Bobby Fischer died in January 2008 in Reykjavik, still tilting at windmills, with the bats of paranoia still fluttering around his head and with his prejudices firmly in place. He had come back in a thirty-six year loop to the scene of his greatest triumph and, although nobody realized at the time, to the place where his career virtually ended.
Fischer became World Chess Champion in 1972 by defeating the holder of the title, Boris Spassky, in the unlikely setting of Reykjavik, Iceland. It was the first championship match held outside Moscow since 1946 and it was the first time in decades that 'the Russians', as Fischer always called them, had been beaten by anyone from outside the Soviet bloc, let alone by an American.
Robert J. Fischer was born in Chicago in 1943. He moved, with his mother and sister, to Brooklyn and at the age of six he learned the basic moves of chess, becoming so absorbed in the game that when he was seven his mother, Regina, placed an ad in the Brooklyn Eagle, enquiring whether there might be other children of Bobby's age willing to play chess with him. At eight years old he joined the Brooklyn Chess Club.
It was obvious that Bobby was talented, but he was not a prodigy in the sense that, say, Raul Capablanca had been. The Cuban Capablanca had been known for the elegant simplicity of his style. At the age of four, so the story goes, Capablanca had watched his father playing chess with a friend. After the game, which his father lost, young Raul told him he had made an illegal move with the knight and demonstrated the correct move. His father set up the pieces again and Raul won the game... In due course Capablanca became World Champion and held the title for most of the 'twenties. He never seems to have studied the game much and had a reputation for being rather lazy! He claimed never to have owned a chess book.
Bobby Fischer wasn't like that although experts noticed the similarity between the Cuban's style and Fischer's as he matured. . He had an incredibly retentive memory, studying and committing to memory the games of all the important players, past and present. He also resurrected some long-forgotten games from the nineteenth century. Up until he was twelve years old he improved steadily, but at about thirteen, and quite suddenly, he moved into a class of his own. He became the youngest player to win the U.S. Junior championship and started to win tournaments all over the U.S. circuit. From the age of fourteen he won every single chess tournament he competed in for the rest of his career, with two exceptions. Over the next few years he became quite simply the best. Many people, and here I hold my hand up, think he was the greatest player in the long history of chess.
But he also had major psychological flaws that, as we can see now, ultimately destroyed his career and his life. Early on it was noticed he didn't just want to win; he liked to make his opponents squirm. "I like the moment when I break a man's ego", he said in an interview. He hated everything to do with the Soviet Union and came to see it as his mission to crush the Russian hegemony. He also began to mutter about the 'International Jewish conspiracy' and its lackeys, who seemed to be in charge of just about everything. This was very strange because his mother was Jewish and probably his father, a physicist, was too, and he was brought up in a Jewish area of Brooklyn.
As he became more successful Fischer started to get a name for being difficult to work with. He put everybody's back up; tournament officials, sponsors, journalists and interviewers. He pulled out of tournaments, complained about conditions, lighting, photographers, the amount of money on offer and anything else he could think of. In 1971 he took on the three other contenders for the right to challenge the World Champion. He beat the first two, Taimanov and Larsen 6 - 0 each, a score line never achieved before or since. The last of the three was Tigran Petrosian, a Russian of the old school with a reputation for being extremely hard to beat. Fischer won with a score of 5 - 1 and three draws. It was said afterwards, although not by Fischer, that he had a bad cold at the time!
The run-up to what was being billed as the most important match of the century was fraught with the usual dramas, accusations and postponements which had come to be associated with Bobby Fischer. He even threatened to boycott the event completely if his conditions were not met. Everybody knew he was quite capable of doing just that. He had done it before - several times. In 1962 and again in 1968 he stopped playing tournament chess for eighteen months each time. The press billed the coming World Championship match as a classic confrontation between East and West. And in 1972, as the world hunkered down further into the Cold War, it was easy to see it as the Russians versus the Americans, the totalitarian state against the free world, the bad guys against the good. That's how Bobby Fischer saw it. "Someone has to stop them. I've been chosen. I intend to teach them a little humility", he said. This was Clint Eastwood facing up to the crooked sheriff and his deputies.
Fischer was the last person to teach anybody humility, but that didn't matter. The public loved it. For the first time ever, chess was sexy. Bobby was young, tall and good-looking, charismatic and immensely talented, and he was not about to be over-awed by the historical or political significance of the event. No sir.
And there was something else. Fischer was a loner. Most Grandmasters had a whole team behind them. This particularly applied to the Soviets. The point was that if, after a days play the position was adjourned, the Grandmaster could fall into bed for a well-earned sleep, while his team, consisting of other Grandmasters and analysis experts could worry over the position and find the best continuation for the next day. The Soviet Union was fielding a very strong team of Grandmasters to help Spassky, plus the resources of about thirty-five Grandmasters back home. Bobby Fischer didn't have any of that. He had one Grandmaster and two administrative helpers, but in fact he did his own analysing. He once said, "If I win a tournament I win it all by myself.
