Bobby Fischer: The greatest chess player of them all?
Bobby Fischer, who died yesterday, was not just a genius but a troubled icon whose struggles epitomised the spirit of the Cold War era.
Saturday 19 January 2008
There was only one Bobby Fischer. For seven weeks of 1972, the Western world seemed to stand still and watch in awe as this lonely, troubled genius fought the Cold War on a chess board, and won.
He was arguably the best chess player the world has ever seen, yet he was an abject failure in life, a self-hating Jew, who betrayed the country in which he grew up, and threw his talent away. His death is hardly an occasion for great mourning: he was so obviously unhappy on this earth that he may be better off out of it. But oh, the waste of a brilliant mind!
In the Cold War, the capitalist and Communist systems of America and Russia fought one another by proxy. They competed in space, or meddled in the affairs of small countries such as Afghanistan.
In 1972, the US government was crippled by the Watergate scandal; it had failed in its efforts to be rid of Castro and defeat was looking inevitable in Vietnam.
Then a chess player from Brooklyn, New York, fired by a loathing of communists, emerged to take on the Soviets in a field where they had been supreme for decades. The USSR took its chess very seriously. Potential champions were selected young and trained by grandmasters. They were expected not just to excel in the game, but to be model Soviet citizens, ambassadors for their country. At home, they were admired like rock stars. Abroad, they were carefully, protectively watched by the KGB.
Out of 88 chess grandmasters in the world, 33 were from the Soviet Union, and another large batch were from the satellite communist states of eastern Europe. Every world chess champion since 1937 had been a Soviet citizen.
Against this vast phalanx of chess champions, all the US had to offer was this strange loner who had dropped out of school in his teens. He was so unpredictable that the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, rang him several times to plead with him not to drop out of the contest.
Bobby Fischer was a deeply troubled man. His communist mother, Regina, was certainly part of the problem. She was a strong woman with strong opinions. It emerged years later that the FBI was watching her, believing she could be a spy. Their file on her was 900 pages. His supposed father was Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist, who married Regina in Moscow in 1933, but left her and her two children before Bobby was old enough to have any memory of him.
The now declassified FBI files suggest that Bobby was actually conceived in Washington in 1942, when Regina was visiting a close friend, a Hungarian born physicist named Paul Felix Nemenyi. He paid Regina child support until his death.
Little Bobby found out about chess from a book when he was six, and soon became absorbed in it to the exclusion of all other childish interests. This led his mother to take him to a psychiatrist, who told her not to worry.
So instead she took him to play chess against a master, Max Pavey, who was giving a simultaneous exhibition. Bobby survived 15 minutes on the board against Pavey, which so impressed the chairman of the Brooklyn Chess Club that he invited the boy to join and learn the game from adults. At about 1954, when he was 11, Fischer "just got good". By the age of 14, he was the US national chamion. In 1958, he became the first player in the history of the game to achieve grandmaster status as young as 15.
Bobby's unique style of play was likened to the behaviour of a wild predator. It was impossible to predict which opening he would use or what he would do next. As he approached the final round of the 1972 world chess championship, Boris Spassky, the reigning champion, should have seen what was coming. Fischer charged through the opening rounds, winning six games out of six. Even in the semi-final, against the former world champion, Tigran Petrosian, he won by five games to one. The KGB analysed Fischer's behaviour and concluded that he was a psychopath. Spassky was apparently confident of victory.
On 11 July 1972, in a sports hall in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, the final played to a packed auditorium. Spassky took his place at the chessboard. But opposite him, there was an empty chair. Fischer had not turned up. Spassky, playing white, moved his queen's pawn forward two squares. No response. The arbitrator pronounced that Spassky was now ahead in the contest, by one game to nil.
It looked like a petulant blunder by the challenger, who had become more fussy and prone to complain about the conditions under which he was forced to play chess which each passing year. He had repeatedly accused the Russians of cheating, and lying. Now he had thrown a match.
In retrospect, it looks much more like a clever ploy in a psychological war against Spassky and the Soviet apparatus. From then on, Spassky never knew what Fischer would do next, but he hung on gamely as the American repeatedly beat him. By game 11, Fischer was winning 6.5 to 3.5 in the best of 24 games final. At game 21, Spassky surrendered. For the loser, it was a humiliation that landed him in trouble with his government, which was already wondering if he was some sort of secret dissident, but he was able to live comfortably in Russia after the collapse of Communism. For the victor, the outcome was unmitigated disaster. Having reached the pinnacle of his ambition, at the age of 29, Fischer seemed to lose his faltering grip on reality. He refused to continue playing, and lost the world title by default in 1975 to yet another Soviet player, Anatoly Karpov.
