While conducting a
search that turned into an obsession, the author discovers a great
deal about the chess genius who drifted into seclusion after winning
the world title.
About six years ago,
sportscaster Dick Schaap was visiting Wilt Chamberlain in Wilt's
celebrated California mansion when Schaap got the idea of trying to
get in touch with his old friend Bobby Fischer. Schaap had known him
since the 1950s, when Fischer was a rising chess star in New York
and Schaap was a young magazine reporter assigned to cover him.
So Schaap called
Fischer's closest friend and confidante, Claudia Mokarow of
Pasadena, and asked her to tell Bobby to contact him at
Soon afterward, Bobby
"Are you really at Wilt's
house?" an astonished Bobby asked. Schaap assured him he was.
"I'd really like to see
"Would you like to join
us for dinner?" Schaap asked.
"I'd like to," Bobby
Fischer said, "but I'm not seeing people."
At 7:51 p.m. on the
evening of Wednesday, April 3, this year, as I was walking out of
the history department of the main branch of the Los Angeles Public
Library, I stopped for a moment by the card-catalog files in the
library's second-floor rotunda. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I had
one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.
The library was closing
in nine minutes, and for about' the last half hour I had experienced
that hollow sensation I had grown to know so well, the one that
always accompanied the awareness of another day lost in Palo Alto,
another afternoon misspent in Pasadena, another evening busted and
shot in Los Angeles. Off and on for almost two years, I had been to
all those places and more looking in vain for Robert James (Bobby)
To find him, to see him,
had become a kind of crazy and delirious obsession, the kind of
insanity that has hounded other men in search of, say, the Loch Ness
monster. Fischer was the most gifted prodigy in chess, the game's
equivalent of Mozart. At age 15, in 1958, he became the youngest
player in history to become a grandmaster, and his performance at
the Interzonal and Candidates' matches in 1970 and 1971-in which he
won an unprecedented 20 straight games against some of the strongest
players in the world, without playing a single game to a draw-
remains today the most enduring signature of his art and skill.
When, in the summer of 1972, he overwhelmed Soviet world champion
Boris Spassky in Iceland to win the world title, he merely
reaffirmed what most chess masters already believed and still
believe today. By a consensus of grandmasters, he had become the
strongest chess player in history. "The greatest genius to have
descended from the chess heavens," Mikhail Tal of Latvia, the former
world champion, once said.
During those two months
in Iceland, Fischer attained a folkloric celebrity that attracted
millions of Americans to a game they had long associated with the
relative obscurity of park benches and coffeehouses. Looking out
from the cover of national magazines that wild summer, he was
depicted as a gallant cold warrior, a solitary American genius
taking on and crushing the Soviet chess juggernaut, with its Moscow
computers and its small army of grandmasters arrayed against him.
The 29-year-old Fischer
emerged a hero, of course, but he promptly rejected scores of
offers, worth millions of dollars, to capitalize on his fame. In
fact, though promising to be a fighting champion, he turned back
every offer to play chess again. To this day, since Spassky resigned
in the 21st and final game on Sept. 1, 1972, Fischer has not played
a single game of chess in public. He forfeited his world title in
1975, turning down a multimillion-dollar offer to play challenger
Anatoly Karpov in the Philippines when the world chess federation
refused to meet all his conditions for the match.
So Bobby Fischer was
gone. Ever since he won the championship, Fischer had been drifting
quietly into seclusion, finding refuge in Herbert W. Armstrong's
Worldwide Church of God in Pasadena, a fundamentalist cult that
observes Saturday as the Sabbath and believes in the Second Coming.
After several years of serving as what is called a coworker-Fischer
hadn't been baptized-he left the church, too, and since then has
retreated even further into his own private world. It is one in
which journalists are not permitted. Indeed, his closest friends are
sworn not to speak about him to the press, under the threat of Bobby
banishing them forever from his life.
relinquished the title, Karpov was named champion. Karpov still
holds the title, but his crown has not been without a singularly
painful thorn, for Fischer is still alive, out there somewhere in
Southern California. No longer merely a former world chess champion,
he has grown to almost mythic size, leaving behind him a trail of
rumors and a chess world that is still reaching out for him in the
Much the same kind of
effect was created in the 1850s when Paul Morphy, a New Orleans
chess prodigy then recognized as the world champion, returned in
triumph from Europe and soon simply stopped playing. Morphy was
regarded as one of the game's true innovators. Fischer revered him.
