Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bobby Fischer 1943-2008

Bobby Fischer is dead. Without question, he was the greatest chess player of his generation. Many give him credit as the greatest chess player of all time. When I was a kid, I played chess seriously, and I felt about Bobby Fischer roughly the same way I felt about Muhammad Ali. Both of them were the greatest, both of them were outsiders, and I idolized them. Misunderstood and unappreciated geniuses, what can be more romantic to an adolescent boy?

In the chess magazines, his erratic behavior was reported, but it was just a sentence or two in paragraphs about his brilliance. Even when his exploits broke into the national press, he might be called erratic or difficult, but that was about as far as the description went.

The press of the time protected us from the truth about Bobby Fischer. He wasn't just difficult, he was a lifelong bigot. In particular, he despised the Jews. Sober, he said things even the drunk Mel Gibson would take exception to. Looking at the picture, you might think he looks Jewish. His mother was ethnically Jewish, and while her husband wasn't, they weren't living on the same continent at the time Fischer was born, and it's considered that her husband probably wasn't Fischer's biological father, that honor belonging to man who was a Jewish refugee from Europe, like Fischer's mother.

Fischer hated his mother. She wasn't an observant Jew, and instead became one of the most visible atheists in the country. Perhaps out of a real religious feeling, perhaps to spite his mother, Fischer converted to Christianity and became involved in the church lead by TV evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong. Garner Ted was later discovered to be living luxuriously on the money his church brought in, and his father Herbert, whose predictions of a world apocalypse failed to come true, kicked his son out and took the reins back the early seventies. Fischer left the church, but he had tithed faithfully during his best years financially.

It was a very different time. The press would never protect anyone in the public eye the way it protected Fischer back in the day. There are a lot of factors to this different treatment. When he first hit the national spotlight, he was just a kid. While chess wasn't a national obsession, it was clear enough that Fischer might be the only American with a chance to strike a propaganda blow against the dominant Soviet chess machine.

The Soviets completely ruled the chess world. Since I was born, the world champion was always a Soviet. Heck, since my dad was born, there were only two world champs who didn't fly the Soviet flag. In 1933, a Dutch mathematician named Max Euwe beat the reigning champ, Russian Alexander Alekhine, pronounced Al-yo-kin. Alekhine defected from the Soviet Union to become a French citizen and beat Euwe in 1935 rematch. Alekhine remained world champ until he died ten years later. From the mid 1940's to the 1970's, there were many world champions, and all of them were Soviets. These people were my heroes, most especially Mikhail Botvinnik, who became important in computer science, and Mikhail Tal, who was something of a cut-up and famous for sacrificing pieces for position and producing brilliant victories.

Fischer dropped out of chess in the mid sixties, accusing the Soviets of rigging the world championship after two unsuccessful bids, and his reputation grew. He jumped back in, technically too late to be involved in the playoffs to the world championship, but the United States Chess Federation pulled some strings, and a American grandmaster named Pal Benko, who had qualified for the interzonals, gave his spot up to Fischer for a payment of $2,000. The rest is history. Fischer burned through his competition. He destroyed a Soviet named Mark Taimonov 6-0 in Vancouver. No losses, no draws, all Fischer. His next opponent was the highest rated non-Soviet player in the world, Denmark's Bent Larsen in Denver. 6-0 Fischer. Next was the former world champion, Armenian born Soviet Tigran Pedrosian, in a match to be played in Buenos Aires. Fischer's record in South America wasn't good, having played poorly in previous tournaments held there. Pedrosian finally handed Fischer a loss, breaking his 20 game winning streak, but the match went to Fischer 6.5 to 2.5. (Five wins, one loss, three draws.) Now only Boris Spassky stood in Fischer's way. Fischer had never beaten Spassky in his career, which added to pre-match hype. But how much hype did it need? It was the United States vs. the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

Any time Fischer was involved, every detail was a struggle. Even Iceland wasn't a random neutral site. Spassky wanted Iceland. Fischer wanted Yugoslavia. First negotiating point went to Spassky and the Soviets. Fischer wanted more prize money. A Brit named Jim Slater ponied up $125,000 to double the stakes to a cool quarter million. Second negotiating point to Fischer.

Spassky won the first game. Fischer complained about the cameras and forfeited the second game. Spassky, who didn't want to win by default, agreed to move to another room where cameras weren't allowed. Spassky was ahead 2-0 in a race to 12.5.

And then Fischer decided to play chess. Seven wins, one loss, eleven draws later, Bobby Fischer was the world champion. He did it by playing completely against his standard method. He had a few openings he loved, the Ruy Lopez when playing white, the Najdorf Sicilian defense against P-K4 (now written as e4) and the Nimzo-Indian against P-Q4 (now written as d4). Fischer played openings no one had ever seen him play. He played P-Q4 for the first time in his career as opening move for white. Spassky and the his Soviet team had prepared for the brilliant but predictable Fischer. Fischer took away the predictability, but the brilliance was still there.

