Bobby Fischer, the former world chess champion who is wanted by the U.S. government for allegedly defying U.N. sanctions by playing a match in Yugoslavia in 1992, was detained at Tokyo’s Narita airport on July 15 as he tried to leave for the Philippines.  Fischer was traveling on a passport that the State Department says had been invalidated last December.  At the time of this writing, he is in a Japanese jail, fighting extradition to the United States and seeking an offer of political asylum in any country willing to accept him.

The story is bizarre and may prove that being paranoid does not mean “they” are not out to get you.  It started 61 years ago, when a boy, Robert James, was born out of wedlock to a Jewish-American woman whose communist sympathies took her to the Soviet Union on the eve of World War II.  Two of the few people who knew Fischer well, Serbian grandmasters Sveto-zar Gligoric and Ljubomir Ljubojevic, point out that he first attracted the authorities’ attention even before his birth because his father was a prominent Hungarian atomic physicist, Pal Nemenyi, who was involved with the Manhattan Project.  Nemenyi died soon thereafter—“Bobby” never got to know his father—but the security implications of the affair were obvious.  A suspicion of links with the Soviet secret service surrounded the mother, and eventually the boy, for years to come.

At the age of six, Fischer learned to play chess and declared that he did not want to do anything else for the rest of his life.  By 15, he was the youngest grandmaster in history, and, a year later, he quit school, calling it a waste of time.  A classic Wunderkind with an IQ of 180, he had an astonishing memory that enabled him to recall every move of all his championship games.

Throughout his early decades, Fischer remained very close to his mother, even though his political views were developing in the opposite direction.  His anticommunism provided him with a double motive to try to deprive the Soviets of the world title they had held for decades: to prove that he was the best, and to deprive them of a propaganda weapon (“to teach them some humility,” as he put it).  His moment of glory finally came in 1972, when he won the famous Fischer-Spassky world-championship match in Reykjavik.

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.  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 Fischer won 7 games, drew 11, and lost 3.

In April of the following year, the World Chess Federation (FIDE) demanded that Fischer accept Anatoly Karpov’s challenge, which he refused, claiming that he needed more time to prepare for the match.  FIDE insisted, and his title was taken away in what Gligoric calls a dishonest setup designed to remove a troublesome and increasingly unconventional genius from the chess throne.  At this time, Fischer’s latent eccentricities became more strongly pronounced.  He felt hurt that President Nixon had not received him after the Spassky match and suspected that the odium of the officialdom was connected to his antiestablishmentarian and increasingly anti-Jewish views.  He once asked Gligoric to visit him incognito in Los Angeles and spoke of his woes and fears.  “As we were parting, he gave me a two-way radio of the kind used by seamen, which he used to communicate with the outside world,” Gligoric remembers.  “He spent the last $50 he had on him at that time on that gift.”

Fischer remained in seclusion for years, until 1992, when a shady Serbian businessman and chess aficionado, Jezdimir Vasiljevic, had the strange notion of staging a replay of the Reykjavik match in the Montenegrin seaside resort of Sveti Stefan.  He persuaded Fischer to come out of seclusion for the occasion.  Spassky—by that time, a French citizen—was also willing.

The second match proved in many ways more odd than the first.  The war in Bosnia—a mere hour’s drive from Sveti Stefan—was in full swing, and Serbia and Montenegro were under U.N. sanctions, yet Mr. Vasiljevic was staging a world-class media spectacle and implicitly throwing down a gauntlet for the “international community.”  His show smacked of Serbian inat—roughly translated, “proudly stubborn spite”—and Bobby Fischer just loved it.  At a press conference upon arrival in Yugoslavia, he pulled out an order from the U.S. Treasury Department, warning him that he would be violating sanctions if he went ahead with the match, and spat on it.  The match went ahead, and Fischer won again, with 10 wins, 5 losses, and 15 draws.  That was the only time in the last 31 years that he has played chess in public.

Ever since, Fischer has been theoretically under the threat of up to ten years in prison, a fine, and the forfeiture of three million dollars in prize money should he ever return to the United States.  (The French authorities did not regard Spassky’s participation as a violation of the sanctions.)  As the years went by, it appeared that the United States would let the matter quietly rest, and Gligoric says he was under the impression that “an arrangement” had been reached.  Solvent again, Fischer divided his time between Europe and the Far East.  His passport was apparently renewed five years ago by the U.S. embassy in Berne without a glitch.  When he arrived in Tokyo last April, the Japanese immigration authorities did not get a “flag” as his passport was swiped through the computer.

Some commentators privately assert that Fischer’s current problems are linked to his reappearance in public after September 11, when he gave an interview to a Filipino radio station praising the terrorist attacks, and to his increasingly strident antisemitic remarks.  Such statements, damaging to Fischer’s reputation and reprehensible as they are, are no worse than thousands of remarks heard in mosques and Islamic centers all over the United States every Friday.  Fischer’s original alleged sin—violating the U.N. sanctions—was not deemed a crime by France, also a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and it would be strange indeed if the United States under George W. Bush were to prove more internationalist-minded today than France under François Mitterand a decade ago.  If Fischer is nevertheless extradited and tried, some commentators predict that he will be deemed mentally unstable and confined to an institution.  The parallel between Fischer in 2004 and Ezra Pound in 1944 would then become obvious, and the underlying message to those deemed guilty of thought crimes would remain the same.