They are the only two Americans ever acclaimed as world chess
champions, and there remains that striking parallel in their
careers. "Fischer's like Morphy," says international master Igor
Ivanov, a Soviet defector. "What's the story with you Americans? You
win the title, go home and don't play any more."
Later in his life, after
abandoning chess altogether, Morphy suffered from delusions of
persecution and withdrew into his own private world. Occasionally he
strolled the streets of New Orleans, muttering, in French, "He will
plant the banner of Castille upon the walls of Madrid, amidst the
cries of the conquered city, and the little king will go away
looking very sheepish." He died of apoplexy, at age 47.
But Fischer is still
alive, and still very much on many minds. Until recently Robert J.
Fisher lived in Pasadena, just about a mile east of where Bobby was
arrested in 1981 for allegedly holding up a bank. Fisher installs
cable television and spells his name without the "c," but over the
years he has received telephone calls from all over the world, often
at three in the morning, awakening to hear:
"This is the
international operator, Mr. Fisher. You have a telephone call from
Yugoslavia." Or the Soviet Union, or Czechoslovakia, or Bulgaria, or
Almost invariably, the
voices speak broken English and cry out, "Boooby! Are you Booby
Fischer, the chess player?"
To which Bob Fisher will
sing back, "Wrong number! This is Bob Fisher, the cable-television
Fischer is out there, to
be sure, but so elusive as to be almost a figment of the
imagination. "It's like this god of chess hanging over everybody's
head," says American grandmaster Larry Christiansen.
Yasser Seirawan, one of
the world's strongest players, speaks for all young U.S. chess
masters when he says, "It's a tragedy. Imagine: The greatest chess
player who ever lived is living in our time, and he's not even
playing. I've never even met him. It's very frustrating."
Kavalek, a 41-year-old Czechoslovakian expatriate living in Reston,
Va., says, "Players Bobby's age, like myself, are a lost generation.
We always lived in the shadow of Bobby. We had him as an idol. He
was someone to follow. When he stopped playing, I somehow got lost.
We lost our inspiration. The last decade belonged to me in the
United States. I was always ahead in ratings; but I can't say I was
first because, in the back of my mind, there was always Bobby. He
was still alive. He is still alive."
That he was out there,
still lurking around, was what had drawn me to the second-floor
rotunda of the Los Angeles Public Library at 7:51 p.m. on the night
of April 3. Desperately looking for a lead earlier that day, I had
visited the chambers of Madame Lola, a clairvoyant working in
Westminster, Calif., and sought her help in ferreting out Fischer.
"Have you ever thought he
might want to be left alone?" Madame Lola asked.
"Look, Madame Lola, a lot
of people are wondering what has happened to him," I said.
"A lot of celebrities
want to be left alone," she said.
In my own paranoia, the
thought suddenly occurred to me: Maybe she knows Bobby and is trying
to protect him.
"Do you know Fischer or
something?" I blurted.
There was no doubt that I
had become slightly wiggy. I had been prowling the catacombs of the
main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library for months because
Fischer had often been sighted there-as recently as a few weeks
earlier-but he had never appeared when I was there. I had begun to
think that perhaps he had contacts at the library who would tip him
off whenever I showed up. After all, I had a source working at the
library, Gordon Brooks, who had promised to call me if Fischer ever
showed. In fact, over the last few weeks, I had developed a network
of librarians who had agreed to call Brooks, who in turn would ring
me, if they spotted him.
The day before, on April
2, I had gone to a Goodwill store in the city of Orange and
purchased a disguise, clothes that would have suited any bum
wandering around nearby MacArthur Park or the broken-bottle district
of downtown L.A.: a $5 pair of baggy brown pants, marked down to
$2.50, whose cuffs scraped the floor; a large gold shirt for $3; a
white tie, with a bright green stain, for 15 cents; a pair of brown
shoes, which I wore without socks or laces, for $5; and the ugliest
sports coat in the store, a black number with red and white flecks,
for $2.50. An accommodating friend stained the coat and pants with
grease and glue to match the sorry tie. At a magic shop, I bought a
pair of wire-rimmed spectacles and a can of #663300 makeup paint
with which I liberally doused what was left of my hair.