And when it came time to defend his championship, again he had demands. This time, the world organizing body for chess known as FIDE refused to agree to them. The FIDE president at the time was Max Euwe, who was the last non-Soviet born world champ. Still, Fischer said the organization was in the hands of the Soviets and stormed off the scene, never to be a serious force again.

Fischer renounced his American citizenship when he was censured by the U.N. for playing a match in Milosevic's Serbia in the 1990's. He never returned to the United States. After being arrested and detained in Japan, he finally settled in Iceland. His statements were no longer censored by a respectful press. His hatred of the Jews was crystal clear. He cheered the attacks on September 11 as the world finally striking a blow against the corrupt and evil Americans.

Even in death, Fischer refused to compromise. His kidney failure was treatable, but he didn't trust "Western medicine". Again, he had his non-negotiable demands, and again he lost.

In some ways, because I idolized him when I was young, I wish he had been a better person. I wish he had been able to compromise. I wish he had found a way to control his anger and his hate. But he wouldn't have been Bobby Fischer then, would he?

One more flag for the Flags of many Lands™ folder. Yay, Nicaragua! Only three more to collect to get my Central America badge.

Now playing: The Clash - Hateful
via FoxyTunes


Anonymous said...

I was a huge fan of Fischer in high school in 72. With his personal views I wonder if I would have any respect for the man if he wasn't a chess genius? In the end I feel sorry for the man. In 72 I never thought I would have ended up saying that about someone who was an idol.

Josh said...

RIP Bobby Fischer. A true chess prodigy and inspiration to all.

We have created a memorial page to pay tribue to Bobby Fischer at

Feel free to share your comments and thoughts.


Matty Boy said...

One of my commenters feels sorry for him, another calls him an inspiration. I chose the Clash song Hateful for a reason.

Maybe Bobby Fischer will rest in peace. But if he does, it will be the first time he has since he was born.

CDP said...

You're probably right, without the anger and hatred, he probably wouldn't have been brilliant. Nice post.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. He really was a household word to high schoolers learning the play chess and those that took chess as serious as he did. Anything more known about his death, other than kidney failure? Me thinks that was what shut the system down but what did he have, cancer?

sfmike said...

That's a fascinating article with way more information than I've read anywhere else. By the way, if his mother was Jewish, Bobby Fischer was Jewish. It's one of the rules of the game, and it makes him one of the more spectacular examples of a "self-hating Jew" in history, though there are plenty of others.

I thought his being hounded by the United States for playing in Yugoslavia was absurd, and the heavy-handed treatment probably only confirmed his most paranoid feelings about Jews and America.

FranIAm said...

Matty- I knew almost nothing of Bobby Fischer, other than he was difficult.

So I really learned a lot here and enjoyed the way you presented it.

Muhammad Ali- I love him. Have you seen "When We Were Kings" It is one of my favorite documentaries evah.

Matty Boy said...

z & m I've read some on the 'Net, and it's just called an undisclosed illness.

Mike I was aware of the rules about Jewish identity.

There were lots of Jews in chess, both in the U.S. and internationally, and of course in the New York chess world were Fischer grew up. I now realize when people talk about the other players Fischer was close to, Jews were excluded. The local reporter on chess in the S.F. Chronicle was George Koltanowski, a Belgian Jew. He had nothing but praise for Fischer. The previous great prodigy who came to live in America was Sammy Reshevsky, a Polish Jew. Relations between Fischer and Reshevsky were strained at best. 30 years older than Fischer, Reshevsky won the U.S. Championship several times, even after the rise of Bobby Fischer, but he was never a professional chess player as an adult. He made his living as an accountant.

Even players who didn't care much for Fischer were glad for the boom he gave to the chess business. After 1972, it was actually possible to make a living as a chess teacher.

Fran Thanks for the kinds words. Yes, I saw and enjoyed When We Were Kings.

Distributorcap said...

fischer was a hero to a lot of people and kids in that summer of 72 -- the height of the cold war, the munich olympics and a difficult time...

fischer was also insane and mentally unstable -- the saddest part is it might have been treatable.

dguzman said...

Great post, Matty. I've often wondered--so many geniuses (of painting, music, science, chess, or whatever) have been mentally unstable or even downright insane. Do you think there's a connection between the genius and the insanity? Or is it just a coincidence--i.e. many people are crazy; these crazy people just happened to have been geniuses as well?

Matty Boy said...

I don't think that many have been actually insane. In some instances, there are great mathematicians and musicians who may have been somewhere on the autism spectrum, which means they exhibit unusual behavior, but not truly insane. Asperger's Syndrome can make people incredibly focused, which is a big plus in math. Many modern observers think Newton showed several signs of Asperger's, for example.

More of these brilliantly talented people are incredibly vain, and not without cause. A lot more of those with erratic behavior can blame substance abuse.

When I had my week of heroes, I chose Euler, Hilbert and Schweitzer for good reason. The incredibly talented who live "normally" in the world and show compassion for others also exist, and should be celebrated as much as the mercurial.

dguzman said...

Good points, Matty Boy.