Bobby Fischer is a ferocious winner
Angry voices rattled the
door to Bobby Fischer's hotel room as I raised my hand to knock.
"Goddammit, I'm sick of it!" I heard Bobby shouting. "I'm sick of
seeing people! I got to work, I got to rest! Why didn't you ask me
before you set up all those appointments? To hell with them!" Then I
heard the mild and dignified executive director of the U.S. Chess
Federation addressing the man who may well be the greatest chess
player in world history in a tone just slightly lower than a yell:
"Bobby, ever since we came to Buenos Aires I've done nothing but
take care of you, day and night. You ungrateful ---!"
It was 3 p.m., a bit
early for Fischer to be up. Ten minutes later, finding the hall
silent, I risked a knock and Fischer cracked the door. "Oh yeah, the
guy from LIFE. Come on in." His smile was broad and boyish but his
eyes were wary. Tall, wide and flat, with a head too small for his
big body, he put me in mind of a pale transhuman sculpture by Henry
Moore. I had seen him twice before but never so tired.
Just inside the door I
stopped short. The room looked like a terminal moraine of
bachelorhood. Bedclothes in tortured piles on the floor. Socks,
underwear, bags, newspapers, magazines jumbled on the spare bed.
Boxes stacked all over the couch, and on the floor between the beds
a single graceful banana peel. The only clean place in the room was
a small table by the window, where a set of handsome wooden-chessmen
had been set up for play. Serenely an altar in the debris of battle.
A battlefield is what
Fischer's life has been for the last 11 months. In May, coming off a
winning streak of seven games in international tournament play, the
28-year-old Brooklyn prodigy entered the challenge rounds for the
world's chess championship. In the first of three elimination
matches he destroyed Russia's Mark Taimanov, 6-0, the first shutout
ever achieved in grandmaster play. In the second match he finished
off Denmark's Bent Larsen by the same score. In his contest with
Russia's Tigran Petrosian, completed two days before I arrived in
Buenos Aires, Fischer pushed his winning streak to 20, then caught a
bad cold and lost a game. But with the match tied at 2.5 - 2.5,
Fischer changed his hotel, got a good night's sleep and ran the last
four games against the former world's champion in a brutal display
of power. Sometime next spring, at a place still to be decided,
Fischer will meet Russia's Boris Spassky in a best-of-24-games
battle for the world title Spassky now holds. Spassky is a
formidable chess master, but even some top Soviet experts now expect
Fischer to end Russia's 35-year domination of the game and become
the first American ever to hold the title.
"Congratulations on your
victory," I tried to say.
"Yeah, yeah." Fischer
mumbled shyly and turned away to grab a coat and tie. "Got to eat.
Starved. Talk later." And he hurried off to breakfast with about
twenty Russian chess magazines tucked under his arm.
In the lobby people
rushed up to Fischer from all directions. He looked startled and
irritated. Argentina is chess-crazy (there are 60 chess clubs in
Buenos Aires alone) and for more than a month he had been stalked
day and night by Latin adoration. A white-haired man collared him
now and spoke earnestly. A young girl grabbed his arm and said
something intense that made him pull back and then stride away. A
U.S. TV sports team puffed along at his elbow, but he wasn't having
any. "Later!" he flung at them and, tilting forward, lurched off
with a powerful wambling stride that made him look like Captain Ahab
making headway in a high wind.
At the London Grill, a
transplanted English pub of pleasantly peeling charm, Fischer made
for a back table and ordered two 12-ounce glasses of fresh orange
juice, the largest steak in the house, a mixed green salad and a
pint bottle of carbonated mineral water. Five minutes later he
ordered another glass of orange juice, and by the time he was ready
for a huge dish of bananas and superrich Chantilly cream he had
finished his fourth pint of mineral water. He ate with the oral
drive of a barracuda and talked incessantly about how wonderful the
food was. "Look at that juice! Fresh, not frozen! And where else can
you get a glass that big for less than ten cents? Look at that
steak! It's almost two inches thick. And YOU can really taste it!