Thus disguised on April
3, on my way to the library I stopped off to see Madame Lola. It was
a sweltering day, about 85 degrees, but the disguise and the promise
of finding Fischer had buoyed me with a new sense of mission. I
strode into her storefront chambers, apologized for my wardrobe, and
within 10 minutes we were ensconced in a backroom cubicle adorned
with religious paintings and statues. At Lola's request, I had
brought several pictures of Fischer that I had been showing around
restaurants and stores in Pasadena, hoping someone might recognize
him. I also brought copies of papers bearing Fischer's handwriting,
including the pseudonym Robert D. James, which appeared at the end
of his 14-page pamphlet, I Was Tortured in
the Pasadena Jailhouse.
Fischer had written it in
1981 after he was arrested in Pasadena-he was mistaken for a bank
robber-and jailed for two days. In this remarkable document, Fischer
described his arrest and then detailed what happened to him in two
days of incarceration, during which, he says, he was ordered to
strip and was threatened with confinement in a mental hospital. The
chapter headings include: Brutally Handcuffed, False Arrest,
Insulted, Choked, Stark Naked, No Phone Call, Horror Cell, Isolation
Madame Lola placed her
hands on the papers and the photographs, tipped her head forward and
closed her eyes. "He has been hurt in many ways by people in
business," she began. "He feels that people are going to take
advantage of him .... Have you tried looking toward the desert?"
"The desert?" I said.
"No...what about Pasadena?"
Madame Lola opened and
closed her eyes. "He's not there now," she said. "I feel him towards
some place hot, very hot. Very, very warm. I feel a lot of sun..."
Outside, it felt hot enough to roast a duck, but that was not what
Lola meant. "It could be Nevada," she said. "This is what I'm
picking up...He is a very confused person ...He feels everyone is
going to recognize him...I feel you will find him when you least
Madame Lola looked up,
fixed me with her eyes and said finally, "He's always one step ahead
of you. I'd give up on the whole idea."
Moments later I was
heading for the library in Los Angeles. Time was getting short. By
now, the office was restless, and more than one editor had told me
to write the story whether I had found him or not, but I was having
trouble letting it go.
So what was I doing here,
dressed up like an abject bum and looking for a man who would bolt
the instant he knew who I was? And what on earth might he be doing
now in the desert? Pumping gas in Reno? Riding a burro from dune to
dune in the Mojave, looking over his shoulder as the sun boiled the
brain that once ate Moscow? And what of his teeth? I had been
thinking a lot lately about Fischer's teeth.
In the spring of 1982,
one of Fischer's oldest chess-playing friends, Ron Gross of
Cerritos, Calif., suggested to him that the two men take a fishing
trip into Mexico. Gross, now 49, had first met Fischer in the
mid-'50s, back in the days before Bobby had become a world-class
player, and the two had kept in irregular touch over the years. In
1980, at a time when Fischer was leaving most of his old friends
behind, he had contacted Gross, and they had gotten together. At the
time, Fischer was living in a dive near downtown Los Angeles.
"It was a real seedy
hotel," Gross recalls. "Broken bottles. Weird people."
At one point, Gross made
the mistake of calling Karpov the world champion. "I'm still the
world champion," snapped Fischer. "Karpov isn't. My friends still
consider me champion. They took my title from me."
By 1982, Fischer was
living in a nicer neighborhood in Los Angeles. Gross began picking
him up and letting him off at a bus stop at Wilshire Boulevard and
Fairfax, near an East Indian store where Bobby bought herbal
That March, on the
fishing trip to Ensenada, Fischer got seasick, and he treated
himself by sniffing a eucalyptus-based medicine below deck. Fischer
astonished Gross with the news about his teeth. Fischer talked about
a friend who had a steel plate in his head that picked up radio
"If somebody took a
filling out and put in an electronic device, he could influence your
thinking," Fischer said. "I don't want anything artificial in my
"Does that include dental
work?" asked Gross.
"Yeah," said Bobby. "I
had all my fillings taken out some time ago."
