Bobby Fischer's Pathetic Endgame
and hatred--the unraveling of the greatest chess player ever.
Bobby Fischer was
singing the blues. As he wailed along with a 1965 recording by
Jackie ("Mr. Excitement") Wilson, his voice--a gravelly baritone
ravaged by age but steeled by anger--rumbled through the
microphone like a broken-down freight train on rusty wheels:
"You go walking down Broadway, watchin' people catch the subway
I Take it from me, don't ask for a helping hand, mmm, 'cause no
one will understand!" With each note he became increasingly
strident. "Bright lights will find you, and they will mess
you around! Let me tell you, millions will watch you! Have mercy
now, as you sink right down to the ground!" Even if you
knew nothing about Bobby Fischer, listening to him sing this
song would tell you all you needed to know. "There just
ain't no pity. No, no, no, in the naked city, yeah-New York
This unlikely duet,
featuring Jackie Wilson and the world's first and only chess
grand master fugitive from justice, was broadcast live, on July
6, 2001, by DZSR Sports Radio, a Manila-based AM station that
has embraced Fischer as a ratings booster. In exchange for these
rare interviews (Fischer hasn't given a magazine or TV interview
in thirty years), Sports Radio management has happily provided
Fischer with hours of free airtime to spin his classic R&B
records and to lash out at his enemies, both real and imagined.
Fischer categorizes these enemies-including the former New York
mayor Ed Koch, both Presidents Bush, and the Times Mirror
Corporation--as "Jews, secret Jews, or CIA rats who work for the
This radio broadcast
was Fischer's seventeenth in the Philippines. The bizarre
karaoke interlude was a departure of sorts, but otherwise the
broadcast was no different from the previous sixteen. Fischer's
talking points never vary.
* Bobby Fischer is
being persecuted by world Jewry.
* The United States
government is a "brutal, evil dictatorship" that has falsely
accused Bobby Fischer of a crime and forced him to live in
* Bobby Fischer has
been swindled out of a "vast fortune" in royalties by book
publishers, movie studios, and clock manufacturers (yes, clock
manufacturers), who have brazenly pilfered his brand name,
patents, and copyrights.
* The Jews are a
"filthy, lying bastard people" bent on world domination through
such insidious schemes as the Holocaust ("a money-making
invention"), the mass murder of Christian children ("their blood
is used for black- magic ceremonies"), and junk food (William
Rosenberg, the founder of Dunkin' Donuts, is singled out as a
For chess buffs who
tune in for some shoptalk from the game's most revered icon,
there is this:
* Chess is nothing
more than "mental masturbation." Not only is the game dead, it's
fixed. Gary Kasparov, the world's top-rated player, is a "crook"
and a former KGB spy who hasn't played a match in his life in
which the outcome wasn't prearranged.
The No. 1
transgression, however, the thing that has devastated Fischer
embittered him, and made him screech at night, alone in his
apartment, is the "Bekins heist."
* Millions of
dollars' worth of personal memorabilia, painstakingly collected
and stockpiled by Bobby Fischer in a ten-by-ten- foot Bekins
storage room in Pasadena, California, has been stolen from him
in a secret plot involving the Rothschilds (Jews), Bill Clinton
(a secret Jew), and unnamed Bekins executives (CIA rats who work
for the Jews).
chess community, which tracks Fischer's downward spiral the way
astronomers track the orbit of a dying comet, has been
monitoring his radio interviews since the first one aired, back
in January of 1999. For the most part chess people have for
years downplayed the importance of his outlandish outbursts,
explaining that Fischer's raging anti-Semitism, acute paranoia,
and tenuous grasp on reality are hyped by the media and
misunderstood by the public. In the early 1990s Fischer's
girlfriend at the time said, "He's like a child. Very, very
simple." A friend who spent a lot of time with him in the 1990s
says, "Aside from his controversial views, as a person Bobby is
very kind, very nice, and very human." Another friend, asked how
he could stand by someone so blatantly anti-Semitic, replies, "A
lot of people wouldn't care if Michael Jordan was an anti-Semite
if they could play a game of Horse with him."
apologists argue that Bobby Fischer is in fact deranged, and
that as such he deserves not public castigation but psychiatric
help. They are quick to point out that he was raised in a Jewish
neighborhood in Brooklyn, has had close friends who were Jewish,
and in fact had a Jewish mother (information he has gone to
great lengths to deny). It seems hard to imagine that his
hate-filled rhetoric isn't an unfortunate manifestation of some
But even the Fischer
apologists had to throw up their hands when he took to the
Philippine airwaves on September 11, 2001. In an interview
broadcast this time by Bombo Radyo, a small public-radio station
in Baguio City, Fischer revealed views so loathsome that it was
impossible to indulge him any longer. Just hours after the most
devastating attack on the United States in history, in which
thousands had died, Fischer could barely contain his delight.
"This is all wonderful news," he announced. "I applaud the act.
The U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians,
just slaughtering them for years. Robbing them and slaughtering
them. Nobody gave a shit. Now it's coming back to the U.S. Fuck
the U.S. I want to see the U.S. wiped out."
Fischer added that
the events of September 11 provided the ideal opportunity to
stage a long-overdue coup d'état. He envisioned, he said, a
"Seven Days in May
scenario," with the country taken over by the military; he also
hoped to see all its synagogues closed, and hundreds of
thousands of Jews executed. " Ultimately the white man should
leave the United States and the black people should go back to
Africa," he said. "The white people should go back to Europe,
and the country should be returned to the American Indians. This
is the future I would like to see for the so-called United
States." Before signing off Fischer cried out, " Death to the
The United States
Chess Federation had always been willing to ignore Fischer's
public antics, no matter how embarrassing. He was, after all,
Bobby Fischer-the greatest player in the history of the game.
But this was too much. On October 28 of last year the USCF
unanimously passed a motion denouncing Fischer's incendiary
broadcast. "Bobby has driven some more nails in his coffin,"
Frank Camaratta Jr., a USCF board member, says. The backlash has
reached all the way to grassroots chess clubs. "It's because of
Fischer that I'm involved in chess," says Larry Tamarkin, a
manager at the Marshall Chess Club, a legendary New York parlor
frequented by Fischer in his teens. "But I can't help feeling a
sense of betrayal, anger, and sadness. You devote your entire
life to one player and find out he's completely off his rocker.