Not like that lousy American meat, all full of chemicals. This is
natural meat! I tell you, Argentine food is the finest in the world!
They really go in for quality here. Like clothes. You can get a
tailor-made suit here for less than $100, and they last! Shoes too.
They got the best shoes in the world here. Look at this pair I got
on. Here, look at them!" Quickly untying an enormous brown shoe, he
took it off and handed it across the table. "Look at that sole! It's
composition and I'm telling you it's strong! I go through an
ordinary pair of shoes in days. Days! But I've had this pair for a
year and it's still great. I mean I love America and I'd never be
anything else but an American, but things are failing apart up
there. Everybody doing his own thing just won't work. We need
organization! We need to get back to basic values!" Shaking his head
sadly, he ordered another dish of bananas and Chantilly.
At sundown, as he does at
sundown every Friday of his life, Fischer disappeared into his room
for 24 hours of solitary meditation. He is a member of the Church of
God, a fundamentalist California-based religious sect, and he takes
his religion seriously. He won't talk about it, though. He won't
talk to the press about any aspect of his private life. But a good
deal is known.
Child of a broken
marriage, Bobby grew up in Brooklyn with a dominant mother and an
absent father. He seemed lonely and a little withdrawn, in no way a
remarkable child, until one day when he was 6 his older sister
happened to bring home a chess set. From that day, bobby's destiny
possessed him. Father, mother, friends: all the people he needed he
found, in a set of chess figures, all the world he wanted was there
in a square foot of space.
At 13, Bobby won the U.S
junior championship. At 14, Bobby ripped through eleven matches,
three with grandmasters, to become U.S. champion; the youngest ever.
But his mother felt strongly that he was too little appreciated. She
went to Washington and picketed in Bobby's behalf. One day she
actually chained herself to the White House gate. Acutely
embarrassed, Bobby gradually pushed her out of his life. At 17, he
quit school ("Teachers," he said, "are jerks") and lived alone in a
warren of chess literature.
At 18, Fischer played
with such demonic brilliance that chess masters were sure he would
become come World's champion the next year. But after a tournament
in Curacao, he accused the Russians of playing to let their own best
players win and fighting like tigers to make Fischer lose. In fury
of humiliation, he refused to meet the Russians again until the
rules were rewritten. The press jeered him as a bum loser, but at
great cost to his career he held out. The world organization system
in world championship play and substituted the series of individual
matches Fischer wanted. Mano a mano, he reasoned, talent would tell.
Talent and erudition.
Fischer is the profoundest student of chess who ever lived. He reads
incessantly, forgets nothing, turns knowledge into action with
monstrous precision and ferocity. "No other master," a German expert
told me, "has such a terrific will to win. At the board he radiates
danger, and even the strongest opponents tend to freeze, like
rabbits when they smell a panther. Even his weaknesses are
dangerous. As white, his opening game is predictable-you can make
plans against it-but so strong that your plans almost never work. In
middle game his precision and invention are fabulous, and in the end
game you simply cannot beat him."
At sundown on Saturday
Fischer burst out of an elevator into the lobby of his hotel. An
even bigger crowd was there. Dead-white with hunger after a day
without food, he put his head down and headed for the street. He had
promised an American TV network an interview that evening, but he
pushed the cameraman aside impatiently. "Later, later!" Shutters
clicked on all sides as he hit the sunlight. A husky Argentinian
paparazzo gave pursuit, snapping shots every few feet. Suddenly
Fischer swerved at him, grabbed for his camera but missed, then gave
him two quick kicks in the right leg. Before the photographer could
regain balance, Fischer turned the corner and was gone. Looking
shaken, the photographer sat for some time on the fender of a nearby
cab. "Bobby es loco," he muttered, shaking his head.