"There's nothing in your
cavities to protect your teeth?"
Gross dropped the subject
for the moment, but later he got to thinking about it and, while
taking a steam bath in a health spa in Cerritos, he asked Fischer if
he knew how bacteria worked, warning him that his teeth could rot
away. "As much as you like to eat, what are you going to do when
your teeth fall out?" asked Gross. "I'll gum it if I have to,"
Fischer said. "I'll gum it."
Their relationship ended
that summer, after Gross gave an interview to the chess writer for
The Register of Orange County, an innocuous but informative
piece about the fishing trip. There was no mention of the teeth, and
nothing about the anti-Semitic tirades that for years had laced
Fischer's conversations. Though his mother, Regina Pustan, a Palo
Alto physician, is a Jew, Fischer had long ago rejected Judaism. In
restaurants, says Gross, it was embarrassing how Fischer sometimes
ranted on loudly about "kikes" and "Jew bastards." Nor was there
anything in The Register about how tiresome it had become for
Moss to hear Fischer lecture about how everything was controlled by
"the hidden hand, the satanical secret world government" to listen
to him lecture on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an
anti-Semitic work, and to hear his version of the Holocaust and the
"myth" of six million dead: "maybe 100,000 troublemakers and
When Fischer heard about
The Register's story, he called up Gross, furious, though he
admitted not having read the piece. "But I don't have to," he told
Gross. "I know what it's about."
"How can you feel that
way?" Gross asked. "I didn't say anything bad about you."
"It doesn't matter," said
Bobby. "You're not supposed to talk to these guys. Do you realize I
don't let my friends talk to the press?" Gross tried to mollify him,
but it was no use. That was their last conversation.
Lina Grumette, for years
a Los Angeles chess organizer and promoter, had been Fischer's West
Coast "chess mother," beginning in the early 1960s. When Fischer,
who was raised in Brooklyn, went to California, he lived at her
home, at times for weeks on end. She recalls Fischer sitting down at
the bridge table after dinner and analyzing chess games. His hand
would snap pieces rapidly off the board, and he would shake his
"This move is no good,"
he would say to Grumette. "He should have done this. What do you
"What are you asking me
for?" she would say.
opinion helps," he would answer.
That is how she remembers
him best, sitting at the board and having fun playing games.
"Whatever people say about him, he has a very kind heart," Grumette
says. "He always impressed me as a normal, kind, decent human being.
He visited my husband in the hospital when he was dying of cancer,
and walked my dog every night. Bobby was part of the family."
Until, that is, Grumette
talked innocently about him to a reporter from the Los Angeles
Times following his defeat of Spassky in 1972. "He dropped me,
too," she says.
Lina took me to the
second-floor room which Fischer had used when he lived there, and
showed me a box of possessions that he had left behind: a warranty
for a Zenith television set given to him after a tournament in 1966,
a few religious books and stacks of letters from children asking him
She last spoke to him
around 1979, when she was trying to arrange an exhibition match for
him at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Caesars offered him $250,000 in
appearance money. After he had agreed to the terms and all the
arrangements had been made, Fischer called her. "I've been
thinking," he began.
The minute he said that,
she knew the deal was off. "I'm risking my title," Fischer said. "I
should get $1 million."
The last time Grumette
tried to reach him, she called Claudia Mokarow to ask for her
assistance. It was just after the appearance of another Los
Angeles Times article in which Grumette was quoted. "That'll
cost you $1,000," Mokarow told her.
Actually that figure was
cheap. Not long after inviting Fischer to Chamberlain's house for
dinner, Schaap got in touch with Mokarow and told her he wanted to
interview Fischer for Games Magazine.
"Bobby will be perfectly
happy to interview with you," Mokarow said. "He's charging $25,000
per interview. Since he didn't charge you for the last interview, it
will be $50,000."
None of his old chess
friends have seen or spoken to him in years. Grandmaster Robert
Byrne, now the chess editor of The New York Times, knew him
well as a fellow American player for years, but he lost touch with
him in the 1970s. "He does not return my messages," says Byrne. "I'm
a journalist now."
