For the better part of two decades, Bobby Fischer was widely regarded as one of the greatest chess players of all time. His single-handed challenge to Russia’s long-standing domination of world chess fascinated a lay audience that could not tell a queen from a bishop. Yet Fischer, the child prodigy, increasingly fell victim to mental illness that contributed to his death at age 64.
New York historian Frank Brady has told his story in a highly researched yet accessible biography.
Fischer was born in Brooklyn in 1943. His mother was a schoolteacher of Jewish extraction; the identity of his father has been a subject of speculation. Bobby showed little interest in school but became fascinated by chess. At the age of 12, he was allowed to join the prestigious Brooklyn Chess Club, where he soon made his mark. Two months shy of his 15th birthday, he won the U.S. Championship, the first of eight such titles.
Bobby had no interests other than chess; he dropped out of high school at age 16. His mother financed his participation in chess tournaments across the country, where the teenager began to exhibit some of the symptoms that would mark his adult years. The author, who knew Fischer well, writes that he was “a tall, gangly, intense, quarrelsome teenager … who exhibited occasional flashes of charm and grace.” He was “capable of ranting if he didn’t get his way - about foods he did or didn’t like, or when to go to bed (he liked to stay up late) or when to go out or stay home.”
By 1962, Fischer was one of eight participants in a tournament designed to produce a challenger to World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik. He finished an angry fourth. He wrote an article for Sports Illustrated in which he asserted - probably correctly - that the Russian players had conspired against him, arranging to play draws against one another and save their mental energy for Fischer. Short of cash, Fischer embarked on an extended tour of the United States, lecturing and playing exhibitions.
His rudeness, tardiness and bad temper became legendary. He insisted that every aspect of a designated playing arena conform to his wishes: lighting, cameras and silence on the part of all spectators. When Princess Grace presented him with the winner’s check following a tournament in Monaco, he tore open the envelope and checked the amount before thanking her.
In 1970, Fischer began a campaign to become world champion. After two years of play, his ranking was higher than that of the reigning champion, Boris Spassky, and negotiations for a championship match began. With the Cold War as a backdrop, Fischer defeated Mr. Spassky in Reykjavik and ended Russia’s domination of world chess.
Fischer was by then a celebrity, but his personal life was a shambles. Increasingly paranoid, he appeared incapable of any sustained romantic relationship. “At restaurants,” Mr. Brady writes, “Bobby always carried with him a virtual pharmacy of remedies and potions to immediately counteract any poisons that the Soviets might slip into his food or drink.” His rare press interviews often became anti-Semitic ravings.
Fischer was scheduled to defend his title in 1975 against Anatoly Karpov, but he set many conditions, not all of which could be met. The World Chess Federation set a deadline, and when Fischer failed to meet it, Mr. Karpov became world champion by default.
From that time, Fischer’s life was in free fall. He was constantly on the move - to Manila, Tokyo and Budapest - with the Internal Revenue Service hot on his heels for years of unpaid taxes. He became outspoken in his anti-Semitism, telling one interviewer, “I think I am doing quite well, considering that I’ve been blacklisted for the last 20 years by world Jewry.” He called the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the twin towers “wonderful news.”
The United States revoked Fischer’s passport, and he was jailed in Japan for nine months as a stateless person. Then, in 2005, Iceland granted him citizenship. He lived there, incognito, until his death three years later.
In part because of his distrust of doctors, Fischer never received appropriate treatment for his paranoia and other disorders. He had no one close enough to him to press him to seek treatment. Mr. Brady writes, “We may not - and perhaps should not - forgive Bobby Fischer’s twisted political and anti-religious assaults, but we should never forget his sheer brilliance on the chessboard.”
John M. Taylor’s books include a biography of his father, “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor” (Presidio, 2001).
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