Bobby Fischer was the greatest American chess player in history and might have been the most talented chess player ever to play the game. His career and legacy were marred by eccentricities that developed into what likely was full-blown mental illness that made him an exile from his country of birth that he represented in the greatest proxy battle of the Cold War and from the game he loved.
The chess legend was born Robert James Fischer on March 9, 1943 in Chicago to Regina Wender Fischer. His mother was a Jew who had been born in Switzerland but raised in St. Louis who became a naturalized U.S. citizen. The actual identity of his father is unknown. Regina listed German biophysicist Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, her first husband, as the father on Bobby’s birth certificate, but they had been separated since 1939. Bobby’s actual father likely was Hungarian physicist Paul Newmenyi, who like his mother, was Jewish. As his mental stability broke down late in life, Bobby became a vicious anti-Semite, insisting he wasn’t Jewish.
The young Bobby grew up without a father with his mother and older sister. It was his sister who whet his appetite for chess when she bought a chess set when Bobby was six year old. Reportedly possessed of a super genius I.Q. of 180, Bobby had a remarkably retentive memory. A monomaniac when it came to chess, his memory combined with an uncanny knack for the game and a determination to win transformed him into the greatest chess player in the world.
Bobby became a National Master at the age of 12 and won America’s Junior Chess Championship at the age of 13, making him the youngest Junior Champ in history. The 13 year-old Bobby defeated 26-year-old Donald Byrne, winner of America’s chess championship, in a 1956 game heralded as “The Game of the Century.” By this age, Fischer was showing gifts for improvisation and innovation that marked him as a chess genius.
As a 14 year-old on the cusp of his 15th birthday, he won the U.S. Chess Championship in 1958, giving him the title of International Master. Later that same year, he broke future opponent Boris Spassky’s record to become the youngest World Chess Federation Grand Master; Bobby was 15, and Boris was 18 when he set the distinction. The two names would become linked forever in chess history. (When the two first played each other in 1960, Fischer lost during an Argentine tournament, though the two tied and were co-winners of the tourney. He would not beat Spassky until their famous world title match in Iceland in 1972.)
Bobby quit high school at the age of 16 to earn his daily bread by the sweat of his brow as a chess player. In a 1961 match against American champ Samuel Reshevsky, Bobby dropped out of the match claiming a scheduling dispute with the match organizer after tying Reshevsky in 11 games. Such eccentric behavior heralded his future.
By ’62, Fischer was considered the best non-Soviet chess player in the world. Bobby came to hate the Soviet players, who he claimed colluded with each other to him at a disadvantage. In 1966, Bobby placed second behind Boris Spassky in a super-tournament held in California. A year later, he withdrew from the tournament cycle that culminated in the World Championship, again over a scheduling dispute. The cycle ended in 1969 with Spassky crowned as the World Chess Champion.
In 1968, Fischer began an 18-month-long sabbatical from the game, which included sitting out the ’69 American Championship tournament as he was dissatisfied with the prize money and the tourney format. Failing to compete should have disqualified him from the 1969-72 Championship cycle, but he was able to compete for the world title when an American Grand Master surrendered his own spot for Fischer.
Starting with the 1970 USSR v. Rest of the World tournament in which he beat former World Champion Tigran Petrosian, the master who had been defeated by Spassky in ’69, Bobby began his march to the world championship. Through 1971, he had won 20 straight games in international tournament play, the second-longest win streak in the history of the game. Petrosian broke the streak but was in turn defeated by Fischer to win the right to challenge Spassky, a player he had never beaten, for the world title.
Though he hated Soviet players for what he considered collusion (drawing matches between themselves so they could concentrate on beating non-Soviet players like Fischer), he liked and respected Boris Spassky. Spassky returned the affection and esteem.
By 1972, he was in the position to make good his boast that he was the greatest chess player in the world. His difficult nature when it came to setting match and tournament conditions flared up again, and though he wanted to play in Yugoslavia, he accepted Spassky’s suggestion of Iceland for the world title match. Negotiations were so prickly, President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger intervened, personally contacting Bobby to ensure that he did not drop out of the match, which was seen as a proxy battle in the ongoing Cold War between America and the Soviet Union.
Though he later denounced the United States, at the time, Bobby embraced the Cold War rhetoric, declaring the match was “the free world against the lying, cheating hypocritical Russians.”
Held in Reykjavik, Iceland from July through September 1972, the drama of the world championship boosted the image and popularity of chess to new heights. Bobby lost the first two games, the first on a bad end move and the second by forfeit when he refused to participate. Because of his eccentric demands, he came close to forfeiting the match, but Spassky agreed to his demand to play in a new room with no TV cameras, the presence of which had upset Fischer.
Fischer won the third game of the match, the first time he had beaten Boris Spassky in 12 years. For the rest of their play in 1972 and their 1992 rematch, Fischer never fell behind Spassky in terms of play or points. Spassky was baffled by Fischer’s innovative moves, as he played new lines and combinations that Boris had never encountered before. Fischer won the match and became World Chess Champion by a score of 12.5 points to 8.5 on seven wins, one loss and 11 draws in 19 games.
His championship was heralded by the U.S. media as a victory for the individualistic America over the collectivist U.S.S.R., whose players had dominated chess since the end of the Second World War. It was front page news, and it made Bobby Fischer a celebrity. He reportedly turned down a $1-million offer to endorse a chess set brand as he faded from the public spotlight.
Fischer did not play competitively for the next three years, and in 1975, he forfeited his title by refusing to defend it when the World Chess Federation did not meet one or two of his many demands (estimated at between 64 and a hundred). The world title went to Anatoli Karpov by default, though Fischer continued to insisted he was the world chess champion.
Fischer did not play competitively until 1992 when he met Boris Spassky for a rematch on the resort island of Sveti Stefan in in Montenegro, which was part of all that remained of Yugoslavia along with Serbia. The match was held in defiance of United Nations sanctions against Slobodan Miloseviæ’s Serbia for war crimes.
Bobby beat Boris, winning $3.35 million in prize money (approximately $5.65 million in 2012 dollar, when factored for inflation), but because the United States intended to enforce the U.N. sanctions, he had violated American law and could have served up to 10 years in jail upon returning to America. A defiant Fischer went into exile instead, living in Hungary before moving to the Philippines and then Japan.
It was while living in the Philippines during the opening days of the new millennium that Bobby Fischer established himself as a world-class crank. After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, he praised the attacks and spewed forth anti-Semitic drivel on radio broadcasts. The Soviet hater of the Cold War era had become a rabid America hater and Jew-basher at the start of the global war on terror. His anti-Semitism became so extreme, he renamed himself “Robert James” and insisted he wasn’t Jewish.
During a stop-over in Japan, Fischer was arrested for traveling with an invalid U.S. passport. He promptly renounced his American citizenship. The arrest meant he could not leave Japan as he was a stateless person wanted by the United States. Facing a potential extradition to the country of his birth, Iceland came through and granted him citizenship, which allowed him to leave Japan. The country was still grateful for the publicity he had brought to its then-unknown capital of Reykjavik. Thus, Fischer moved to Iceland, the place where he had became part of not only chess lore, but of world history
Bobby Fischer died on January 17, 2008 in Reykjavik after having been gravely ill. He made it to his 64th year, which was symbolic, as a chessboard has 64 squares.