Lombardy, who was Fischer's second when he won the world title, has
not talked to Fischer since 1978 in Pasadena, when the U.S.
championships were held at the Worldwide Church's Ambassador
"I worry about him, but I
can't worry about him night and day," Lombardy says. "I've made
efforts to get in touch with him. I've tried to get his phone
number, but he doesn't like his number given out. I can't be chasing
him around, just to get hold of him to talk to him. In L.A., I've
tried to find him. I've asked people where he might live, where you
might see him. My door is always open. If he wants to get in touch
with me, he can."
Bernard Zuckerman, a New
York chess theoretician and one of Fischer's friends, also last saw
him at the '78 championships. In fact, he went to dinner with
Fischer at a restaurant in Chinatown in L.A.-Fischer and Zuckerman
are avid eaters of Chinese food-and they brought along young Larry
Christiansen, who was meeting Fischer for the first time.
"We talked about chess,"
Christiansen says. "He didn't have much respect for Karpov's
play...He launched into a tirade against the Jews, the world
conspiracy. He seemed like a nice guy, then he launched into that
tirade. I felt kind of sorry for him. I could see Zuckerman in the
back seat, masking laughter."
For most of those who
knew him well, though, Fischer's flights into such fantasies were no
laughing matter. Perhaps his oldest friends in the world are Jack
Collins and his sister, Ethel. Jack was Fischer's principal chess
teacher, and Fischer spent hours at the Collinses' Brooklyn home,
playing endless games of chess with Jack and eating food prepared by
"He began to visit us
when he was just 13," says Jack. "We played thousands and thousands
of speed games. You can't predict what a boy that age will be. The
next thing I knew, he went up like a Roman candle. It's hard to
believe he's not the Bobby Fischer we knew. I still think of him as
the little prodigy who lived with us years ago. We had a lot of fun
together. They're one thing as boys; they're another as men."
The question of whether
he would ever come back remains open in his teacher's mind.
"Chess players don't get
better as they get older, they get worse," Collins says. "Their
careers roughly parallel those of big league pitchers. It's hard to
know why. Maybe it's nerves. Maybe it's the will to win. But Bobby
always admired players who competed into old age, such as Wilhelm
Steinitz, a world champion who played till he died. Bobby always
told me he'd do that. He loved chess. That's the strange part, that
he should drop it. Everyone asks me why. I don't know."
Fischer has not been in
touch with the Collinses for five years. They don't know how to
reach him. He used to call once a month. Now there is nothing.
"His view of the world is
completely incompatible with mine," Collins says. "He wants to talk
about that all the time. What do you do with a person who insists
the Holocaust didn't happen?"
His oldest friends are
not the only ones who have become alienated from him. Harry Sneider,
once Fischer's personal fitness trainer and confidant, had been
almost like a brother to him for seven years. In the late '70s
Sneider sensed he had to back off.
As Sneider drifted away
from Fischer, Bobby found a set of surrogate parents in Mokarow and
her husband, Arthur, then members of the Worldwide Church. Sneider
had sensed early in Fischer a desire for a world utterly apart from
chess. "He would really like to be just left alone," Sneider says.
"He's trying to live a normal life, with regular hours. He is
saying, `I want my own space."' When Sneider encouraged him to play
chess, Fischer would say, "That's none of your business. Just be my
In Claudia, Fischer found
someone to screen his calls and otherwise protect him from the
When I phoned her, here's
the way the conversation went:
"Hello?" answered the
"Is Claudia Mokarow
there?" I asked.
"Yes, this is she." I
told her who I was, that I wanted to speak to Bobby, and asked her
"No, I really can't," she
I pressed gently, asking
her if Bobby was in town. "No, I'm not able to help you," she said.
"May I come and see you?"
I asked. Silence.
More frantic now, my
voice rising as I thought of Schaap: "Is he seeing people?" Again,
silence. More desperate now, almost a whinny: "Is he in town? Is he
anywhere in Southern California?"
"I think I'd better hang
up," Claudia said.
Again: "Is he in Southern
"Bye," she said sweetly.
I paid a call on Mokarow
on March 9, Fischer's 42nd birthday, knocking on her door on San
Remo Road in Pasadena. I knew the house well, for I had staked it
out on several occasions in the past months, hoping to see Fischer
come or go. A woman's voice answered from behind the door.
