before had done it, this cemented American (and generally world) opinion against him.

His passport was finally revoked, and the US government put out a warrant for his arrest. In mid-2004, he was arrested in Japan and jailed. He tried to renounce his American citizenship to avoid extradition, but the US ignored his request. In a panic, he looked for another country to take him in as a citizen. None of his choices seemed to want a Holocaust-denying, hate monger in their ranks. But Iceland said okay, even despite his continuing vitriolic broadcasts from prison. Icelanders felt sorry for him, it seems.

After almost ten months in which he was imprisoned, and during which he married his Japanese female friend (one of the country’s strongest women chess players but it seems to have been a platonic relationship), he was accepted as a citizen of Iceland. Japanese authorities deported him and he retired in Reykjavik. His “wife” remained in Japan while Bobby lived there until his death, in 2008, a recluse and a broken man. And there he died, in 2008.

Bobby Fischer was crazy, yes, but he was also brilliant (reading books of philosophy until the very end). Perhaps the most disturbing thing for me is knowing that the madness, the conspiracy theories, the illogical wackiness, the homeopathy, the cult religion, the alt-right views – they were all assumed by a man with a breathtaking IQ. That his views, his beliefs, his politics and his philosophy were not merely those of the disenfranchised, the uneducated, the Trumpists. He was someone we should have looked up to – he was for a brief while – but became someone we despised.

No one can help but admire his chess. No one can help but be offended by his loathsome politics, his screeds, and his beliefs. His life is truly the great American tragedy. One wonders what might have transpired had America a proper, universal health care system, a mental health care program he might have been able to access even in his poverty, a system where he might have had access to care, therapy and treatment. We’ll never know. But I like to think, had he been saner, he could have led our North American culture to a more intellectual plateau through a comprehensive study and appreciation of chess in schools and pop culture. 

Instead, we got the Kardashians and Snooki. The ignorati rule social media and mainstream politics.

Bobby Fischer today is seen as an outlier, an exception to the rule, a unique event; but looking at the state of the White House today, I suspect his sort of madness is more widespread than we like to pretend.

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