It ruins everything. He's an embarrassment." Asked about the
possibility of a Fischer comeback, Tamarkin can't conceal his
disgust. "We prefer that he doesn't come back. Because if he
does, it will destroy the last vestige of magic."
In reality the magic
has been gone for some thirty years. That's how long it has been
since Fischer played his first and only world- championship
match. Why he stopped playing tournaments, and how his life
unraveled so pathetically, is a story one can learn only by
seeking out those who actually know Fischer. There are
surprisingly few such people-and fewer yet are willing to talk.
Fischer doesn't tolerate friends who give interviews. His
address book is a graveyard of crossed-out names of people who
have been quoted in articles about him.
But some formerly
loyal Fischer associates, appalled at his recent behavior, are
finally talking about him. They reveal that Fischer's story
doesn't follow the usual celebrity-gone-to- seed are. He has not
been brought low by drugs or alcohol, by sex scandals or
profligate spending. Instead he is a victim of his own mind-and
of the inordinate attention that the world has given it.
Fischer's paranoia, rage, and hubris have been enough to
transform him into an enemy of the state; they have been enough
to sabotage a brilliant career and turn a confident, charismatic
figure into a dithering recluse; and, sadly, they have been
enough to make us forget that when Bobby Fischer played chess,
it was absolutely riveting theater, even for those who didn't
play the game.
In many ways
Fischer's story resembles that of the mentally unstable Nobel
Prize winner John Forbes Nash Jr., the mathematician who
inspired the book and Oscar-winning movie A Beautiful Mind,
but without the happy ending. Both Fischer and Nash were the
best at their chosen professions. Both were widely considered to
be geniuses. Both were also supremely arrogant, rebellious,
eccentric, and--although respected--not necessarily well liked
by colleagues. Fischer left the United States to live in exile.
So did Nash. Even eerier, while in the grip of schizophrenia
Nash was an anti-Semite and was convinced that Communists (the
men at MIT wearing red ties) were observing him.
Contrary to popular
belief, Fischer didn't emerge from the womb a full- blown grand
master. While he was learning the game, as a child in Brooklyn,
he was essentially a hotshot club player-a prodigy, to be sure,
but not obviously world- championship material. But at age
thirteen, in 1956, Fischer made a colossal leap. That year he
became the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Junior
Championship. He also dominated the U.S. tournament circuit.
What was astounding wasn't simply that a gawky thirteen-year-old
kid in blue jeans was suddenly winning chess tournaments. It was
the way he was winning. He didn't just beat people-he humiliated
them. The thing he relished most was watching his opponents
squirm. "I like the moment when I break a man's ego," he once
said, during a Dick Cavett interview.
Later in the year he
played a game so remarkable that it was immediately dubbed "the
Game of the Century." Fischer faced Donald Byrne, then one of
the top ten U.S. players, at the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament,
in New York. The now legendary battle was packed with more chess
pyrotechnics than are typically seen during the course of an
entire match. There were complex combinations, ingenious
sacrifices, danger and apparent danger-enough to make Fischer,
who won, a chess god overnight. Asked to explain his sudden
emergence on the world stage of chess, Fischer shrugged and
said, "I just got good."
The Fischer- Byrne
duel was dissected in newspapers and magazines around the world
and won Fischer the Brilliancy Prize, an annual chess award that
recognizes particularly imaginative play. Chess analysts, a
decidedly reserved lot not given to spasms of hyperbole,
peppered their dry annotations with exclamation marks ("Be6!").
"While we have learned to distrust superlatives, this is one
game that deserves all the praise lavished on it," wrote Fred
Reinfeld, a leading chess journalist of the day. Even the
Russians, loath to acknowledge so much as the existence of
American players, grudgingly tipped their hats. After the
Fischer-Byrne game, Mikhail Botvinnik, the reigning world
champion, reportedly said, "We will have to start keeping an eye
on this boy."
That is exactly what
the chess world did from that moment forward. Fischer's
achievements were staggering: In his time he was the youngest
U.S. master (at fourteen years and five months), the youngest
international grand master, and the youngest candidate for the
world championship (at fifteen years and six months). He also
won eight U.S. chess championship titles--a record not likely to
be broken. In 1966 he co-authored Bobby Fischer Teaches
Chess, the best-selling chess book ever, and in 1969 he
My 60 Memorable Games, arguably the best chess book
Fischer also just won
a lot of games--an impressive fact given that draws among grand
masters are commonplace. At the highest level of competitive
chess, players are so familiar with one another's games that
they can practically read their opponents' minds. The
memorization of opening theory and the intensive study of an
opponent's oeuvre so dominate the modern game that when two
grand masters square off, the first twenty moves unfold like a
stale sitcom plot. Players often lament that "draw death" is
killing the game.
But Fischer didn't
play for draws. He was always on the attack-even rhetorically.
Of the Soviet champions who had dominated the game so
completely, he said, "They have nothing on me, those guys. They
can't even touch me."
The Soviets were not
amused. They dismissed the young American upstart as
nyekulturni-literally, "uncultured." This wasn't far
from the truth, and Fischer knew it. He lacked education, and
had always been insecure about this. His deficiency was
particularly glaring now that most of his interaction was with
adults, many of whom were sophisticated and well-read.
The answer, Fischer
thought, was to upgrade his wardrobe. So at sixteen, using his
chess winnings, he traded in his uniform of sneakers, flannel
shirt, and jeans for luxurious bespoke suits. He reveled in his
new Beau Brummell image. When he traveled abroad for
tournaments, he frequently visited local tailors and had suits
cut for his gangly, broad- shouldered physique. He liked to brag
that he owned seventeen such suits, which he rotated to ensure
even wear. "I hate ready-made suits, button-down collars, and
sports shirts," he once said. "I don't want to look like a bum.
I get up in the morning, I put on a suit."