"Who is it?" Claudia
asked, in her telephone voice. I told her who I was. "It's Bobby
Fischer's 42nd birthday, and I would like to talk to you, please!"
"I'm not interested in
talking to you," she said.
So it was with Claudia
and all of those still known to be in touch with Fischer. I ran into
Miguel Quinteros one day at a chess tournament in New York, and
Fischer's closest friend among the grandmasters only smiled and
said, "We have a deal. The only thing I can tell you is he is in
very good shape. He hasn't lost anything."
So, too, came the word
one day from Joan Fischer Targ, Bobby's older sister, who lives in
Palo Alto. Asked for help, she replied very politely, "Sorry, I
"Have you seen him
lately?" I asked.
"I guess what you're
asking are personal questions," Joan said.
"I'm in Palo Alto," I
said. "Could I see you?"
"There wouldn't be much
point in it," she said.
Nor was there much point
in asking to see Jim Buff, Fischer's good friend living in the Bay
"Sir!" shouted Buff.
"You're calling me on an unlisted number! I have nothing to say to
you! If you call me again, I'll call the chairman of the board of
Bobby had been known to
like San Francisco. In 1981 he had lived at the apartment of Greek-
born grandmaster Peter Biyiasas and his wife, Ruth Haring. Through
Buff, Biyiasas had invited Fischer to live with them. One day Buff
called. "Peter, he's coming up. Bobby's coming up on the bus to stay
Fischer arrived one early
March morning with his suitcase of clothes and vitamins and a large
orange juice squeezer that he had bought in Mexico. He stayed for
two months, returned to Los Angeles in the summer, then came back in
the fall to stay two more months. They swam in the ocean, played
pinball machines, bowled, went to movies, squeezed oranges and
played baseball in Golden Gate Park. Fischer shagged Buffs fly balls
and pegged them back to the plate as hard as he could.
"How was it coming in?"
He was more overpowering
at the chessboard with Biyiasas. During his four months in San
Francisco, he beat Biyiasas 17 straight speed games before Biyiasas
finally surrendered. "He was too good," Biyiasas says. "There was no
use in playing him. It wasn't interesting. I was getting beaten, and
it wasn't clear to me why. It wasn't like I made this mistake or
that mistake. It was like I was being gradually outplayed, from the
start. He wasn't taking any time to think. The most depressing thing
about it is that I wasn't even getting out of the middle game to an
endgame. I don't ever remember as endgame. He honestly believes
there is no one for him to play, no one worthy of him. I played him,
and I can attest to that. It's not interesting."
As time passed, Fischer's
taste for the eccentric and his preoccupation with Jews became
evident to Biyiasas. Biyiasas says Fischer referred to Jews as
"Yids," telling him that one controlled the fluctuating price of the
world's gold. "He is fascinated by who this might be," Biyiasas
says. Fischer had what he called Chinese healthy brain pills ("Good
for headaches," Fischer told him) and Mexican rattlesnake pills
("Good for general health"). He had vitamins in a suitcase, and he
invited Biyiasas to help himself to them.
One day, Biyiasas tried
to open the suitcase but found it locked. Later, Biyiasas asked him
about this. "It's not locked for you," Fischer said. "If the Commies
come to poison me, I don't want to make it easy for them."
Now Fischer was moving in
a vacuum. A reporter had checked all public records in the San
Francisco and Los Angeles areas for a clue to Fischer's whereabouts,
and he had found none. No telephone, no driver's license, no vehicle
registration, no real property and no records of him in an array of
courts. Nonetheless, I sensed that I was closing in, if only I could
get more time to prowl the library in my disguise. I knew he had
been seen there, which meant he wasn't in Brazil. That he had gone
to Brazil had been the big rumor in December.
The scent seemed to be
fresh. There was the tale told by Ben Lewis, a truck driver who had
spent part of a late February lunch hour attending George Putnam's
radio talk show in a studio right across the street from the
library. As the show ended at 2 p.m., Lewis turned and saw Bobby
right behind him. A chess player, Lewis said he recognized him
immediately, even though Fischer had a short beard.
"Bobby, hello," Lewis
said. Fischer reeled backward. "About 10 feet," Lewis later
recalled. The first thing Fischer said was, "How do I know you're
not a journalist?"
