By Garry Kasparov - The
Wall Street Journal
July 19, 2004; Page A10
The stunning news of Bobby Fischer's detention in Japan came
at a moment in which the American former world chess champion
was already very much on my mind. I am currently finishing the
fourth of my six-volume series on the game's great players and
it is precisely this volume of which Robert James Fischer,
forever known as Bobby, is the star.
This project has involved going over hundreds of Fischer's
chess games in minute detail. It also means trying to understand
the man behind the moves and the era in which he made them.
Despite his short stay at the top there is little to debate
about the chess of Bobby Fischer. He changed the game in a way
that hadn't been seen since the late 19th century. The gap
between Mr. Fischer and his contemporaries was the largest ever.
He singlehandedly revitalized a game that had been stagnating
under the control of the Communists of the Soviet sports
Bobby Fischer rocketed to the top of the chess world in the
early 1970s he was a fine wine in a flawed vessel. His
contributions to the game, both at the board and from a
commercial perspective, were nothing short of a revolution in
the chess world. At the same time, his brittle and abusive
character showed cracks that deepened with his every step toward
the highest title.
Today, it is hard to imagine the sensation of Mr. Fischer's
success when he wrested the world championship away from Boris
Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972. In the middle of the
Cold War, the Brooklyn-raised iconoclast took the crown from the
well-oiled Soviet machine that had dominated the chess world for
decades. And this after he barely showed up for the match at
all, and then lost the first game and forfeited the second!
Partially due to Mr. Fischer's outrageous behavior leading up
to and during the "match of the century," the international
media coverage was incredible. The games were shown live around
the world. I was nine years old and already a strong club player
when the Fischer-Spassky match took place, and I followed the
games avidly. Fischer, who had crushed two other Soviet
grandmasters on his march to the title match, nonetheless had
many fans in the Soviet Union. They respected his chess, of
course, but many quietly enjoyed his individuality and
After the match ended in a convincing victory for the
American, the world was at his feet. Chess was on the cusp of
becoming a commercially successful sport for the first time. Mr.
Fischer's play, nationality and natural charisma created a
unique opportunity. He was a national hero whose popularity
rivaled that of Muhammad Ali. (Would the secretary of state have
called Ali before a fight the way Henry Kissinger called Mr.
Fischer?) Sales of chess sets and books boomed, and tournament
prize funds soared. With Bobby Fischer in the lead, chess was
headed for the popularity of golf and tennis.
With glory, however, comes responsibility and tremendous
pressure. Mr. Fischer couldn't bring himself to play again. He
spent three years away from the board before the precious title
he had worked his entire life for was forfeited without the push
of a pawn in 1975.
Astronomical amounts of money were offered to lure him back.
He could have played a match against the new champion, Anatoly
Karpov, for an unheard of $5 million. Opportunities abounded,
but Mr. Fischer's was a purely destructive force. He demolished
the Soviet chess machine but could build nothing in its place.
He was the ideal challenger -- but a disastrous champion.
The conventional wisdom says that Bobby Fischer was a
guileless and petulant child who just wanted his own way. I
believe he was conscious of all his actions and the
psychological effect his behavior had on his opponents. The
gentlemanly Mr. Spassky was ill-prepared to deal with the
belligerent American in Reykjavik. In 1975, Mr. Fischer's
challenger was the young Mr. Karpov, whom I would later meet in
five consecutive world championship matches.
Unable to even contemplate defeat, Mr. Fischer left chess.
Bereft of the only thing he had ever wanted to do in his life,
he turned his destructive energies inward, espousing a virulent
anti-Semitism -- despite his own Jewish heritage.
The Fischer drama had a final act in 1992, when, almost 50
years old, he was brought out of seclusion by the lure of
millions to play a rematch against Mr. Spassky in war-torn
Yugoslavia in violation of international sanctions. The chess
was predictably rusty, although there were a few flashes of the
old Bobby brilliance. His mental stability, however, had
atrophied even more during the 20 years of solitude. Later, Mr.
Fischer's profane remarks would span from accusations of Jewish
conspiracies to a welcoming of the events of 9/11.
Despite the ugliness of his decline, Bobby Fischer deserves
to be remembered for the great things he did for chess and for
his immortal games. I would prefer to focus on not letting his
personal tragedy become a tragedy for chess.
An entire generation of top American players learned the game
as kids thanks to Mr. Fischer. Today's flourishing scholastic
chess movement could be harmed as his woes and beliefs make
headlines around the world. People may believe that this is what
happens when a genius plays chess -- instead of what happens
when a fragile mind leaves his life's work behind.
Mr. Kasparov, the world's top-ranked chess player, is a
contributing editor at the Journal.