The change did
wonders for Fischer's self-esteem. He boasted that once he had
defeated the Russians and become the world champion, he'd take
on all challengers. Like the boxing champ Joe Louis, he'd have
his own bum-of-the-month dub. He boldly promised that he was
"gonna put chess on the map." He envisioned a rock-star
existence for himself: a $50,000 custom-made Rolls-Royce, a
yacht, a private jet, and a mansion--in either Beverly Hills or
Hong Kong--" built exactly like a rook." Asked what his
long-term goals were, he replied, "All I want to do, ever, is
But the sartorial
façade of sophistication was a flimsy one. Those close to
Fischer knew that when it came to art, politics, or anything
else the cosmopolitan set talked about, he was at a total loss.
"If you were out to dinner with Bobby in the sixties, he
wouldn't be able to follow the conversation," says Don Schulte,
a former friend. "He would have his little pocket set out and
he'd play chess at the table. He had a one-dimensional outlook
This limited world
view prompted Fischer to drop out of Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall
High School midway through his junior year. It was hardly a case
of a promising academic life being cut short. Pulling courtesy
D's, ostracized by the other students, Fischer was going
nowhere. Many chess insiders have insisted that the poor grades
were a direct result of an abnormally high IQ--that is, Bobby
wasn't stupid, he was just bored. (Although Fischer was a poor
student, he was regularly reading Russian chess journals.) It's
a point that has long been debated. Everybody agrees that
Fischer is no dummy, including Fischer himself (during one
interview he said, "I object to being called a chess genius,
because I consider myself to be an all-around genius who just
happens to play chess"), but chess champions aren't necessarily
geniuses. What they need for success is powerful memories, the
ability to concentrate deeply, refined recognition and
problem-solving skills, decisiveness, stamina, and a killer
When he dropped out
of high school, Fischer was living in Brooklyn with his older
sister, Joan, and his mother, Regina. Regina was a registered
nurse, a secular Jew, and a single mother with a bohemian
lifestyle that included leftist politics and social activism but
not chess. (When Fischer was born, his mother was married to
Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist, who is generally
assumed to be Bobby's father, although Bobby's paternity is the
subject of some speculation.) Fischer's relationship with his
mother was strained, in part because of her politics, her
religious heritage, and her general eccentricity. "Bobby's
mother was a cuckoo," the New York Times chess columnist Robert
Byrne says. "She was an intelligent neurotic full of far-fetched
ideas." As Fischer developed as a chess player, he distanced
himself from his mother. In 1962, three years after dropping out
of high school, he began living alone in the family apartment
(his mother and Joan had moved out).
Fischer began to
devote fourteen hours a day to studying chess. According to a
1962 interview in Harper's, he had some 200 chess books and
countless foreign chess journals stacked on his floor. He had an
exquisite inlaid chess table, made to order in Switzerland, and
three additional boards, one beside each bed in his apartment.
As part of a Spartan training regime he would play matches
against himself that lasted for days, sleeping in the three beds
in rotation. Asked how he spent his free time, Fischer once
replied, "I'll see a movie or something. There's really nothing
for me to do. Maybe I'll study some chess books."
As Fischer became
more successful, he began to generate more and more criticism.
In a very short time he managed to offend and estrange almost
everyone who was in a position to advance his career, including
USCF officials, patrons, journalists, and sponsors. He
frequently backed out of tournaments. He'd threaten a no-show
unless the promoters ponied up more prize money. He also
regularly groused about noise and light levels.
The press loved it.
Fischer was labeled an insufferable diva and a psych- out artist
who made life hell for tournament officials and tried to rattle
opponents by complaining about, among other things,
high-frequency sounds that only he and several species of
non-human mammals could detect. The press also loved to talk
about his greed. But Fischer never cared about money per se.
"Bobby wanted to get all kinds of money for everything," says
Arnold Denker, a former U.S. chess champion, "and yet when he
got it, he pissed it away. In Reykjavik [the site of the 1972
world- championship match between Fischer and Boris Spassky] the
maids who cleaned up his room made thousands of dollars because
he left money under the pillows and all over. He wanted money
because to him it meant that people thought he was important."
richer purses not only to validate his self-worth but because he
was convinced that tournament promoters were out to fleece him.
He would sign a tournament contract only to obsess later about
how quickly his demands had been met. Although the prize money
involved was always more than fair, Fischer's paranoia
invariably got the best of him. "Away from the board, Bobby
suffered from a terrible inferiority complex," says Allan
Kaufman, the former director of the American Chess Foundation.
"In his mind he concocted lots of excuses: people were taking
advantage of him; they were smarter than he was; if he had only
had their education, he would know what to ask for in
negotiations." Often before the ink on a contract was dry,
Fischer would refuse to play unless the purse was raised.
Promoters would cave, only to receive word later that Fischer
was demanding even more money. Frequently the negotiations
became so impossible that frustrated promoters simply walked.
These confrontations prolonged his quest for the world tide. "A
couple of times Bobby dropped out of tournaments that would have
led to him playing for the world championship earlier," says
Shelby Lyman, a chess pundit who analyzed Fischer's famous 1972
match with Boris Spassky on PBS.
certainly weren't willing to lend support to Fischer's tide
bide--specially after Sports Illustrated in 1962 published an
interview with Fischer in which he accused the Soviet chess
establishment of cheating in an effort to deny him what he
viewed as his birthright: the world chess championship. In the
interview, titled "The Russians Have Fixed World Chess," Fischer
alleged that Soviet grand masters were forced to lose or draw
games in order to advance the careers of favored players who
were being groomed as potential world champs. Fischer argued
that he was at a great disadvantage, because during a tournament
he had to endure a grueling schedule of games while several
anointed Soviet grand masters cruised from one victory to the
next, conserving their strength for the real competition-which
more often than not was Fischer himself in the finals.
Fischer had finished a disappointing fourth in the 1962 Curaçao
Candidates tournament, the interview was denounced by the
Soviets as a classic case of sour grapes. Those familiar with
the palace intrigue of the Soviet Chess Federation, however,
knew better. Nikolai Krogius, a Soviet grand master now living
in Staten Island, acknowledges that Fischer's allegations of
foul play were valid. "There were some agreed draws at Curaçao,"
he admits. According to Arnold Denker, beating the Soviet chess
machine during that era was all but impossible. "In 1946," he
says, "I had an adjourned game with Mikhail Botvinnik in which I
was ahead. During the break I saw Botvinnik eating dinner and
relaxing. I didn't have dinner. I went to my room and studied.