Lewis thought that was
pretty funny. "Bobby, I'm in my uniform, I drive a truck," Lewis
"Show me some ID,"
Assured that he was,
indeed, a truck driver, Fischer talked to Lewis for about a half
hour. At one point, Lewis told him, "Bobby, you were the greatest!"
To which Fischer sternly replied. "What do you mean, were?"
They chatted amiably,
Lewis telling him that he had two sons and asking Fischer how he
could make them better players.
"Don't try to make them
child prodigies," Fischer said. "Forget about all that. Just let
Lewis had a fine time
talking to Bobby and, looking back, he has but one regret.
"If I had had a chess
set, Bobby would have played me," Lewis said. "That's the thing that
hurts more than anything else. I didn't have a doggone chess set."
So he was probably here
somewhere, and there I was, dressed like a derelict and making my
way up the steps of the library's Hope Street entrance at 4:35 p.m.
I did a quick circuit of all the rooms and at once found Gordon
Brooks standing in the social sciences department. I approached him
from behind and gruffly asked him for a cigar retie. He turned: "I'm
sorry, I...Oh, it's you."
I told him to keep his
eyes peeled, that I was on the prowl. Gordon nodded. An expert chess
player, Brooks had once lost to Fischer in a simultaneous
He had seen Fischer
several times at the library in the last four years. The first time
he spotted him, Fischer had a beard and was standing in front of the
card-catalog files. Brooks approached him. "He mumbled something and
turned and walked away," Brooks said.
They spoke on another
occasion and, according to Brooks, Fischer said, "I'm bothered by a
lot of weirdos."
Leaving Brooks, I swung
through the history department and I thought I saw Fischer crouching
by a stack of books along a wall. I could not see his face, so I sat
down at the nearest desk and waited. He looked tall-Fischer is 6'2"-
and he had a balding spot on the back of his head. Vintage Bobby.
Suddenly the man stood up. I breathed deeply, and looked. Ohhh! Not
I got up, caught my
breath and was about to head out the door when someone tapped me on
the shoulder. Startled, I jumped and blurted, "Ahhh!" It was Brooks.
He whispered to me, "He was here yesterday."
"What?" I breathed. "Are
"The lady in Social
Sciences said she saw him in there," he said.
Brooks and I swept
through History into Social Sciences. "Are you positive it was
Pat Spencer looked me up
and down, smiled demurely and said, "Yesterday, he was definitely
here. It was late, between seven and eight o'clock. I know, because
I didn't come out to the desk until then. He asked for the big
dictionary over there. He had on a suit, real baggy pants."
"How do you know it was
Fischer?" I asked. Spencer pulled out an old newspaper photo of
Fischer and flashed it from behind the counter. "I know him," she
said. "I see him a lot in here."
Turning to Brooks, I
said, "A day! I missed him by a lousy day!"
But he was here! He was
in town, certainly in the neighborhood. I left the library, went to
a deli and bought a Diet Sunkist and a bag of cheese corns and sat
on the stoop of The Church of the Open Door; thinking Bobby might
stroll past any time now and look at me and figure I was O.K., just
a bum feeding the pigeons. Ha! So I flipped some cheese corns to the
birds strutting past and waited in the gathering dusk. Where is he?
At 6:10 p.m., I walked up the stairs and into the library and began
my regular tour of the place, like a night watchman with a key.
Nothing in Philosophy and
Religion, nor in the Newspaper Room, where Fischer used to go last
fall to read Harry Golombek's commentaries on the Karpov-Kasparov
world title match in The Times of London. Nor in the
downstairs head. It was 6:30 p.m., then 7:15.
Another quick swing
through the rooms revealed nothing. It was 7:30 p.m., then 7:45.
Suddenly the bell rang, signaling 15 minutes left before closing.
The man reading the trigonometry book looked up in the back of
History. A bum dressed even worse than I, with holes in his pants
and a torn coat, sauntered toward the door. At 7:51, I got up from a
table and walked out of History and into the rotunda.
