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  • The Wanderer

    The Man Who Knew Bobby Fischer

    National Master Ron Gross of Las Vegas has been playing chess in the United States for close to 50 years. Most of us who have been involved in chess for a long time have gotten in and out over the years but Ron has remained steadily active from 1952 to this day. As a result, he knows just about everybody who has been seriously involved in American chess for the last five decades.

    He started to play in Long Beach, California in 1952. An early teacher was a strong master named Lionel Joiner who later became Canadian Champion. In 1954, at the age of 19, Ron played in the New Orleans U.S. Open and scored a very respectable 8-4. He was hooked.

    In 1955 he met an intense twelve-year old named Bobby Fischer at the U.S. Junior Championship in Lincoln, Nebraska. The tournament was won by Charles Kalme and Ron finished about fifth. Fischer lost in the last round to Viktors Pupols but still had a respectable score. But the real up-and-comer was thought to be the slightly older Larry Remlinger of California who was generally regarded as a bigger talent than Fischer.

    Ron recalls Fischer at the time wearing a large military-style dogtag around his neck which his mom had attached to him with all his vital information on it: name, address, phone number etc. Bobby would twist the dogtag nervously when he was losing. Fischer was skinny and fidgety but pleasant in a distracted way. Ron played a lot of five-minute chess with Bobby and won the majority of the games. At the time, Ron was rated over 2100 and Fischer's rating was in the 1700's though his strength was about strong Class A.

    Gross and Fischer also both played in the U.S. Junior Rapid Transit Championship in Lincoln which was at ten seconds a move with a warning buzzer at eight seconds and then a bell. This method of rapid play preceded five minute chess in general usage and was quite popular in those days. Fischer was familiar with it from the New York clubs and Ron had played a lot of rapid transit in California.

    As it turned out, Ron played Bobby in the last round of their preliminary section and had to win in order to get into the final. Gross got into a losing position, complicated things, and managed to win the game. He says now, "Fischer wasn't a bad loser. He would just get real quiet, twist that dogtag even more and immediately set up the pieces to play again. He was a real fighter, always." Ron got hot in the final, beat Kalme and Remlinger, and won his first national championship as Bobby looked on.

    Ron didn't see Fischer again until the spring of 1957. Gross had become a master and moved to New York to play chess. He spent a lot of time at the Marshall and Manhattan clubs and so did Bobby who had begun to skip school to play chess all day. Ron was stronger than he had been the previous year and he expected to still be able to handle Fischer. "I was stronger but Bobby was a LOT stronger than he had been." They played skittles chess daily for small stakes. "Even though Bobby was still rated lower than me (Gross was 2198, about 2300 by today's standards), he won four or five games to my one."

    Just before Ron got to New York, Fischer had beaten Donald Byrne in spectacular style in the Rosenwald tournament and people were starting to think he might be something special. Chess Life columnist and opening theoretician Hans Kmoch had even started to collect Fischer scoresheets and spoke of him as a budding genius.

    "Bobby and I became friends and would tramp around the city together. Go down to the Marshall and play in the rapid transit tournament there. Things like that. One day we were on our way downtown at a time we were both playing in a little Ruy Lopez thematic tournament that Kmoch had arranged. All of sudden Bobby said, 'You know, I can beat all those guys.' I thought he meant the people in the thematic tournament and thought that was a funny thing to say because it wasn't that strong. We both had perfect scores in fact. But he didn't mean that. He meant he could beat anyone in the U.S. And by the end of the year he did it."

    Another side of Fischer started to emerge: "One day we were playing skittles for something like twenty cents a game and Bobby had accumulated a stack of dimes and had another good position against me. It so happened that Hans Kmoch had made an appointment that day with Gregor Piatagorsky [renowned cellist and chess philanthropist] for Bobby to show him his win against Donald Byrne. Just about the time that Piatagorsky showed up to see the game, Bobby made a slip and I sacked the exchange for a pawn and good positional compensation. Fischer started to take more and more time and Kmoch started to get nervous as the game dragged on." Despite his best efforts, Fischer lost and angrily flipped two dimes back to Ron's side of the table as Kmoch rushed up. "Please Bobby. It's been 40 minutes! Mr. Piatagorsky's waiting!"