When the game resumed, Botvinnik remarkably found the only move
to draw the game. I said, ‘How is that possible?’ Someone told
me, ‘Listen, young man, all of these people were analyzing for
him while he was having his dinner.’ I was naive in those days."
"I'll never play in
one of those rigged tournaments again," Fischer fumed after
losing to the Soviet Armenian champion Tigran Petrosian at
Curaçao. "[The Soviets] clobber us easy in team play. But man to
man, I'd take Petrosian on any time." The five-time U.S. chess
champion Larry Evans agrees that the Soviets were less than good
sportsmen when it came to defending their world title. But he
also believes that Fischer was looking for a convenient excuse
for losing. "The fact of the matter is," Evans says, "that in
'62 at Curaçao, Bobby just wasn't good enough yet."
Fischer dropped out of international competition for several
years. His cash flow, which was about $5,000 a year, slowed to a
trickle. Money was so scarce that he began living at a YMCA.
When he couldn't afford that, he moved in with friends, hopping
from apartment to apartment and running up phone bills he
couldn't pay. Broke and feeling increasingly detached from New
York's insular chess community, he moved to California in the
spring of 1968. He was twenty-five years old.
Fischer's move to the
West Coast has sometimes been considered the beginning of his
so-called "wilderness years." Although he wasn't playing in many
tournaments, his work ethic never wavered: he continued studying
chess during most of his waking hours. But late at night, Arnold
Denker recalls, Fischer began prowling parking lots, slipping
white-supremacist pamphlets under windshield wipers. He began
studying anti-Semitic classics such as Mein Kampf
and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He
became obsessed with German history and the Third Reich, and
collected Nazi memorabilia. It was rumored that he slept with a
picture of Adolf Hitler hanging over his bed. Larry Evans says
that Fischer's admiration for the Führer had less to do with
anti-Semitism than with insatiable ego. "We once went to see a
documentary on Hitler," Evans recalls. "When we came out of the
theater, Bobby said that he admired Hider. I asked him why, and
he said, ‘Because he imposed his will on the world.’" (Fischer
has never made an effort to conceal his distaste for Jews. As
early as 1962, in the Harper's interview, he expressed
his prejudice, mentioning what he perceived to be a growing
problem affecting the upper ranks of his profession. "Yeah,
there are too many Jews in chess," he said. "They seem to have
taken away the class of the game. They don't seem to dress so
nicely. That's what I don't like.")
In the fall of 1968
Fischer walked out of the Chess Olympiad in Switzerland. He
refused to play for another eighteen months, and some feared
that his competitive drive had stalled, but that wasn't the
case. He was still training fourteen hours a day and playing
chess privately. And in 1970 and 1971 he returned to public
competition and had the longest winning streak in tournament
chess, when he won twenty consecutive outright victories against
the world's top grand masters, a record unrivaled in the modern
By 1972 Fischer had
reached his peak. That year the reigning world champion, Boris
Spassky, agreed to meet him in Reykjavik to play what would be
the most carefully scrutinized match ever, a contest the press
heralded as "the chess match of the century."
match became a Cold War battleground. The world's two
superpowers were about to lock horns across a chess board. The
political stakes were high enough that President Richard Nixon
ordered Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to intercede
personally when Fischer began hinting that he might not play.
"In short," Kissinger reportedly said at the time, "I told
Fischer to get his butt over to Iceland." According to the
Boston Globe chess columnist Harold Dondis, however, " Kissinger
tried to call Bobby, but Bobby wouldn't take the call."
Although Fischer had
worked his entire life for an opportunity to play for the world
chess crown, now that he finally had the chance, he began to be
taken over by anxiety, self-doubt, and paranoia (he feared the
Soviets would shoot down his plane). All the youthful bravado
and swagger--the bum-of- the-month club, the taunting of the
Russians--was a memory. "They had to drag Bobby kicking and
screaming to play in Iceland," Shelby Lyman says.
The prize money
troubled Fischer too. Up to this point the world- championship
chess purse had not been particularly noteworthy. When Spassky
won the world title, in 1969, his take was a paltry $1,400. The
promoters in Iceland were willing to pump the prize money up
some, but not to a level Fischer deemed sufficient When a
handsome five-figure purse was suggested, Fischer balked and
threatened a no-show. When Spassky and his entourage were in
Reykjavik for the opening t festivities, Fischer was still in
New York, grumbling about indentured servitude.
After a series of
escalating demands, Fischer managed to drive up the match's
prize money to $250,000 and was guaranteed a considerable slice
of film or TV revenues. But even then the match hit a snag.
Fischer refused to play because his favorite television program,
The Jack LaLanne Show, wasn't available on Icelandic TV. It
was Lina Grumette, a Los Angeles chess promoter and Fischer's "
chess mother" at the time, who finally managed to talk Fischer
in Iceland was no disappointment He put on a show that was equal
parts Ionesco play, soap opera, and political potboiler. Between
acts he managed to play some brilliant chess. The games were an
instant hit. "World Chess Championship," the Shelby Lyman
program created by PBS to cover the tournament, was at the time
the highest-rated PBS show ever--an amazing fact, considering
that it consisted of little more than a giant wall-mounted chess
board on which each move was recorded and then discussed by
Fischer played poorly
in the beginning, and Spassky easily won the first game, on July
12. Fischer refused to play the second game unless all cameras
were removed from the hall. The match organizers tried to
minimize the intrusiveness of the cameras, but still he refused
to play. Finally Fischer was warned that if his demands didn't
stop, game two would be awarded to Spassky. Fischer thought,
wrongly, that they were bluffing, and ended up forfeiting the
game. Suddenly he was in a hole, with Spassky ahead 2 to 0. At
this juncture Spassky could easily have retreated to Moscow
still in possession of his crown, and nobody would have blamed
him because of Fischer's behavior.
To placate Fischer
the third game was played in another room and broadcast to the
dismayed audience on closed-circuit television. He won handily.
The players returned to the exhibition hall for the rest of the
match, and Fischer soon grabbed the lead and held it, albeit
still complaining about the presence of cameras (in the end very
little of the match was filmed), the surface of the chess board
(too shiny), the proximity of the audience (he insisted that the
first seven rows of seats be removed), and the ambient noise.