Fischer then went into hiding, apart from one impulsive television appearance and the occasional game. He had already renounced his Jewish heritage by joining a sect called the Worldwide Church of God, based in Pasadena, to which he donated a large chunk of his winnings. In 1978, he sued a magazine that had criticised the church, but then accused the church of reneging on a promise to finance the lawsuit.
In May 1981, he was wandering around Pasadena, shabbily dressed and with a flowing beard, when a policeman spotted him and thought that he might be a bank robber. He was arrested after refusing to answer the lawman's questions. A year later, he described the experience in a diatribe which he published under the title, "I was tortured in the Pasadena jailhouse".
Even in his teens, Fischer's rift with his mother seemed to turn him into an anti-Semite. In 1962, he was quoted as saying: "There are too many Jews in chess. They don't seem to dress so nicely. That's what I don't like." In 1984, he sent an open letter to the Encyclopaedia Judaica demanding that his entry be removed.
In 1992 he emerged from retirement to play a rematch with Spassky in Serbia. He won by 10 games to five, with 15 draws, but the game put him in conflict with the US government for defying its sanctions against Serbia. That, and his anti-Semitic tirades, provoked the Worldwide Church of God into publicly disowning him.
The incident simply stoked Fischer's hatred of his home country. He continued raging against the Jews, became a Holocaust- denier, and after 11 September 2001, he went on radio in the Philippines to say: "This is all wonderful news. It's time to finish off the US once and for all."
He was arrested in Japan in 2004, and faced the possibility of being sent back to the US to stand trial for sanctions busting, but found sanctuary in Iceland. Its people had not forgotten the man who made them the centre of world attention in the summer of 1972. He died in a Reykjavik hospital.
The grumblings of a grandmaster
* ON CHESS: "Chess is war over the board. The object is to crush the opponent's mind."
* ON WINNING: "I like the moment when I break a man's ego."
* ON WINNING: "There are tough players and nice guys. I'm a tough player."
* ON FRIENDSHIP: "I don't keep any close friends. I don't keep any secrets. I don't need friends. I just tell everybody everything, that's all."
* ON HIS RIVALS: "Karpov, Kasparov, Korchnoi – these guys are really the lowest dogs around."
* ON JEWS: "America is totally under control of the Jews, you know. I mean, look what they're doing in Yugoslavia."
* ON WOMEN: "They're stupid compared to men. They shouldn't play chess."
* ON THE MEDIA: "Is it against the law to kill a reporter?"
* ON THE TERROR ATTACKS OF 11 SEPTEMBER 2001: "This is all wonderful news. It is time to finish off the US once and for all."
A flawed man, a flawless player
By Jon Speelman, Grandmaster and chess writer
Bobby Fischer was one of the greatest chess players of all time and an inspiration for generations of young players following his world championship victory against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik 1972.
After the end of the Second World War and the death of reigning champion Alexander Alekhine in 1946, a period of Soviet hegemony ensued with few serious Western challengers until the Dane Bent Larsen started to give them a run for their money.
In his prime, Fischer was a force of nature with an unsurpassed will to win, especially with the black pieces. He took opening preparation to a level undreamt of by his predecessors but surpassed by Gary Kasparov and in more recent times by the symbiotic analysis which is now possible with the help of computers.
A ferocious attacking player, Fischer scored many of his early successes as white against the Sicilian Defence, often tearing his opponents to pieces. But his overriding characteristic was not violence but clarity of thought: he had a preternatural ability to cut his way through complex positions, finding blindingly clear solutions to apparently baffling problems.
Unfortunately, this clarity of thought didn't fully extend beyond the chess board. A Cold War icon after the defeat of Spassky, Fischer's life started to unravel after the failure three years later to arrange a title defence against Anatoly Karpov. Stripped of his title, he continued to maintain that he was world champion and it was his "rematch" against Spassky in defiance of the UN that led ultimately to his ruin: though he was able to play some magnificent chess on the island of Sveti Stefan, even after a lay-off of 20 years.
The argument as to the "greatest of all time" will always continue and always be subjective. Players tend to go for those they know personally and I would plump for Kasparov. However, Fischer is certainly one of the chasing group and his very best games are a glorious legacy of a flawed but fantastic life.
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