From chess's Cold War warrior to its Most Wanted, Fischer's luck finally runs out

The game appears to be over for Bobby Fischer, the mercurial chess legend who has been evading American authorities for 12 years since he was found guilty of violating international sanctions, popping up in countries around the world, giving occasional interviews but always vanishing from sight again.

The game appears to be over for Bobby Fischer, the mercurial chess legend who has been evading American authorities for 12 years since he was found guilty of violating international sanctions, popping up in countries around the world, giving occasional interviews but always vanishing from sight again.

Fischer, 61, was reportedly trying to board a Japanese Airlines flight at Tokyo's Narita airport on Wednesday bound for the Philippines when he was detained by immigration officials for allegedly trying to travel with an invalid passport. Yesterday, he was being held in custody in Tokyo pending possible extradition to the United States.

It is an undignified predicament for someone who is still considered by experts to be the most brilliant chess player in history. An American citizen and a grand master at 15, he shot to fame in 1972 when he played and defeated the then world chess champion, Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union.

The meeting was staged in Reykjavik, Iceland, and was dubbed by Americans as the "Match of the Century", even attracting uninterrupted coverage on US television. Already, Fischer was betraying peculiar personality traits, appearing at moments to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Nonetheless his victory in Reykjavik instantly cast Fischer, then just 29 years old, as a hero of the cold war. Until Mr Spassky went down to his guile, Russia had dominated the world chess scene since the Second World War. America had already beaten the red menace in the space race. Now it had overcome it on the chessboard.

Things seemed to go awry for Fischer in 1975, however, when he was due to meet Anatoly Karpov to defend his world title. The game was never played because of a string of conditions that he tried to impose that the International Chess Federation declined to accept. He withdrew and instantly forfeited his title. Karpov became champion by default.

From that time on, Fischer appeared to embark on an international odyssey, living in secret outside the United States. In the meantime, he became known for expressing extremist political views in media interviews, ranging from anti-Semitic attacks and rants against America. Although his mother was Jewish, Fischer once said that Jews were "thieving, lying bastards". After the attacks of 11 September three years ago, he told one interviewer that America should be "wiped out".

But his legal troubles with the US began back in 1992 when he surfaced in Yugoslavia for a one-off rematch with Spassky. Fischer won the match 10 games to five and pocketed $3.35m (£1.7m). Soon afterwards, an American Grand Jury charged him with violating United Nations sanctions that barred any economic relations with Belgrade because of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Actions taken against Fischer included suspending the validity of his American passport. Moreover, it appeared last night that US customs officials had been tracking his movements in the past weeks with the hope of finally bringing him into custody.

After vanishing once more following his victory in Belgrade, Fischer was only finally located in 2001, apparently living in Japan with support from members of the country's chess community. But it was not clear how long he had been in Japan before this week.

Over the years, he had been sighted by fans in Japan and in the Philippines, where he gave some of his controversial interviews. In 1996, he announced that he given up chess as the rest of the world knows it and invented his own version, "Fischerandom", in which the pieces on the back line of the board are shuffled by a computer by each match. He said it would bring fun back into the game and help to thwart cheats.

Miyoko Watai, an official of the Japan Chess Association and a friend of Fischer, told reporters in Japan that he had not known that his passport was invalid until his arrest.

"He had been travelling frequently over the past 10 years, and there was never a problem," she said. "I don't understand why his passport was revoked all of a sudden."

She added: "He came here often for short stays. He also travelled to the Philippines, Germany, Switzerland and many places. I feel sorry for him. He was like a child. Chess had been his life, so he was sheltered from the world in some ways. Once he made up his mind, he would never change it, no matter what. That didn't always make people happy."

Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported yesterday that Japanese officials were investigating how Fischer had travelled into Japan and were taking the first steps to organise his deportation to the United States, where, presumably, he will face trial. Japan and the United States have a joint extradition treaty. A guilty conviction could land the former world champion in prison for 10 years, legal experts said.

According to another friend, the Filipino grandmaster Eugene Torre, his arrest had caught Fischer completely off-guard and had come at a time when he was considering seeking political asylum in Switzerland. "Poor Bobby," he said.

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