Distressed at their countryman's poor showing, members of the
Soviet delegation began to make their own unreasonable demands,
hoping to unnerve Fischer. They accused him of using a concealed
device to interfere with Spassky's brain waves. The match was
halted while police officers searched the playing hall.
Fischer's chair was taken apart, light fixtures were dismantled,
the entire auditorium was swept for suspicious electronic
signals. Nothing was found. (In a subsequent investigation a
Soviet chemist waved a plastic bag around the stage and then
sealed it for lab analysis. The label affixed to the bag read
"Air from stage.")
flustered. If anything, his play became stronger. As the week
wore on, Spassky began slowly to crack, and on September 1 he
accomplishment cannot be overstated. A brash twenty-nine-
year-old high school dropout, armed with little more than a
pocket chess set and a dog-eared book documenting Spassky's
important games, had single-handedly defeated the Soviet chess
juggernaut. Spassky had a wealth of resources at his disposal to
help him plot moves, including thirty-five grand masters back in
the Soviet Union. Fischer, on the other hand, had two
administrative seconds who served essentially as companions, and
Bill Lombardy, a grand master, whose role was to help analyze
games. However, Fischer did almost all the analysis himself-when
he bothered to do anything. "After the games were adjourned, all
the Soviets would go back to Spassky's hotel room to plan for
the next position," recalls Don Schultz, one of the seconds.
"Lombardy said to Fischer, ‘That's a difficult position. Let's
go back to the hotel and analyze it.’ Fischer said, ‘What do you
mean, analyze? That guy's a fish. Let's go bowling.’"
Fischer returned home
to a hero's welcome. In a televised ceremony at New York's City
Hall, Mayor John Lindsay presented him with the key to the city.
Shelby Lyman recalls, "Here's Bobby in his great moment of
triumph. He's resplendent in this beautiful suit. The world is
his: he's young, handsome, women adore him, there's all this
money if he wants it. And he later said to a reporter, ‘The
creeps are beginning to gather.’ He was referring to press,
lawyers, agents-- everyone he drought was out to take advantage
of him. After that his whole life was about avoiding the
Fischer didn't in
fact get the full hero treatment. "I was never invited to the
White House," he said in one of his radio interviews. "They
invited that Olympic Russian gymnast--that little Communist,
Olga Korbut." In his notorious September 11 interview he
elaborated. "Look what I have done for the U.S.," he said.
"Nobody has single-handedly done more for the U.S. than me. When
I won the world championship, in 1972, the United States had an
image of, you know, a football country, a baseball country, but
nobody thought of it as an intellectual country. I turned all
that around single-handedly, right? But I was useful then
because there was the Cold War, right? But now I'm not useful
anymore. You see, the Cold War is over and now they want to wipe
me out, steal everything I have, and put me in prison."
Following the City
Hall ceremony Fischer returned to Pasadena, leaving $5 million
worth of unsigned endorsement contracts on his lawyer's desk. It
wasn't that he didn't want the extra income; he just couldn't
deal with the creeps.
He also stopped
playing tournament chess. And in 1975 the World Chess Federation
(known by its French acronym, FIDE) stripped him of his
world-championship tide for failure to defend his crown against
the Russian grand master Anatoly Karpov. Such stonewalling was
difficult for chess people to fathom, given that Fischer was so
much stronger than the competition. The truth was that Bobby
Fischer was running scared. "Bobby was always afraid of losing,"
Arnold Denker says. "I don't know why, but he was. The fear was
in him. He said that if he played Karpov, he was going to insist
on a long match. After not playing for three years, he was very
concerned about how good he would be." Shelby Lyman echoes that
assessment. "Hating to lose, and having the myth destroyed," he
says, "was a big part of him not playing."
Instead of playing
tournaments, Fischer retreated to the protective cocoon of the
Worldwide Church of God, an apocalyptic cult that predicted the
end of the world every four to seven years and whose members
tidied up to 30 percent of their income. Such protection came at
a steep price. It was reported that out of his $200,000 income
that year he donated $61,200 to the WCG. "They cleaned out my
pockets," he later said. "Now my only income is a few royalty
checks from my books. I was really very foolish." To show its
appreciation for such a generous contribution, the WCG treated
Fischer almost as if he were the very deity the Church's members
had been waiting for. He lived in WCG- owned apartments, was
entertained at fancy restaurants, and flew to exotic spots in
the Church's private jet. And Fischer was set up on the first
dates of his life, with attractive WCG members. A fellow WCG
member, Harry Sneider, says that this hedonistic lifestyle had a
detrimental effect on Fischer: "He got pampered and got a lot of
attention. It made him soft."
relationship with the WCG, like all the others in his life,
didn't last, in 1977, after a bitter falling-out that led
Fischer to claim that the WCG was taking its orders from a "satanical
secret world government," he cut all ties with the Church. Then
he crawled even further into his own netherworld. He began
dressing like a hobo. He took up residence in seedy hotels. He
began worrying about the purity of his bodily fluids. He bought
great quantities of exotic herbal potions, which he carried in a
suitcase, to stave off the toxins he feared might be secretly
put in his food and water by Soviet agents. According to a 1985
article in Sports Illustrated, Fischer medicated
himself with such esoteric remedies as Mexican rattlesnake pills
("good for general health") and Chinese healthy-brain pills
("good for headaches"). His suitcase also contained a large
orange-juice squeezer and lots and lots of vitamins. He always
kept the suitcase locked, even when he was staying with friends.
"If the Commies come to poison me, I don't want to make it easy
for them," he explained to a friend. Perhaps the most telling
sign of his rapid mental deterioration was that he insisted on
having all his dental fillings removed. " If somebody took a
filling out and put in an electronic device, he could influence
your thinking," Fischer confided to a friend. "I don't want
anything artificial in my head."
The low point of
Fischer's California sojourn came on May 26, 1981, when two
Pasadena police officers stopped him for an ID check. By then he
had unkempt hair, a scraggly beard, and tattered clothes, and
looked like an aging hippie down on his luck. He also generally
fit the description of a man who had recently committed two bank
robberies in the neighborhood. He refused to answer questions
and was taken to jail, where he spent forty-eight hours. "All he
had to do was tell the police he was Bobby Fischer, the chess
player, and the whole thing would have been over," a friend
says. "But he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Submitting
to authority is a foreign concept to Bobby." A year later
Fischer privately published a fourteen-page pamphlet tided " I
Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!" The pamphlet, which
became a surprise best seller in chess shops across the country,
is a melodramatic account of Fischer's confinement. The
subheadings say it all: " Brutally Handcuffed." "Choked." "
Isolation & Torture." "Sick Cop."