    Bobby blew up. "I don't care! I don't have to show anybody my games just because they're a big shot!" And with that, he stormed out of the club. That was the first time that Ron had ever seen that side of Fischer and he was shocked. "The amazing thing to me was that it didn't bother Kmoch and Piatagorsky very much. The Piatagorskys later sponsored his match against Reshevsky and all. I guess a certain amount of temperament is expected of geniuses."

    Ron remembers, "Fischer was a good kid but very unsophisticated about anything but chess. It was all chess for him, every waking moment. We'd go down to the Four Continents bookstore and he'd buy any Russian chess material he could get his hands on. He'd learned enough Russian to get the gist of prose and he just absorbed the chess part." Bobby was just a little kid but with a big talent. "He was in the perfect atmosphere to learn chess. There weren't so many good books then but guys like Artie Bisguier, Bill Lombardy, Kmoch and Walter Shipman would help him all they could. Anything he wanted to know, they would try to help him with."

    He was also spoiled and easily frustrated. One day, Ron and a friend, Arthur Fuerstein, picked up a letter for Fischer that was an invitation from the Hastings organizers to play in the annual event. Max Euwe, who had played two exhibition games with Bobby the year before, had recommended him. Before giving the letter to him they teased him, both pretending that the other had the letter. "We were just kidding around a little but Bobby started crying and clawing at us, jumping up and down like a little kid. Of course we gave it to him and then he ran out the room in tears, with the letter clutched in his hand. In the end, he turned the invitation down anyway. Not enough money."

    Later in 1957, Fischer and Gross along with Larry Evans played in the Western Open in Milwaukee and Fischer lost a game to a little-known player named Milton Otteson. It was to be the last game he lost in the U.S. for quite a while. The rocket was about to take off.

    After the Western Open, they all headed west to Long Beach in Southern California and Fischer waited a couple of weeks for the U.S. Junior in San Francisco. Fischer spent his time playing Remlinger and then went up to San Francisco and took the title by winning all his games, save one draw. He returned to Long Beach and got a ride to the Cleveland U.S. Open, along with junior players Gil Ramirez and John Rinaldo, from Bill Addison. A lowlight of the trip was a fight Fischer got into with the older Ramirez in the back seat that left Gil with bite marks on his arm that can be seen to this day. Bobby proceeded to win that tournament on tiebreak points ahead of Arthur Bisguier which qualified him for the U.S. Championship, which in turn was a zonal qualifier for the world championship cycle.

    When Addison and Fischer left for Cleveland, Ron Gross stayed behind in California because he had decided to go to college. He found that he liked school quite well, eventually becoming a high school teacher in Compton, California. He had spent much of 1957 with Fischer and then his pal from New York won the U.S. Championship to close out the year. The next year, at 15, Fischer shocked the chess world by qualifying for the Bled Candidates tournament at the 1958 Portoroz Interzonal and the next year he became the youngest grandmaster in history.

    Ron later spent more time with Bobby when Fischer came out to California in 1961 to play his ill-fated match with Sammy Reshevsky. When asked what Fischer was like to hang out with then Ron says, "Well, he was pretty intense all right but when something struck him as being funny, he had a great laugh. It's like he tried to hold it in and then this big, booming laugh kind of escaped. We always got along well. He could be fun but the subject was almost always chess. And, by the way, there was no trace of anti-Semitism in him back then. That came later, after his religious phase in the early 70's. When he got involved with The Church of God he blamed the Jews for killing Christ and then, when he became an atheist, he blamed them for everything."

