Bobby Fischer, the reclusive, troubled, and often unpleasant chess genius from Brooklyn who single-handedly crushed the myth of Soviet invincibility, died of kidney failure in Iceland on January 17 at the age of 64.
Robert James Fischer was born out of wedlock to a prominent Hungarian atomic physicist, Pal Nemenyi, who was involved with the Manhattan Project, and a Jewish-American woman whose communist sympathies took her to the Soviet Union on the eve of World War II. Nemenyi died soon thereafter, in 1952; “Bobby” never got to know him. The security implications of the affair were nevertheless obvious. A suspicion of links with the Soviet secret service surrounded the mother, and eventually the boy, for years to come.
An evident Wunderkind from the age of six, Fischer devoted his entire childhood and youth to chess. By 11, in his own words, he “just got good.” Bored by school and human company, he gave up on both in 1958, when, at 15, he became the youngest grandmaster in history.
Fischer had an IQ of over 180 and an astonishing memory that enabled him to recall every move of all his championship games. On his way to the top, he turned opponents into victims, “destroying wills and usurping psyches.” His lack of social skills and extravagant demands on tournament organizers were on par with his talent. His famous tantrums caused him to drop out of the game twice, before his historic victory in Reykjavik over the reigning world champion, Boris Spassky, in 1972.
That match was not only the pinnacle of his career but a memorable moment in the history of the Cold War. It may seem incredible to anyone under 40 that a game, however complex and ancient, should have prompted Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to plead with the already eccentric Fischer to go to Iceland. (“America wants you to go over there and beat the Russians.”) But Dr. Kissinger knew that, for those Russians, chess was never a game. For millions, it was an escape from drab reality, while, for the nomenklatura, it was a propaganda weapon no less important than Sputnik or Olga Korbut. Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in the Match of the Century—and, for once, the contemporary hyperbole was justified.
The event was filled with Cold War drama. Soviet officials accused the United States of trying to throw off Spassky by using secret electronic devices pointed at their player. Fischer’s chair and the whole playing area were subjected to a thorough examination. All light fixtures were removed from the ceiling, but only two dead flies were found inside them. A member of the Soviet delegation was finally rebuked for demanding that an autopsy be performed on the insects. Not to be outdone, Fischer had all fillings in his teeth replaced on the eve of the match, fearing the presence of Soviet implants that could be activated to distract him at crucial moments. On September 1, 1972, Fischer became world champion after Spassky conceded a match in which the brash challenger won 7 games, drew 11, and lost 3.
During his remaining 35 years after the Match of the Century, Fischer’s life went steadily downhill. In 1975, after a long dispute with chess authorities, he refused to defend his title, thus giving it to the good Soviet boy Anatoly Karpov (now a “liberal, pro-Western reformist,” of course). In his final decade, he would use Filipino radio talk shows to rail against the Jews, the United States, the commies, the Russians, both Bushes, the chess establishment, and the police in Pasadena, where Fischer was mistakenly arrested and detained for two days in 1981. On September 11, 2001, Fischer, now a self-avowed devotee of both Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, screamed for joy: “This is all wonderful news. It’s time for the f–king U.S. to get their heads kicked in. To finish off the U.S. once and for all . . . I want to see the U.S. wiped out.” Fischer’s antics suggested that, as chess master and psychologist Bill Hartston claimed, “chess is not something that drives people mad,” but “something that keeps mad people sane.”
The news of Fischer’s arrest in Japan in 2004, on a U.S. warrant for violating U.N. sanctions against Yugoslavia 12 years earlier by playing his old rival Boris Spassky there, echoed across the globe. It was as if a forgotten silent-movie star, long presumed dead, had suddenly turned up in a blaze of publicity. Just as extradition seemed imminent, Iceland’s unexpected offer of asylum saved the day. The offer was the result of a campaign by Icelanders who felt that Fischer put their lonely island on the map and deserved to be repaid for the favor. The decision by a tiny country to risk American displeasure for the sake of gratitude to an eccentric has-been stood in stark contrast to the bigger and more powerful European countries’ willingness blithely to follow Washington’s lead on most issues that matter.
On balance, it is a good thing that Fischer died as a free man in a foreign country. He was not guilty of any crime. His radio harangues, reprehensible per se and damaging to his reputation, were no worse than thousands of remarks heard in mosques and Islamic centers all over the United States every Friday. His original alleged sin—violating the U.N. sanctions—was an absurd charge that should have been ruled unconstitutional because it was based on the transfer of legislative authority to the president on behalf of an evil institution.
Had Bobby Fischer ended up in a cage like Ezra Pound, the story would have had a more melodramatic finale. It is nevertheless comforting to know that there is a plucky little island out there in the Northern Atlantic that has not succumbed, yet, to the ugly Leviathan that presumes to order our lives and our thoughts.