Meanwhile, he was
turning down big money to come out of retirement. Caesars Palace
in Las Vegas offered him $250,000 for a single exhibition game.
After Fischer had agreed to the terms and a date had been set,
he reneged. "I'm risking my title," he griped. "I should get a
million dollars." According to a 1992 article in Esquire,
despots and rogue millionaires were also willing to pay
outrageous purses to Fischer: Ferdinand Marcos offered him $3
million to play a tournament in the Philippines; the Shah of
Iran offered $2 million; Qatar, South Africa, Chile, and
Argentina are believed to have put similar deals on the table.
When a Francoist millionaire from Spain offered $4 million,
Fischer replied, "Nah. The figure's too low."
What Fischer craved
far more than wealth was anonymity. To achieve it he assumed a
new identity and began carrying a Nevada driver's license and a
Social Security card bearing the pseudonym Robert D. James. This
is the name that appears on the 1981 Pasadena police report.
(His full name is Robert James Fischer.)
To generate income,
however, he resorted to selling himself to chess fans and
curiosity seekers. The going rate for an hour's phone
conversation was $2,500. Bob Dylan is said to have received a
call from Fischer as a gift from his manager. For $5,000 a
personal meeting could be arranged. A student of the three-time
U.S. chess champion Lev Alburt once paid $10,000 for several
"chess consultations." Alburt says his student considered the
money well spent.
In the years to come
insiders knew that Fischer was still the man to beat. In 1981
the grand master Peter Biyiasas played seventeen straight games
of speed chess against Fischer and lost every one. "He was too
good," Biyiasas said at the time. "There was no use in playing
him. 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 an endgame."
In 1992 Fischer came
out of retirement to play Boris Spassky in a $5 million rematch
that commemorated the twenty-year anniversary of their meeting
in Reykjavik. Aficionados dismissed the match as meaningless,
since Fischer was no longer the world champion, and Spassky was
then ranked ninety-ninth in the world. But the press had reason
to celebrate: Fischer was a big draw; there was the nostalgic
superpower angle; and the setting was Yugoslavia. United Nations
sanctions had been imposed in an effort to halt the fighting in
the country, and Americans were forbidden to do any business
there, even in the form of a chess match. Fischer spoke
arrogantly to the press about the irrelevance of the sanctions,
and practically dared the United States to keep him from
playing. Annoyed, Washington decided to make an example of him;
the Department of the Treasury issued a cease-and-desist letter
to Fischer, stating that if he played chess in Yugoslavia, he
would be in violation of Executive Order 12810. The penalty for
defying the order was a $250,000 fine, ten years in prison, or
both. Fischer appeared untroubled.
He had signed on for
the match because he desperately needed money. This was to be
his big payday. After all the missed endorsements and spurned
multimillion-dollar matches, he was prepared to play one last
time, to ensure his financial security: the winner's share would
be $3.65 million.
In the end, though,
Fischer didn't play for money. He played for love. Not for love
of the game but for the love of Zita Rajcsanyi, an
eighteen-year-old Hungarian chess prodigy who had leveraged a
pen-pal relationship with Fischer into a full-fledged romance.
With glasses, a long ponytail, and Converse hightops, Rajcsanyi
was hardly a goddess. But she was exactly what was needed to
coax Fischer out of his shell. "Zita wrote Bobby beautiful
letters telling him how wonderful it was for her to be inspired
by his great genius," Harry Sneider, the WCG member, says. " She
had a lot to do with him coming back. Actually, it was she who
That Rajcsanyi was
able to talk Fischer out of his apartment, much less onto a
plane bound for Yugoslavia, is miraculous. By this time his
paranoia had intensified. Several months before the match Darnay
Hoffman, who produced a 1972 TV exposé about Fischer and was
working on another TV project about him, had tracked Fischer to
Orange Street-in the heart, curiously, of the Fairfax district,
then L.A.'s largest Jewish neighborhood. When a film-crew member
knocked on the door to request an interview, he heard Fischer
inside frantically dialing a rotary phone and screaming into the
receiver, "They've found me!"
Once Fischer arrived
in Yugoslavia, however, he showed not the slightest indication
of mental trouble. He wore a suit and appeared healthy, robust,
almost happy. "Bobby is so kind, so friendly," Spassky marveled
at the time. "He is normal.!" Lev Alburt ventures an
explanation. " Chess is a game that forces you to be objective
and to take into account an opponent's views," he says. "It
forces you to make reasonable judgments and to be sane. When
Bobby quit playing, it was really the end of his rational
existence. And he began filling that void with crazy ideas."
This was made
painfully evident when Fischer kicked off the pre-match
festivities in Yugoslavia with a press conference on September
1. After the usual battery of chess-related questions a
journalist finally asked the question that was on everybody's
mind: "Are you worried by U.S. government threats over your
defiance of sanctions?" Fischer calmly reached into a briefcase,
pulled out the Treasury Department letter, held it up, and said,
" Here is my reply to their order not to defend my tide here."
He then spat on the paper.
Fischer proceeded to
rattle off a series of astonishing proclamations: he hadn't paid
his taxes since 1976 (and wasn't about to start now); he was
going to write a book that would prove that Russian grand
masters ("some of the lowest dogs around") had "destroyed chess"
through "immoral, unethical, prearranged games"; he really
wasn't an anti-Semite, because he was pro-Arab, and Arabs are
Semites too. His assertion that Soviet communism was "basically
a mask for Bolshevism, which is a mask for Judaism" elicited the
most quizzical expressions.
The old Bobby Fischer
was back, and more bizarre than ever. This was made eminently
clear when Fischer informed tournament officials that he wanted
the toilet in his bathroom to rise higher in the air than anyone
beautifully in the first game. Spassky resigned on his
forty-ninth move. Considering that Fischer had been away from
formal competitive chess for two decades, this was no small
accomplishment. But the rest of the match featured
less-inspiring play. Although Spassky was clearly outclassed,
the contest dragged on for almost six weeks before Fischer was
finally declared the victor, with ten wins, five losses, and
fifteen draws. Today Fischer attacks critics who dismiss the
significance of the rematch. " I hadn't played in twenty years!"
he bellowed during one of his Philippine radio broadcasts. "I
did what was utterly impossible. It's still my greatest match."