    Ron saw a lot of Fischer again when Bobby came out to Los Angeles before the great Piatagorsky Cup tournament in 1966. They played table tennis, took walks and drives and scoped out pretty girls from the terrace of the Miramar Hotel. "Bobby liked to look at pretty girls all right. He had a good eye. He was way too shy to ever go up and talk to them though." Mainly, they would look at chess, chess and more chess. "I like to analyze as well as most but Bobby would just go on and on. I had to get out of there sometimes and take a break."

    At the tournament, Ron helped Mrs. Piatagorsky run the event and Fischer got off to a bad start. After his games, Bobby's usual goal was to get through the crowd as fast as possible, get to his room and analyze his game. Ron would often look at the games with him. But after his loss to Spassky, Fischer lingered at the board and made a move possible for him in an earlier position. Spassky reached out and immediately made a move in reply. Fischer flushed and rushed away, giving Ron the high sign to come with him. In his room, Bobby kicked the wastepaper basket in anger. Ron asked, "What's wrong? I thought that was a really good game." Fischer replied, "Yeah, it was. That's not what's bothering me. I usually never stay at the board after a game. Especially against Spassky. I made a dumb suggestion and he refuted it instantly! I know I'm going to have to play him some day and it was really stupid to look like such a jerk in front of him." Then he calmed down and very thoroughly went over his loss and of course he later made a stunning comeback in the second half of the double round-robin event.

    After the tournament, Bobby decided he wanted to spend some time in California and stayed on at the exclusive Miramar at the Piatigorskys' expense. Finally, Lina Grumette, on behalf of Mrs. Piatagorsky asked Ron to speak to Bobby. "Ron, everybody else has left. He's running up a huge bill. Room service, phone calls all over the place. Please talk to him."

    "So I said, 'Bobby, if you're going to stay out here, you should get an apartment.'"

    "Yeah, you're right. That's a good idea."

    Fischer saw some apartments he liked but the problem was that he couldn't make up his mind which one to take so he stayed on the hotel for ten more days. Finally, Ron just came out with it. "Bobby, you've been at the hotel a long time. Everybody else is gone. The Piatagorskys are paying for everything."

    "Oh. I didn't know. Yeah, I guess I should move."

    Ron says, "He knew what was going on. He just waited until someone broached the subject. He had learned that people were often hesitant to say anything to him he might not want to hear and he used that to his advantage."

    Ronnie gross saw Fischer again when Bobby returned to california early in 1970 to prepare for the World vs. USSR match. This time Bobby found his own lodgings without any trouble and saw Ron, Larry Evans and other friends in the area who showed him around.

    Ron remembers that Fischer's apartment had chess books stacked everywhere, usually open and marked to whatever he was studying. He was preparing to play Spassky on first board in the upcoming match. One surprise he was working on was that he was preparing 1.d4 for Spassky and had good lines against all of Boris's favorite defenses. As it turned out, he played second board against Petrosian whom he handled fairly easily, 3-1, though the chess world was surprised that Fischer acceded so readily to Bent Larsen's demand that he play first board against Spassky.

    Ron explains, "It was simple. Bobby hadn't played in a long time. He knew Spassky was a much more dangerous opponent for him than Petrosian and he got to save all his preparation for another day." Ron saw a lot of the ideas that Fischer showed him pop up in the Reykjavik match world championship match two years later.

    During this 1970 stay in California, Fischer would often visit Ron and his wife Marilyn at their home in Compton. During these visits, Bobby met a friend of Marilyn's named Cindy who would sometimes give him a ride back to his LA apartment at the end of an evening of chess and Chinese food. When Ron asked him if he was interested in going out with her, Fischer said no.

    "Why not? She's really cute." "Yeah. But she knows I'm Bobby Fischer."

    Bobby wouldn't go out with women who knew who he was but he was too shy to ask out the ones who didn't.

