Profile: Inventor of the 20-year stalemate: Bobby Fischer, the one and only

Click to follow
The Independent Online
From Belgrade via New York last weekend came the news that after 20 years in hiding Bobby Fischer will play chess again. This September in Yugoslavia he is going back into battle in a dollars 5m ( pounds 2.6m) match against his old rival, Boris Spassky, whom he defeated for the world championship in 1972. That world championship series was not only the biggest thing that ever happened in Reykjavik, but also the biggest thing that ever happened in chess, a perfect analogue for the Cold War and the impetus for a middling musical by Tim Rice.

In the two decades since, Fischer, a genius and eccentric unequalled even in the annals of chess, has withdrawn from the game into some weird hinterland of his own. His public actions have been limited: he has continued his litigation in a long-running dispute over the presence of film cameras at Reykjavik; he has written a pamphlet, I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse, about his wrongful arrest and detention on suspicion of a bank robbery; he has been granted a patent for a new kind of chess clock.

But down the years there have been endless tales, many rather disturbing, by Fischer-watchers on two continents. Some tell about chess, others maintain that his interest in the game has been replaced by political passions of an unpleasantly right-wing nature. One persistent rumour was that he had had his teeth fillings removed, to prevent the beaming of harmful rays through the metal. But to his faithful, the news that their hero is about to play again, and against his old foe, is on a par with the news that Elvis Presley has just played a concert in downtown Baghdad.

But according to the Yugoslav organiser, it is true; indeed, Fischer is already in the Montenegrin resort of Sveti Stefan, and is personally directing structural alterations to the playing room. That is a very sensible way of going about things. Fischer does not play in any old room, nor under any old conditions. The previous meeting with Spassky produced a litany of complaints and threatened walk-outs from a man who imagined or saw betrayal and Commie cheating and bugging all around.

His contract listing the conditions for this year's match stretches to 16 pages; no doubt it takes account of all possible distracting eventualities, though the organisers have denied reports that one clause relates to the noise of firing from the Yugoslav civil war.

Whence sprang this unparalleled genius, this world-class weirdo? Fischer was born into a Brooklyn Jewish family in 1943, but his father disappeared when he was two years old in circumstances that have never been explained. A famous photograph from 1972, the year Fischer was doing battle across a chess board against Communist devils, shows his mother, Regina, standing outside the US Consulate in Dusseldorf with a huge placard around her neck: I AM AN AMERICAN: MR NIXON END THE VIETNAM WAR.

The young Bobby was taught chess by his older sister and in his early years established himself as a chess prodigy without equal. At 14 he became the youngest ever US champion; at 15 he reached the last eight in the world championship to become the youngest-ever grandmaster. At 16 he left school because there was nothing they could teach him about winning the world chess championship.

From his early teens, Fischer fought with messianic zeal on two fronts: first, to gain a respect and status for chess that would enable it to rank with top international sports, and second, to beat the 'Commie cheats' who had held the world championship title since 1948.

But, against Commies or anybody else, he would never go lightly to the table complacent in the knowledge that his genius would be enough to see him through. He stayed away from tournament play, sometimes for a year or more, because the organisers could not meet his steadily growing lists of conditions, which might include lighting requirements, furniture design, piece size, spectators' seating arangements, and bans on photography as well as more mundane financial matters.

After being lured back to a tournament in 1967 from which he had withdrawn a few days previously, Fischer protested about a game he was judged to have lost by default in his absence: 'At the moment when I was supposed to have lost the game by default, I had already withdrawn from the tournament. How can a player lose a game when he is not even in the tournament?' Fischer's transcendental logic was lost on the organisers, so he walked out again.

Such disputes were commonplace in Fischer's career. In 1968 he offered to play for the US in the Chess Olympics, but only if he could play all his games in private. His request was not granted, and he stayed away from competition for almost another two years.

