An eight-time U.S. chess champion, Bobby Fischer made his mark in the 1970s as one of the most skilled and controversial masters of the game. With his famous 1972 victory over Russian Boris Spassky and his youthful good looks and energy, he helped win over a new generation of chess enthusiasts.
The definitive child prodigy, the Mozart of chess, an eccentric, reclusive figure—Bobby Fischer has been labeled all of these and more throughout an acclaimed and controversial life behind a chessboard and before the eyes of an adoring public. In an era when the most highly publicized chess matches pit human against computer, Fischer represents the image of an earlier time that stressed the mental and emotional athletics of the game.
An eight-time United States chess champion, and the holder of several "world's youngest winner" titles, Fischer was a well-known name in chess circles long before his most famous match: the 1972 tournament that pitted him against Boris Spassky of Russia. That tournament, played out before millions via television coverage, became a less a contest between two gifted players and more a metaphor for Cold War politics. As Fred Waitzkin described it in his book Searching for Bobby Fischer, "Each man bore responsibility for his country's national honor. Spassky would be Russia's greatest hero if he won, and would fall into disgrace … if he didn't. Fischer wanted to annihilate the Russians, whom he had hated since he had decided as a teenager that they cheated in international tournaments. If he won he would instantly become a legend; if he lost he would be dismissed by many as a crackpot."
As history relates, Fischer won that tournament, and in doing so garnered much more than prize money. With his youthful good looks and unpredictable manner, Fischer helped turn a new generation of young people into chess enthusiasts. " Chess clubs proliferated during the early seventies, inspired by Bobby's success and charisma," reported Waitzkin. "Mothers pulled their sons out of Little League and ferried them to chess lessons. Talented young players with dreams of Fischer, television immortality and big chess money spurned college and conventional career choices to turn professional."
Bobby himself, however, was never comfortable with his fame. Born in Chicago in 1943 and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Fischer grew up in a single-parent family, his physicist father having left the family and the country after a 1945 divorce. The boy showed early promise in his chosen field when at age six he learned the rules of chess; by age eight Fischer was competing informally at the Brooklyn Chess Club. Eventually the youngster caught the eye of chess master John Collins, who became his key instructor, though as Collins noted in his book My Seven Chess Prodigies, no one person could claim credit for Fischer's talent: "Geniuses like Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare and Fischer come out of the head of [the mythic Greek god] Zeus, seem to be genetically programmed, know before instructed." As for formal educational instruction, that ended when Fischer was a teenager; he dropped out of school to concentrate on his game.
Fischer rose through the junior ranks quickly, and at age 13 won the United States Junior Championship, the youngest player to date to have taken the title. From there it was on to the United States Open Championship, where he competed against adults. Fischer took that title, too, at age 14. International play beckoned, and by age 17 Fischer became a challenger for the world title—and the youngest player ever to receive the title of international grand master.
But there was another side to Fischer's success. The young man, for all his brilliance, was considered something of a loose cannon, less than cooperative, and publicly scornful and egocentric. He would cancel out of matches unexpectedly, act demanding on tours, and maintain grudges that would last years. Fischer once accused Russian chess professionals of conspiring against him in international tournaments and at one point in the 1960s withdrew for five years from international competition.
By 1970 the master player returned to form, building up tournament credits in order to take on the reigning world champion, Fischer's longtime nemesis, Boris Spassky. In 1972 the arrangements were in place, and the chess world buzzed with the prospect of this historic challenge. Reykjavik, Iceland, was the chosen site, but as the event drew near, Fischer continued to demonstrate the eccentric behavior that "had the whole world wondering whether he would show up," as Waitzkin put it. "For several days, friends reserved space for him on flights to Reykjavik and pleaded with him to go. Plane after plane, loaded with passengers, waited on the runway while Fischer took walks and naps or ate sandwiches."