An uncanny thing happened
that night in Fischer's room. Like a turtle he shrank into himself
and gathered his world about him. First he switched on a Sony
shortwave radio and fiddled till he picked up some soft rock from
London. Then out came the Russian chess magazines. (Fischer seldom
ventures beyond "chess Russian" but he reads and speaks Spanish
fluently.) Eyes smoked with introspection, he played through 10, 15,
25 games at frenzied speed, slamming the pieces at the board like
darts and muttering savage or mocking or fascinated comments under
his breath. It was genius in full rage and it went on for almost an
hour before he glanced up and remembered I was there.
"I shouldn't have kicked
him," he said. "You can't go around kicking people."
Then his eyes smoked
again and he raced through a dozen more games. This is it, I
thought. This is Bobby's life. Sleep all day. Grab some food. Hole
up with a shortwave radio or a tape recorder or a TV set and play
chess with himself all night. No people in his life if he can help
it. Just a small circle of undemanding electronic acquaintances. A
man alone in a monomania.
"He's not a bad guy, I
guess," Fischer went on, apparently unaware that 20 minutes had
elapsed between sentences. "It's his job that's bad."
He turned the radio up.
"That's Victor Sylvester!" he said excitedly. "Listen to that sound!
Rich, huh?" I gulped, then nodded interestedly. Victor Sylvester is
the British Lawrence Welk.
"I despise the media,"
Fischer went on, looking straight at me and scowling. "'Goodbye,
media man. Spreading your paranoia across the land. Creating
situations that you don't understand.' They're destroying reality,
turning everything into media," he said, turning the volume higher
The phone rang. It was
Svetozar Gligoric, the Yugoslav grandmaster, calling from Venice.
Fischer glowed. Gligoric is one of his warmest admirers. "Gligo!
Thank you. What? ... I was a little bit worried after the second
game, yeah. ... Well, in the fifth he had a good position but he
didn't try to win. ... That's right, these matches are somehow easy
for me.... But I feel I've been in my best moment for many years.
... Spassky? He's a very solid player but-well, you know. ...
Congratulations from Spassky? No, nothing .... Bye, Gligo."
He put the phone down,
grinning. "I haven't had any congratulations from Spassky yet. I
think I'll send him a telegram. CONGRATULATIONS ON WINNING THE RIGHT
TO MEET ME FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP."
About one a.m. we went
out for lunch. No photographers in the lobby, but Fischer wasn't
taking any chances. We slipped down the back stairs and out a side
door and then hugged the wall till we were two blocks from the
hotel. "I guess we shook those jerks," Fischer said. Then be walked
for about 20 blocks through the night city at a pace that made me
feel like Dopey the Dwarf scrambling to keep up with the big folks.
The streets were full of couples strolling entwined and kissing.
Fischer looked over their heads and hurried by. I wondered if he
noticed them until he darted a glance at a parked car where a man in
his 40s or 50s was necking with a young girl. "Did you see that?"
Fischer exploded. "Disgusting!"
We ate at a Chinese
restaurant. Fischer ordered two main dishes, one made with duck and
the other with pork, as I remember, and then swizzled them around
with his fork till he had a sort of soupy slush. "Terrific food
here!" he mumbled, eyes shining.
After lunch we hiked at
high speed until five a.m., covering at least eight miles. Fischer
talked with a boisterous boyish eagerness about all his favorite
subjects: chess, money, the Russians, electronic gadgets, chess,
clothes, food, the Russians, chess, science, ecology, urban
problems, noise. For a man widely assumed to have tunnel
intelligence, he showed a remarkable spread of interests. But the
more he talked the clearer it became that all his information was
factual, not emotional. It came from books, magazines, newspapers,
television-the media he despises. Not long before dawn he was
telling me how terrible cities are for people, how much he loves
nature and the open countryside. I told him about a big estancia
(ranch) I knew of and suggested that we fly out in a small plane and
spend the next day there. He was at first delighted at the thought
but then he stared at me, the color draining from his cheeks and his
jaw dropping a little, as though he had just been jabbed in the gut.