I do the playing. Nobody helps me". Nobody knew if Fischer would be there for the first game on July 12. He dithered and dallied and seemed uncharacteristically nervous. He was still in New York when Spassky's team were settling in to their hotel in Reykjavik, but finally an English businessman topped up the prize money to $250 000. This was an unheard of prize for a chess match, and it finally persuaded Fischer to turn up.
Fischer was unsettled in the first game and lost fairly easily. He refused to play the second game until all the cameras were removed from the hall. He probably figured the officials would agree to his demands but they didn't and he forfeited the game. Fischer was now two games down. A lead of two games is normally enough to secure a match. Protect your lead, play defensively i.e. play for draws, and you should win. But not against Fischer. He arrived late for the third game, as he did for nearly all the games and won convincingly. He won the next game to level the score and two games later he took the lead. By game ten he was leading 5 - 2. After that there was never any real doubt as to the outcome. Fischer became the new World Champion on September 1 with the final score at 7 - 3, not counting draws.
Fischer received a heroes welcome on returning to New York. Offers and sponsorship deals flooded in but, although nobody realised it yet, Bobby's glory days were all but over. It would be tempting to end the story at this point; a high school drop-out from Brooklyn with no knowledge of art, culture or politics - in spite of an I.Q. of 181 - had taken on the mightiest chess-playing nation in the world and single-handedly beaten it out of sight.
After the match Fischer gave more than $60 000 of his prize money to The World Wide Church of God, an evangelical sect that he had been connected to since the mid 'sixties, but shortly after he won the title the church hit a rocky patch when the apocalypse it had predicted failed to materialise and one of its founders, a well-known radio preacher with the resounding name of Garner Ted Armstrong, was involved in a sex scandal. Fischer felt betrayed and sued the Church, saying it took its orders from "a satanical secret world government".
Before the World Championship Fischer had promised not to sit on his title. He said he would play a lot of competitive chess. In fact he played very little. He was due to defend his title in 1975 against Anatol Karpov but he bickered with officials up to and beyond the date of the match, about prize money and conditions, and so lost his title by default.
Fischer now began his long trek into a nightmare of his own making. He started to dress like a hobo and grew his hair and beard long. His paranoia deepened as he ranted about the Jews, the 'Commies' and the FBI. The Russians were cheats and were involved in a conspiracy to 'fix' international chess, and he lived in fear of being poisoned. He told someone at this time, "If the commies come to poison me, I don't want to make it easy for them". He also had all his fillings removed in case someone managed to put an electrical bug in one of his teeth to influence his thoughts.
Fischer did not stop playing altogether and those who played him reported that he was playing as well as ever. In 1992 he came out of his self-imposed exile to play Boris Spassky in a rematch. The winners share was to be $3.65 million. By this time he definitely needed the money; after all, he had turned down millions of dollars over the past two decades in sponsorship deals and million dollar match fees. But the real reason he took on the challenge seems to have been the love of an eighteen-year-old chess prodigy from Budapest called Zita Rajcsanyi.
She it was who finally persuaded the reclusive Fischer to leave the sanctuary of his flat in California and travel to Yugoslavia.
Government officials advised him not to play the match in Yugoslavia because strict UN sanctions were in place but when asked on TV if he would heed US Government warnings he held up the Treasury department letter and said; "Here is my reply to their order not to defend my title here", and spat on it. Fischer went on to win the match 10 - 5 and his passport was immediately revoked and an order for his arrest issued by the Bush administration, making it impossible for him to return to the US.
Again he disappeared, and with good reason. This time they really were after him. There were reports of him being seen in Poland, Germany and the Philippines. And it was in the Philippines that Fischer hit rock bottom. In a local radio broadcast on September 11 2001, just after the Twin Towers had been destroyed he said; "This is all wonderful news. I applaud the act. The US and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians...for years. I want to see the US wiped out".
For a while now, he lived in Tokyo, with his de facto wife Miyoko Watai, the Japanese women's chess champion, before being arrested by the Japanese authorities for using a revoked passport. He was held for nine months and threatened with deportation to the US. Finally in 2005 a grateful Iceland offered him citizenship. He died of liver failure in January 2008 with Miyoko at his side, still tilting at windmills as the light faded.
The charitable view is that he was insane. Grandmaster Lev Alburt, a close friend of Fischer at one time put it like this; 'Chess is a game that forces you to be objective and to take into account an opponent's views. It forces you to make reasonable judgements and to be sane. When Bobby quit playing, it was really the end of his rational existence. And he began filling that void with crazy ideas'. Bobby Fischer leaves us with a puzzle. How do you evaluate a man who was a colossus in chess and a failure in everything else? He left us with a multitude of recorded games, available to anyone with a chess set and the ability to read chess notation. Fischer has been called the Mozart of chess, and it is no exaggeration to say his games are amongst the great intellectual landmarks of our age, perhaps any age. Robert J Fischer died alone and far from home, with only his loyal wife Miyoko by his side. In the end, should we not feel compassion and understanding for a genius who wasted thirty of his best years on hate and small-minded bigotry?
James Collins @ Scottish Essays