Even after he made a last-minute arrival in Iceland, Fischer maintained an aggressive presence. He "offended Icelanders by calling their country inadequate because of its lack of movie theatres and bowling alleys," wrote Waitzkin. "He wanted television coverage, but when a television deal was arranged … he refused to play in front of the cameras, claiming that they were too distracting. He forfeited a game and threatened to leave unless Spassky agreed to play in a small room with no audience and no cameras. He argued about the choice of chess table, about his hotel room about the noise in the auditorium, about the proximity of the audience to the players and about the lighting." And still, Fischer won the tournament with great style.
The chessman's life since that historic match was marked by a period of self-imposed obscurity that lasted nearly 20 years. He lost the world title after refusing to accept the challenge of Anatoly Karpov in 1975. Reports of a disheveled, reclusive Fischer living in the worst sections of Los Angeles brought out the detective in journalists. Those reporters who could get close to Fischer's friends heard tales of a man who wanted only to be left alone. In 1981 he was picked up by the police for resembling a fugitive bank robber; after spending a night incarcerated, Fischer (using the pseudonym Robert D. James) wrote a pamphlet titled I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse. According to Sports Illustrated writer William Nack, the chapter headings included "Brutally Handcuffed, False Arrest, Insulted, Choked, Stark Naked, No Phone Call, Horror Cell, Isolation & Torture." As Waitzkin related, the pamphlet became a bestseller in chess clubs, although it doesn't once mention the game.
In other areas of his life, Fischer demonstrated equally strong, if offbeat, convictions. For example, though his mother was Jewish, Fischer maintained decidedly anti-Semitic views, even extolling Nazism. Likewise, the chess champion believed that "everything was controlled by 'the hidden hand, the satanical secret world government,"' as Nack quoted a Fischer associate. He distrusted doctors, was sure the Russian government was out to kill him, and even, according to a Maclean's article, had his dental fillings replaced "because he feared that Soviet agents might be able to transmit damaging rays into his brain through the metal in his teeth."
In light of all the controversy surrounding Fischer, it was a surprising announcement in 1992 that had agreed to take on Spassky in another highly publicized challenge. At stake was $5 million in prize money. But perhaps more notable than the players themselves was the tournament site: the town of Sveti Stefan, in a region of the Yugoslav republic adjacent to the warring former republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. At that time, U.S. President George Bush had imposed economic sanctions on Yugoslavia—sanctions that Fischer defied by taking on a commercial venture. At a press conference, Fischer spat on a letter from the U.S. Treasury Department, saying "this is my answer" to threats of fines and imprisonment if he played in Sveti Stefan.
The 30-game match ended in 15 draws, but Fischer had shown he still had some championship play in him. When the U.S. government handed down an indictment of Fischer in December of 1992, he chose to stay in eastern Europe. In the mid-1990s Fischer, the author of several chess books and inventor of a chess timing clock, was reportedly living in Budapest, Hungary, and had a girlfriend in the person of a 19-year-old Hungarian chess star, Zita Rajcsanyi.
In his Searching for Bobby Fischer, Waitzkin wonders about the prospect of his own chess-prodigy son growing up to be as unpredictable as Fischer and speculates on Fischer's youth, when his one and only interest was in his game: "In the early fifties, a child chess prodigy was perceived as odd rather than gifted. It would have been easier for [Fischer] if his genius had been for an admired endeavor like mathematics or playing the piano; in devoting his life to chess from the age of eight, he typecast himself as a weirdo and outcast. He must have felt tremendous pressure from his mother, from his teachers, who said he was wasting his life on a game, and from his schoolmates, who were learning about girls, Shakespeare and football. All this must have driven him further and deeper, and made him greater."
Collins, John, My Seven Chess Prodigies, 1974.
Maclean's, September 14, 1992, p. 42.
Sports Illustrated, July 29, 1985, pp. 72-84.
Waitzkin, Fred, "The World of Chess, Observed by the Father of a Child Prodigy," in Searching for Bobby Fischer, Random House, 1988.