"I don't know about the plane," he said slowly. "Suppose the
Russians-like, did something to the motor or something. I mean,
people don't realize how important chess is to their image. They'd
really like to get rid of me now."
Flat and green, the
springtime pampas looked like ironed Ireland. Less than an hour out
from Buenos Aires the plane landed on a shaved strip of pasture-
oops! wrong estancia. Three minutes later we saw "Santa Elena"
painted on a tin roof and swooped down to a waiting pickup truck.
Hotel-bound for almost a year, Fischer stared at the grass the way a
prisoner stares at sunlight. "Wow!" was all he could say at first,
The manor house was a
comfortable old steep roofed bungalow set in a park of tropical pine
and towering sycamores. A fat, friendly collie came waddling across
the lawn. Ruby was her name and for Fischer it was love at first
sight. For two hours they romped and cuddled and hiked all over the
estate. At one point Ruby attacked an armadillo but Fischer dragged
her off and for a good ten minutes he looked shaken. It made me
wonder if be had seen something of himself in the small terrified
creature. Back at the house the vivacious housekeeper served us a
tasty Argentine pot roast slathered with vegetables. In a rush of
euphoria Fischer tossed off two glasses of red wine, the first
drinks anybody I know had ever seen him take.
After dinner, with Ruby
trotting loyally alongide, Fischer went riding. He jumped in the
saddle, put the reins around his own neck and said giddy up! He was
scared and he took a terrible bouncing but he was dead game.
Afterward he fell asleep in a hard porch chair with Ruby sleeping on
the floor at his feet. "People are really nice out here," he
murmured in wonder as we left. "You can trust them, you know?"
At Santa Elena, Fischer
was more open than at any time during the days I spent with him. On
the way home in the plane, while night closed around us like a big
rose and he sat hunched over his chess wallet playing furious
solitaire, I made notes on what he had said.
"Americans like a winner.
If you lose, you're nothing. ... I'm going to win, though. ... it's
good for the match that Spassky has a plus score against me. We've
met five times. He's won three times and we've drawn twice. But I'm
a stronger player and a long match favors me ..."
When I told him I had
heard that Spassky gives up all private life for at least six months
before a championship match, lifts weights, does road work and sees
a psychoanalyst every day, Fischer smiled mysteriously and said: "No
kidding." When I asked how he intended to train, he shrugged and
said: "I don't know. Go along as usual, I guess. Study. Play some
tennis, maybe. Walk. I like to walk, you know."
When he wins the
championships? "I'll play a lot, stake matches. Not like the
Russians. They win the championship and then hide for three years.
Every few months, anyway twice a year, I'd like to get up a purse
and meet a challenger. It's good for the game, keeps up interest in
chess, and it's good for the bank account. I want to get some money
together. Like take professional football. All these athletes making
hundreds of thousands of dollars. Contracts, endorsements. If
there's room for all of them, there ought to be room for one of me.
I mean, after all, I'm a great goodwill ambassador for the United
States! Besides, I want money so I can tell some people I don't like
to go ... yeah."
My last night in Buenos
Aires, the paparazzi ambushed Fischer. Returning to his hotel after
a three-hour walk, he was set upon by a gang of about 15
photographers and "reporters," most of them working for a local
scandal sheet that had promised to "persecute" Fischer until he gave
an interview. The "reporters" crowded around him, digging their
shoulders into his ribs and hissing insults into his face while the
photographers recorded his discomfort. Pale with anger, Fischer
thrust through the mob to the elevator. But in his room he began to
grin, then laughed so hard he almost fell off the couch. "It's like
chess!" he explained in high glee. "I knocked off one of their
pieces, so they went after the king. But I got away, I got away!
Wow, am I hungry! Soon as they're gone, let's sneak out
and get something to eat!"
by Brad Darrach
LIFE - November 12, 1971