During a week in which sport has searched its soul to understand the secret pressures placed on its heroes, Bobby Fischer: Genius and Madman (BBC4, Wednesday) showed how fame can destroy the most brilliant of talents. It's not just that a chess player has more possible moves to make in a single game than there are atoms in the solar system (that's 10 to the power of 45, in case you were wondering), which takes a certain type of mind in the first place. In fact it's the insatiable power of such talent which perhaps makes it more vulnerable. But Fischer was under far greater strain than a mere maths test.
It seems strange to say now, but in the early 1970s Fischer was the most famous man on the planet after Jesus Christ. Crowds stood outside shop windows to watch his battle with Boris Spassky. Not only that, he was also a pawn in Henry Kissinger's Cold War games. "The Communist state took over chess to use asproof of mental superiority over a decadent West," said grand master Gary Kasparov. "Fischer realised that he was fighting not just for him but for the entire free world. It was too much of a weight on his shoulders." No matter how unlikely, he was in the blue corner with the Stars and Stripes trunks on.
Six hundred million people play chess worldwide, yet there are maybe as many who would say it's not a sport. But Fischer is reckoned to have put some 20,000 hours of practice in since the age of six, and his personal trainer Harry Sneider said "Championship chess is a highly physical game". Fischer was fascinated by fitness and trained like a boxer (without the sparring – not good for the brain), so it's no surprise when a commentator on the Fischer-Spassky contest in Finland in 1972 said: "It's just like the Ali-Frazier fight all over again." The rather absurd modern phenomenon called "chess-boxing", in which contestants go from board to ring and back again, rather unsubtly makes the point.
But the real work is, of course, all in the mind. A litany of chess's casualties includes Akiba Rubinstein, who jumped out of a window because he thought a fly was after him, and Carlos Torre Repeto, who took all his clothes off in a bus. At 14, Fischer's mother Regina paraded him from town to town, and he would take on up to 80 opponents at once.
When he was 16, Regina walked out on him. He didn't know who his real father was, or even that he was Jewish. Such a background would be enough to destroy any child, let alone a prodigy. He was 29 when he beat Spassky in a thoroughly obnoxious display of gamesmanship, then he fled and went into hiding as his mental state deteriorated.
He turned to the fundamentalist Worldwide Chuch of God, then descended into an all-consuming anti-semitic paranoia. He made a comeback in 1990 at the request of a Hungarian girl admirer, flouting the United Nations to play Spassky again in war-torn Yugoslavia. Then he disappeared again.
He was next heard ranting about 9/11 on a radio station in the Philippines – "what goes around comes around" – prompting George Bush to issue a personal threat against him. Only Finland would take him in, and there he died, raving to the last. The endgame was protracted and messy, and in his mind Fischer could not escape his chequered past.Reuse content