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  • The Grandest Master of All

    When Chicago-born Bobby Fischer defeated the Soviet Union's Boris Spassky to win the world chess series in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972, he became an international celebrity overnight. His victory-the first by a non-Soviet since 1948-sparked a worldwide resurgence in popularity of the ancient board game to which Fischer had single-mindedly devoted himself from the age of 6. Although the temperamental chess genius lost his title by default in 1975 after a dispute over the ground rules for a new championship series, the legend of his aggressive and unpredictable style still dominates the games. And as his successor, 33-year-old Anatoly Karpov, battles with 21-year-old Gary Kasparov in Moscow for the world chess crown in the longest-running championship ever, many observers say that Fischer is still the greatest threat to the Soviets' firm hold on the game. Said Rainer Rickford, publisher of the The International Player's Chess News Weekly, a World Chess Federation publication: "No one quite knows who is the real victor with Fischer still out there." 

    At 41, Fischer lives a reclusive existence in Pasadena, Calif., where friends say he fears a KGB assassination plot. Keeping to his long-standing habit of declining interviews, he has refused to comment publicly on the current world championship. The only chess player ever to appear on the covers of Life, Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated has not been seen in public for years and reportedly has no fixed address. He stays in the homes of close friends-who are equally publicity-shy on his behalf. Former grandmaster Peter Biyiasis, who briefly entertained Fischer in his San Francisco home in 1981, described him as "the best player ever to walk the face of the earth." During Fischer's stay the two played more than 100 speed games, all of which the former world champion won. Observed Biyiasis: "If anything, Bobby has gotten better. He is like a machine."

    As well, many see him as an eccentric. In 1981 Pasadena police found him wandering on a highway and charged him with vagrancy. He spent two days in jail and later wrote a booklet about the experience, entitled I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!, which has become a collector's item in chess circles. Friends say that he avoids doctors as assiduously as he does the press. As well, he was a member of the fundamentalist Worldwide Church of God, has frequented Nazi-oriented bookshops and, according to friends, fears a Moscow-based Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.

    In 1962 Fischer denounced the Soviet chess establishment in an article in Sports Illustrated, in which he alleged that Soviet grandmasters were ordered to lose or draw games to advance the careers of favored players who were being groomed as potential champions. During the current championship games, London Times chess critic Harry Golombek and others repeated the allegation. Wrote Golombek: "Perhaps Kasparov has been warned not to play well and has been given to understand that the consequences for him and his family would be disastrous if he did."

    So far, Fischer has refused all attempts to draw him back into championship competition. In 1977 he turned down $250,000 and the chance to play a chess game at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and $3 million to play a tournament in the Philippines. Biyiasis insists that Fischer plans to play chess once again for money. But Fischer has never publicly indicated whether he intends to play in international tournaments again. Apparently the eccentric, inscrutable and legendary king of modern chess is keeping the end game to himself.

    by Bill Gladstone
    with Cy Jamison in Toronto.
    Macleans - February 11, 1985

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