Passing the card
catalogs, I glanced up and stopped-jerked to a stop and froze. There
he was. Bobby Fischer was standing about 15 feet away, and for an
instant he looked right at me, so I could see his face straight on,
and I think my mouth dropped open but I can't be sure, because all I
can remember is how it suddenly went dry and how I ducked behind the
card catalogs and leaned my head against the files and said, in a
suppressed whisper, "Oh my God! I found him. I don't believe this.
Now what the hell do I do?"
I had never seen him in
my life, except in dated photographs, but I knew it was Fischer,
just plain knew it the instant I saw him. The long face. The brown
eyes. The half inch beard. The brown hair revealing a slightly
balding patch at the back of his pate. About 6' 2". He was carrying
a plastic bag-Ben Lewis said Fischer was carrying a bag when he met
him-and as I emerged from behind the files, he was already ducking
into the telephone booth, as he had when Brooks first saw him. He
had materialized out of nowhere at closing time, as if he had
descended from the dome to use the phone. After watching him
disappear into the booth, I dashed downstairs to watch the exits.
At almost eight sharp, as
the guards were seeing patrons out the door, Fischer came down the
winding staircase and walked quickly past me to the Hope Street
exit. He went through the door, took a left, then moved fast down
the stairs to the street. I followed him, about 30 feet behind.
Halfway down the stairs, he turned his head and saw me again. Does
he think I'm following him? He never turned back again. Nearing the
corner of Sixth and Hope, Fischer suddenly stopped and picked up a
public telephone. Of course, I thought, an old trick to lose a tail!
Head down, I swept past him, crossed Sixth Street to a row of hedges
at the Lincoln Savings and Loan and crouched down to hide. Looking
around, he appeared not to have noticed me.
He was on the phone about
five minutes. Not sure what he was going to do, I crossed Hope,
doubled back across Sixth to his side of the street and lurked about
in wait. Fischer hung up the phone, crossed Sixth, passed the hedges
of the Lincoln Savings and Loan and strode quickly into the night. I
followed him at a distance of 5O yards, at times having to break
into a trot to keep up. Ron Gross had been right. "Fischer is a fast
walker," Gross had said. "With those long, fast strides he takes,
he's hard to keep up with."
Half-jogging, I watched
him as he disappeared in shadows and reappeared in the light, his
bag twirling and swinging at his side. Everywhere he went, I trailed
just behind him on the other side of the street. I could not hear
him whistling, but he moved as if he were.
For some 21 months I had
wondered what I'd say to Fischer upon meeting him face to face.
Dressed as I was this night, I knew I could have affected a foreign
accent, stuck out my hand and said, "Boooby Fischer! You ah zee
greatess chiss playah uff all zee time!" But I had decided long ago
I could not do that. Were I to confront him, I would have to do so
on his terms, which meant I would have to be scrupulously honest. No
lies, no evasions, no deceptions. He detests all such things. So,
confronting him, I would have to tell him who I was and why I was
there, whereupon he would either flee in horror or lash out.
After spending weeks of
my life looking for this man, in a journey that had led me to
countless homes, libraries, bookshops, chess tournaments, stakeouts,
police stations, restaurants, bowling alleys and health spas, I
finally had him in my sights, and I simply could not bring myself to
reach out a hand to shake his. Fischer had chosen this life of
privacy and seclusion, for whatever reason, and to breach it now
seemed a pointless intrusion. I was certain enough in my own mind
that the man was Bobby Fischer. I chased him for block after block
through the streets of Los Angeles, thinking he might lead me to his
home, for I was curious to know for myself just where he lived after
hearing all the rumors.
In the end, even that
didn't really matter. He stopped on one street corner for a while,
waiting for a light to change, and then crossed the street and
stopped at another. There were bums and winos all around, but he
appeared to pay them no mind. I watched him for a long while from
across the street. Fourteen years ago, he had stormed the chess
world by winning those 20 straight games, and he was on his way to
Iceland to do battle with Spassky. What seemed like only the
beginning then was really the end.
Now here he was,
momentarily sharing a street corner with winos in downtown Los
Angeles. The last time I saw him, he was standing there under a
large clock hung upon the corner of a building. Fittingly enough,
the clock was broken, its hands motionless on the dial. Then he
disappeared into a group of people climbing on Bus 483, bound for
By William Nack
Sports Illustrated - July 29, 1985