Administration wasn't impressed. Fischer was immediately
indicted, and an arrest warrant was issued. He hasn't returned
to the United States since.
apologists argue that Fischer's outlandish radio broadcasts have
been misunderstood. But even the apologists had to throw up
their hands when their hero took to the Philippine airwaves on
September 11, 2001, and revealed views so loathsome that it was
impossible to indulge him any longer.
achievements were staggering: in his time he was the youngest
U.S. master (fourteen), the youngest international grand master,
and the youngest candidate for the world championship (fifteen).
Asked to explain his sudden emergence on the world stage of
chess, Fischer shrugged and said, "I just got good."
After Fischer moved
to California, in 1968, he began studying Mein Kampf and The
Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was rumored that he slept
with a picture of Hitler hanging over his bed. When asked why he
admired the Führer, Fischer said, "Because he imposed his will
on the world."
"That's a difficult
position," a companion of Fischer's said during the 1972
world-championship match, against Boris Spassky. "Let's go back
to the hotel and analyze it." Fischer said, "What do you mean,
analyze? That guy's a fish. Let's go bowling."
In 1992 Fischer came
out of retirement to play Spassky in Yugoslavia, where UN
sanctions were in place. The Department of the Treasury issued a
cease-and-desist letter to Fischer. He was immediately indicted
after the match, and hasn't returned to the United States since.
Fischer stayed in
Yugoslavia after the rematch, and began promoting what he called
Fischer Random Chess--a
tweaked version of shuffle chess, in which both players'
back-row pieces are arranged according to the same random
shuffle before play begins. Although not revolutionary, the
premise of FRC is compelling: with 960 different starting
positions, opening theory becomes obsolete, and the strongest
player-- not necessarily the player who has memorized more
strategies or has the most expensive chess-analysis software--is
FRC as a means of democratizing chess and as a lucrative
business venture--and as an easy way to reinsert himself into
the world of competitive chess without having to immerse himself
in opening theory. He had designed and patented two electronic
devices that he hoped to sell to FRC enthusiasts: a clock for
timing games, and a pyramid- shaped "shuffler" to determine the
starting positions. A 1996 press release described the two
instruments as "essential to playing according to the new rules
for the game of chess." Fischer desperately wanted the
Tokyo-based watch company Seiko to manufacture his FRC products
but couldn't generate interest.
Worse than Seiko's
snub was the loss of Zita. After less than a year she left
Fischer and, against his protestations, eventually wrote a book
that chronicled their relationship. After the book's release he
accused Zita of being a spy hired by the Jews to lure him out of
Following the breakup
Fischer roamed around Central Europe for several years. He ended
up being befriended by Susan and Judit Polgar, two young
Hungarian Jews who were at the time the Venus and Serena
Williams of the chess world. "I first met Bobby with my family,"
Susan recalls. "I told him rather than spending the rest of his
life hiding … he should move to Budapest, where there are a lot
of chess players."
Fischer did, and was
welcomed as a guest in the Polgar household. He appears to have
behaved himself. "I remember happy times in the kitchen cutting
mushrooms," Susan says. "He's very normal in that sense, very
pleasant." Although Fischer refused to play classic chess, he
graciously helped the Polgar sisters with their games. When he
wasn't sharing his expert analysis with them, he was playing FRC
games against them. He was astounded at how accomplished the
sisters were. Seeing that he was impressed by the Polgars' play,
a friend of Fischer's suggested a publicized match to promote
FRC. Fischer agreed.
Fischer was well
aware that a high-stakes match pitting the game's strongest male
player (in his own mind, anyway) against Judit Polgar, the
game's strongest female player (now ranked in the top ten in the
world), would interest the media. But the battle-of-the-sexes
extravaganza was not to be. "The Jewish-nonsense stuff caused a
problem between Bobby and the girls' father," says a Fischer
confidant. " One day Bobby just changed his mind. He said, ‘No,
they're Jewish!’ He just couldn't handle it and walked away."
Would Fischer be able
to beat a top grand master in an FRC match today? Doubtful. He
played numerous FRC games with Susan, who concedes that the
results were "mixed." She isn't optimistic about the prospect of
a Fischer comeback either. "He's not that young anymore," she
This may explain why
Fischer now lives in Tokyo, where chess buffs are virtually
nonexistent and he can live in complete anonymity. He walks into
bars g unrecognized and converses with women who have no idea
who he is. "Bobby g has always liked Japan," says Larry Evans,
the five-time U.S. chess champion. "He likes their subservient
women." The culture, too, is a draw, according to Harry Sneider.
"Bobby loves Japanese food," Sneider says, "the great mineral
baths, and the electronics." Others, however, insist that
Fischer chose Japan for a different reason. "Bobby needs to be
in a place away from the Jews," one woman says.
But Tokyo is only a
home base. Fischer spends much of his time traveling around the
world, spreading his gospel of hate. Live radio is his medium of
choice. His modus operandi is to lull his audience into a false
sense of security by reminiscing about past chess glories. Then,
like clockwork, five minutes into the interview the conversation
takes a detour--as it did on January 13, 1999, during Fischer's
very first live blitzkrieg, on Budapest's Radio Calypso. After
politely answering the stock questions, Fischer became
noticeably agitated and launched into his now familiar diatribe.
"We might as well get
to the heart of the matter and then we can come back to
chitchat," he curdy said to his host. " What is going on is that
I am being persecuted night and day by the Jews!" Fischer
proceeded to recite his bizarre list of grievances: the
emergence and sale of FRC- clock knockoffs; a fortune owed him
in unpaid book royalties; the unauthorized use of his name to
promote the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. His rage reached
a peak when he began detailing the precious memorabilia
allegedly stolen from his Bekins storage room in Pasadena. Lost
treasures supposedly include a book from President Nixon and a
letter from Ferdinand Marcos.
range from suspect to spurious. All U.S. book royalties due him
have been paid (since 2000 they have been held in escrow by the
State of California, because Fischer has not provided a
taxpayer-identification number). A movie can be titled
Searching for Bobby Fischer without his consent.