    Throughout the 1970's Gross continued to see Fischer whenever Bobby came to Southern California. Ron was teaching in Compton and Bobby would come over and they would play 10-second chess just like in the old days. Fischer loved it when Ron would play offbeat openings and he would try to refute them over the board. He was particularly struck when Ronnie, as black, played a weird gambit against the Tarrasch French: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 e5!? Bobby asked where Ron had found that one and Gross explained that a correspondence player friend of his had showed it to him. Further, the originator of the gambit was Steinitz! Bobby, of course, was a big admirer of Steinitz and had included him on his personal list of the ten best players of all time. Fischer sat back, shook his head, and repeated admiringly, "that guy, that guy!"

    Fischer was also very good about looking at other people's games. He was genuinely interested and obviously could be pretty helpful. Here's a game of Ron's that Bobby particularly liked. Ron Gross - Tony Saidy [A80] Marysville, 1966 1.d4 f5 2.Bg5 Nf6 3.Bxf6 exf6 4.e3 d5 5.Bd3 Be6 6.Qf3 Qd7 7.Ne2 g6 8.Nbc3 c6 9.Nf4 Rg8 10.Nce2 a5 11.h4 h5 12.Nxe6 Qxe6 13.Nf4 Qf7 14.Rc1 b5 15.a4! b4 [15...bxa4 16.c4!] 16.c4 bxc3 17.bxc3 Na6 18.0-0 Bd6 19.c4 Nb4 20.cxd5 Bxf4 21.exf4 cxd5 22.Rc5 Kf8 23.Rfc1 Ra7 24.Qg3 Nxd3 25.Qxd3 Kg7 26.Qb5 Rd8 27.Qb6 Rdd7 28.Rxa5 Rab7 29.Qa6 Rb4 30.Qc8! Rxd4 31.Ra8 Kh6 32.Qh8+ Qh7 33.Qxf6 1-0

    In 1980-81 Fischer lived in Mexicali for several months. Ron went to see him and they went down to Tijuana. Fischer wanted to buy two things: a battery for his Casio watch and an illustrated anti-Semitic book in Spanish. He looked all over for it and was really happy when they finally found it.

    Some time before this, Ron's daughter Ember had started to take a picture at his home of Bobby and Ron playing 10-second chess. Bobby said, "Oh. you're not going to take my picture are you?" and the idea was dropped. He seemed to remember that incident in Tijuana and offered to have his picture taken with Ron by a street vendor who took gag photos of people sitting on a donkey painted to look like a zebra. Ron was in a hurry to get down to Ensenada so he passed on the idea. "I've since regretted that. It was a chance to get my picture taken with Bobby Fischer sitting on a zebra-painted donkey. I think the caption was something like, 'On my ass in Mexico.' Now that would have been a collectors item!" (Photo: Ron and his daughter Ember)

    In Ensenada, they fished, drank beer and generally had a good time. "No one knew who Bobby was which was one of the reasons he liked Mexico so much. One day he was hungry and told me he didn't have any money so I gave him some and he went off to get something to eat by himself. Later that day I told him that Mexico was a great place to get inexpensive shoe repairs and so we went and found a shoe shop."

    Ron got his shoes re-soled on the spot and when Fischer heard how cheap it was he wanted to get his done too. And he badly needed the work done because his shoes were falling apart. When Ron mentioned their dilapidated condition, Bobby said, "These are the shoes I got in Buenos Aires when I beat Petrosian." That had been almost ten years before. Ron thought, "Gee, I wonder if he expects me pay for this too." Bobby didn't. "He pulled out a wad of cash. Several hundred dollars at least. He had a LOT more money on him that I did." Fischer seemed unaware that there was anything odd about the fact that he had asked for food money a couple of hours before and paid for the shoe repairs for both of them.