Whenever he did play, his results were stunning. Other grandmasters, following the patterns worked out over years of analysis, played technically correct but often uninspiring games against each other, more often than not ending in draws. Then Fischer came along, scoring long strings of wins against top opponents in a way that had not been seen for 50 years. He won every game in the 1963 US Championship, a feat never before accomplished. He scored 6-0 victories in world-title qualifiers.

In many respects, Fischer was the perfect chess-playing machine, never affected by stress or self-doubt, motivated only by a desire for perfection. For him, an opponent was not so much another human being competing with him, as something making moves across the board, merely a necessary attachment to play a decent game of chess.

At the board, he behaved with perfect courtesy towards opponents, but between games he seemed to spend most of his time arguing with organisers. Years before John McEnroe, he perfected the art of picking fights with officials, and, like McEnroe, he would never have got away with it had his play not been so brilliant.

In 1970, after two years' absence from competition, Fischer surprisingly agreed to play for a 'Rest of the World' team against the Soviet Union in Belgrade. His opponent was Tigran Petrosian, the Armenian former world champion, who had a reputation of invincibility. From a deceptively innocuous opening, Fischer developed a devastating attack and swept his opponent from the board.

The public's attitude towards Fischer was never better illustrated than in the opening games in Reykjavik. He had threatened to withdraw from the match (a phone call from Henry Kissinger is said to have helped persuade him to play), failed to turn up for the opening ceremony, lost the opening game and defaulted on the second while embroiled in a dispute about film cameras in the playing room.

The Icelandic crowd was incensed by what it saw as his bad manners and was solidly behind Spassky. But after Fischer's brilliant victory in game three, the whole population of Iceland seemed to be chanting 'Bobby, Bobby'. From being described as the only American who could make his countrymen love a Russian, Fischer became a national hero.

In public, the Soviet chess establishment criticised Fischer, but in private it accorded him a unique respect. After a leading Soviet trainer had explained the inevitable supremacy of the Soviet Chess School, he was asked: What about Bobby Fischer? 'That was different,' he replied. 'Fischer was a genius.'

In 1975, three years after beating Spassky, Fischer had to defend his title. He produced a 14-page list of conditions, comprising 179 numbered paragraphs. The International Chess Federation accepted 177 of them, andthen gave way on No 178, too. That was one too few for Fischer. He resigned his title, which passed by default to Anatoly Karpov.

Since then, his life has become the stuff of myth, legend and probably nightmare. There are stories that cast question marks over his sanity, but none about his genius.

One US grandmaster tells a tale of a car journey with Fischer in the late Seventies. The driver had arranged to pick up Fischer in clandestine fashion at a coffee bar near Central Park, New York. As they drove, a couple of the chess players in the car with him passed a pocket set to Fischer in the back seat, asking his opinion of a fashionable and highly complex variation. Fischer glanced at the position and said, 'Don't worry, I've got it all worked out.'

Since his final game with Spassky in August 1972 all attempts to lure him back to serious play have foundered; his conditions have always rendered it impossible.

What is different this time? Several things, perhaps. Financial considerations may have played a part. He has refused enormous purses in the past, but, with little revenue for the past 20 years, and an ever-decreasing band of well-wishers willing to pay his bills, he may need the money.

In Boris Spassky, the Yugoslavian sponsor, Jezdimir Vasiljevic, has produced the one opponent who could tempt the American. According to Fischer, Spassky is the only man with the right to play him. This will merely be a return match 20 years and one day after their 1972 contest. For Fischer, Yugoslavia is the perfect venue. He gained his grandmaster title there, at the age of 15, and always got on well with the officials. When Fischer played in Belgrade again in 1970, the principal organiser said: 'I do not understand people who say that Fischer is difficult. You just have to ask him what conditions he wants and agree with all of them.'

What, if he does get to the board, can we expect from a 49-year-old who has not played chess for 20 years? Most top players reach their peak around the age of 30 and start a slow decline at about 35. The stresses of serious chess are usually too great for a man approaching 50. But then, to Bobby Fischer, normal rules have never applied.