Unauthorized "Fischer Method" clocks, which he claims infringe
on his patent (expired in November of 2001, because of overdue
maintenance fees), may or may not be legal. But the issue is
irrelevant, because Fischer refuses to file suit ("The Jews
control the courts").
As for the Bekins
theft, it, too, is a fiction. He did maintain a Bekins storage
room in Pasadena for twelve years, and the memorabilia inside it
were confiscated, but not in some nefarious plot. The contents
of the storage room were sold at a public auction, because
Fischer's account--maintained by a Pasadena businessman named
Bob Ellsworth, whom Fischer had met through the Worldwide Church
of God--was in arrears. The Pasadena storage facility had been
sold in the late 1990s, and the new owners noticed that the
account was overdue. "It was my responsibility to pay the bill,
and I didn't pay it because I didn't know there were new
owners," Ellsworth says. "So they put Bobby's stuff up for
auction. I felt really bad and spent about eight thousand
dollars of my own money buying back all the significant
The storage room was
not a treasure trove worth "hundreds of millions of dollars," as
Fischer has claimed. "A lot of it," Ellsworth says, "was old
magazines and things that were of personal interest to Bobby:
books on conspiracy theories, racy Mexican comics, lots of John
Gunther books. Things you could go down to Olvera Street and
replace for a dime a copy. That stuff I passed on. But anything
of intrinsic value I snagged." At the auction Ellsworth acquired
"about 80 percent" of the various lots.
corroborates Ellsworth's story, and says that his son personally
delivered the reclaimed memorabilia to Fischer in Budapest. When
a list of the numbered lots was read off to him, Sneider
confirmed that each one is again in Fischer's possession. Lot
151: Box Lot of Telegrams to Bobby Fischer During World Chess
Championship. " Delivered." Lot 152: Box Lot of Books Inscribed
to Bobby Fischer (not by authors). "Delivered." Lot 153: From
the People of New York given to Bobby Fischer- Leather Scrapbook
with Letter and Telegram from Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York
Fischer denies all of
this, and would like nothing better than to see Ellsworth drop
dead--literally. During a Philippine radio interview broadcast
on January 27, 1999, he instructed the host to read Ellsworth's
home address on the air. " Some Filipino who loves me should say
hello to that motherfucker," Fischer said. "Bob Ellsworth is
worthy of death for this shit he pulled on me, in cahoots with
Bekins. This was all orchestrated by the Jewish world
Despite such conduct,
friends in recent years have thought they detected a glimmer of
light amid the darkness of Fischer's tortured psyche. For one
thing, he has a girlfriend--Justine, a twenty-two-year-old
Chinese-Filipina living in Manila, who couldn't care less about
chess and has no intention of writing a tell-all memoir. And
Fischer is now a parent: Justine gave birth to a baby girl in
2000. Fischer's fatherhood has until now been a well-kept
secret, shared by his Philippine friends, who hope that this
child will fill the void in Fischer's life that chess once
But their hope
appears to be in vain. Fischer is a far cry from being a doting
papa. According to one source, he "regularly sends money to his
girlfriend and child" but visits them only "once every two
months." Nobody has rescued him from his paranoid fantasies
either. During his most recent radio interview, broadcast live
from Reykjavik on January 27, 2002, Fischer rattled off the same
Bekins "mega-robbery" drivel. He described the fictitious crime
as "probably, in monetary terms, one of the biggest, if not the
biggest robbery, in the history of the United States." He also
encouraged the Icelandic government to close the local U.S.
naval base. "If they refuse to go," Fischer said, "send them
some letters with anthrax. They'll get the message."
For all the
anti-American bluster, those closest to Fischer say he'd
secretly like to return to his homeland. Sam Sloan, a chess
writer and longtime friend of Fischer's, says, "If he knew he
wouldn't be prosecuted for this executive order, I think he'd
come back." It seems that Fischer has a sentimental side.
Difficult as it is for some former friends to believe, he still
thinks about them. "Bobby called someone in New York recently,"
says Stuart Margulies, a co-author (with Fischer and Donn
Mosenfelder) of Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess (1966). "He
wanted to know how all his old friends were doing."
homesickness may explain why for a time Fischer continued to pay
property taxes on a piece of Florida real estate he was unable
to set foot on. But returning to America is no more real a
possibility than the rook-shaped house he once dreamed of
building. The federal arrest warrant issued in 1992 will not
expire, and it is unlikely that Fischer will be shown much
leniency--especially since he referred to George W. Bush during
one of his radio interviews as " borderline retarded."
It's almost certain
that he won't play chess competitively again. But the chess
world continues to sing his praises. Last December, for example,
the World Chess Hall of Fame opened for business--a rook-shaped
building situated on an unlikely strip of land just off the
Florida Turnpike, in South Miami-Dade County-- and inducted the
initial five members. One of them was Bobby Fischer.
is now more alone than ever before. His mother and sister both
died in the late 1990s. According to friends, he was extremely
close to Joan and had reconciled with Regina; not being able to
attend their funerals is said to have been a great blow to him.
The New York chess players he periodically inquires about have
broken all contact with him. As for Justine and his daughter,
they appear to be an inconvenience, a distraction best kept at
arm's length. Once one of the most famous men in the world,
Fischer is now nothing more than a ghost--a shrill, disembodied
voice heard only in faraway countries.
Rene Chun, a New
York-based Journalist, has written for numerous publications,
including The New York Times, Esquire, and New York magazine.
On the radio Fischer
lulls his audience into a false sense of security by reminiscing
about past chess glories. Then, like clockwork, he launches into
his diatribe. "We might as well get to the heart of the matter,"
he said during his very first broadcast, in 1999. "I am being
persecuted night and day by the Jews!"
Tokyo is now
Fischer's home base. He spends much of his time traveling around
the world, spreading his gospel of hate. During a recent
interview, broadcast from Reykjavik, he encouraged Iceland to
close the local U.S. naval base. "If they refuse to go," he
said, "send them some letters with anthrax. They'll get the
By Rene Chun
Atlantic Monthly, Dec 2002, Vol. 290 Issue 5, p79, 16p