    They stayed in Ensenada for four or five days and one morning went out on a fishing boat at dawn. "It was a calm day but Fischer was seasick before the boat left the harbor. Despite everyone's best efforts, Bobby had refused to take Dramamine the night before and now everybody else on the boat was having a great time. There were flying fish and dolphins following us, whales in the distance and to top it all off we got into a big school of fish and everyone was landing them like crazy." Except Bobby. "By the time he got over his seasickness the fish were gone but we still had a good time. We were talking and I mentioned that Mexico was a also good place to get inexpensive dentistry done because it looked like he needed it badly. He had all these open cavities in his teeth."

    "Bobby said, 'No way.' He said he knew a guy in New York who had a metal plate in his head and it picked up radio signals." Bobby was afraid the Russians would be able to beam all sorts of things into his head through his fillings. "I said, 'Do you mean you're going to let your teeth rot out?' Bobby said, 'Yes, I'll gum my food if I have to!'"

    In fact, Fischer still has his teeth and Ron thinks that Bobby's sister Joan finally talked Bobby into taking care of them.

    The money issue was one of Bobby's growing eccentricities. Fischer's friend from the old junior chess days, John Rinaldi, had become a successful banker. One day he got a call from the woman who handled Bobby's business affairs. She said that Bobby needed a computer and wanted to know if Rinaldi would buy it for him. It turned out that was a pattern. Whenever Fischer heard that someone from the old days had done well, his surrogate would hit them up for money. In Bobby's defense, Ron says, "Bobby was sentimental about the old days too. For instance, whenever he heard that someone he had known and liked from the past had died, he would often send a note of condolence to the family."

    "Bobby was still fun sometimes in early 80's. He would joke around a little but more and more he always came back to the so-called Jewish conspiracy. And he would send you tracts, 'The Myth of the Six Million,' that sort of thing. Even worse, he would call at all hours and want to talk about the stuff he had sent and you had to pretend that you had read it. Once he even had me go into a bookstore and buy a couple of anti-Semitic books for him. He had had a falling out with the owner but he still wanted his junk. He even told me, 'Be sure to ask for the 10% discount!' There was some secret phrase, I forget what it was. Probably something like 'Holocaust? What Holocaust?'"

    Fischer's behavior was getting more bizarre. One night he called Ron and asked him to pick him up in front of the LA Library. "I got there. No Fischer in sight. I drove around the block several times and all of a sudden he came flying out of the bushes and jumped into the car like demons were after him. It's a bit unsettling to be around that sort of thing."

    Fischer kept up with chess but he told Ron that he would never play in another tournament though he would still play matches. He often carried the latest Chess Informant around with him and analyzed on his beloved chess wallet.

    Around this time, in 1981, a man named Kevin Burnett was writing a newspaper piece on Fischer. He knew Ron was a friend of Bobby's and asked him to check the piece for accuracy. Ron did and told Brunett that Fischer still considered himself world champion because of the way FIDE had deprived him of his title. Ron defended Fischer's views and he also mentioned that Bobby was doing just fine and that he had recently been fishing with him in Mexico. That was all. Ron knew Fischer probably wouldn't like it if he found out about it but by that time his attitude was, "so be it."

    A short version of the story appeared in a local southern California paper and it wouldn't have been seen by very many people, but, because it was about Fischer, it was picked up by a wire service and it ran in a San Francisco paper. A friend of Fischer's there saw it, called Bobby and told him, "Gross has been talking to the press."

    Shortly thereafter, on a hot summer night in 1982, Ron got a call from Fischer that sounded like it was from a phone booth next to a carwash. Bobby was very mad and wanted to know if it was true that he had been "talking." Gross asked him if had seen the article in question.


    "Well, why don't you read it. It's just a short article . . ."

    "No. You broke our friendship."

    "I defended your title claims and just mentioned that we went fishing."

    "I don't care. It turns out you're just a dirty Jew after all."

    Ron sadly replied, "You just had to get that in didn't you, Bobby?"

    Bobby Fischer hung up and Ron has never heard from him again though they still have friends in common.

    Ron Gross looks at Fischer's games sometimes and remembers the old days. The games are still wonderful.

    Copyright 2000 Mike Franett. All rights reserved.

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