The Bobby Fischer enigma

I have recently finished reading Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness by Frank Brady. This is one of the reasons I love reading non-fiction. What author could invent a character as compelling as this Chicago-born chess player? Whenever I read a book, I like to do background research -. it makes the reading experience more complete. So I also saw the HBO documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World.  I will now tell the story of the descent into madness of Bobby Fischer, the man who made chess sexy.

Bobby Fischer was born in Chicago on March 9, 1943.. His birth certificate listed his father as Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist, who had been married to Fischer’s motherRegina. Some sources imply that Paul Nemenyi, a Hungarian Jewish physicist, may have been Fischer’s biological father. Whoever the father was, Bobby grew up without one, sharing his early life with his mother and his older sister Joan. They had moved about in his infancy, but in 1949 they settled in Brooklyn. It was here that Fischer began playing chess at the age of six, using the instructions from a chess set bought at a candy store below their flat.

Fischer is said to have had an IQ of 180, but he generally seemed to find school a waste of time. One of the academic institutions he attended was the Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, where he would stay until he dropped out at the age of 16. Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond were also students at this time. He seemed unaware that Streisand had a secret schoolgirl crush on him. She remembered that ““Bobby was always alone and very peculiar. But I found him very sexy.”

He may not have been an academic star, but Fischer put in his 10.000 hours of practice. This idea was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success. Throughout the work Gladwell repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule“, He claims that be successful in any field you need to practise honing your skills for a total of around 10,000 hours – mostly during childhood. Fisher certainly put those hours in. He became the youngest U.S. Champion in history two months short of his 15th birthday. He played in eight United States Chess Championships, each held in New York City, winning every one. His real obsession though was to win the world title. It would take him more than a decade to reach his objective. He complained that the Soviet players were colluding against him. There was definitely a lot of psychological gamesmanship. The Russians used the fact that he had dropped out of high school to taunt him for being nyeculturni – unschooled and uncultured. My favourite was when they asked Fischer if he was A Benthamite. I think football could learn from chess. Mourinho should get Pepe to ask Messi if he agrees with Kant’s categorical imperative or ask him to outline the principal weaknesses in Feuerbach’s critique of religion.

By the early 1970s Fischer dominated his contemporaries to an extent never seen before or since, as he had notched up 20 consecutive wins against the world’s top players. He was now ready for his assault on the champion Boris Spassky. There were the usual disputes over prize money. He actually went two down in the match after a howler in the first game and dispute over lighting in the second. But Fischer would go to win comfortably. He was now champion of the world.

Bobby Fischer was twenty-nine and in his prime and he finally had the fame and fortune he had always known he deserved. Fischer returned from Reykjavík with more than the world championship. He was now a media superstar. Young, famous, rich, and on top of the world. Unprecedented offers rolled in for millions of dollars in endorsement deals, exhibitions, basically anything he was willing to put his name or face to. He turned all of it down. He didn’t play in the first year after he won the title. This sabbatical lasted into a second year and then a third one. Meanwhile his challengers were fighting it out for the right to play him in 1975. The former champion Spassky was out, destroyed by a young Soviet upstart Anatoly Karpov. Thief match between Fischer and Karpov promised to be a fascinating contest. But then the wrangling began. Fischer, surprising no one, had many strong ideas about how the event should be run, including returning to the old system with no limit to the number of games. In the end no agreement was reached and Fischer’s reign, which he had hoped would last 20 years, was over in just three. Karpov was champion by default.

Ever since Fischer gave up the title his actions have been subject to fevered speculation and armchair psychoanalysis. I don’t think that it is a case of Fischer chickening out. There had been similar shenanigans before the 1972 clash and Fischer had gone on to win comfortably. Karpov indeed considered Fischer the favourite, rating his own chances of victory at 40 percent. Brady’s argues that on the board Fischer feared nobody. However, former champion Garry Kasparov points out that Fischer’s problems were always in getting to the match. He believes that Fischer was a perfectionist who simply couldn’t countenance failure, and Karpov would have put his invincibility at risk. Fischer had not played any chess in three years. Of course this is one of those classic sporting counterfactuals which we will never know the answer to.

These are Bobby Fischer’s wilderness years, when he slipped out of public consciousness. Just when it seemed that he would never play again Fischer came out of retirement to face Spassky.. Of course Fischer would not do anything in a conventional way. It was his first match in twenty years with a $5 million prize fund paid for by a shady banker and arms dealer, Jezdimir Vasiljevic. Fischer insisted that the organizers bill the match as “The World Chess Championship“, although Garry Kasparov was the recognized FIDE World Champion. Fischer, bearded and with a few more kilos, claimed he was still the true World Champion, and that all the games in the FIDE World Championship matches, involving Karpov, Korchnoi, and Kasparov, had been fixed. The venue was war-torn Yugoslavia a country about to self-destruct. Fischer was breaking sanctions and he received a notification from theU.SState department, which he publicly spat on in an infamous press conference. Fischer won again, but despite his protestations that this was the real world championship, it does seem to have been something of a sideshow.

Fischer now began a career as a shock jock characterised by his virulent anti-Semitism and his attacks on his country of birth. Remember that his mother and possibly his father were Jewish. There is a term, self-hating Jew, used to describe Jewish people who hold anti-Semitic beliefs or engage in anti-Semitic actions. This seems to be a perfect description of Fischer. He blamed a Jewish conspiracy for taking away his world title. On September 11, an obscene rant of his celebrating the attacks was broadcast on Philippine radio and then around the world on the Internet. In July 2004 he was arrested in Japan for having a revoked passport and held in captivity for eight months until the granting of Icelandic citizenship allowed him an escape route. Fischer was hero in Iceland and this would be where he would live out the rest of his days until his death in 2008 from kidney failure. He had of course refused medical treatment.

Fischer’s life was ultimately a terrible waste. How could someone with so much talent fall so far? Fischer was a victim of celebrity and his outrageous talent. Brady does not try to justify Fischer’s excesses, but prefers to remember his genius. He compares Fischer to Wagner. The fact that he was an anti-Semite and Hitler’s favourite composer does not prevent us from listening to him. We can separate the man from the art. Brady had to come to terms with this before embarking on this biography. Here is how Brady concludes the biography:

And what, then, will be the inheritance bequeathed by Bobby? For chess players, and for people who followed the story of Bobby Fischer’s rise to become what many say is the greatest chess player who ever lived, his legacy for his heirs and the world alike may simply be the awe that his brilliance evoked.

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