Growing up in the early 1970s afforded a young boy a variety of idols. There was Reggie Jackson of the Oakland A’s, Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears, Neil Armstrong of the Apollo program. But for nerds like me and my brother, there was only one person any young boy could attempt to be like that did not require adept physical attributes, and that was Bobby Fischer. At the age of 14, Bobby was the US Chess Champion. At age 15 he earned the title of Grand Master – the youngest in history. Between 1957 and 1967, he would win 8 US championships. After winning the World Championship from Boris Spassky in 1972, Fischer would basically fall off the Earth for almost 15 years. And then “Poof!”, he was gone.
I am not a chess master. I don’t pretend to be. I enjoy the game, the strategy of it, and the sport of it. It’s a game with a very simple objective. Capture the King. But to capture that King, it requires a complex set of moves with almost endless variations. But above all else, I can appreciate the ability to think ahead ten moves at a time. For Bobby Fischer, the game was not just about manipulating the pieces on the board, it is about manipulating the opponent. He often said he liked to make his opponents squirm. For America, Bobby Fischer was a Cold Warrior’s dream! In the midst of the Cold War, along comes an American who can challenge the Soviet dominance and hold on the reigns of the World Chess Championships.
Fischer’s parents were both from Europe. They would marry in 1933 and flee soon after. Being Jewish, they would immigrate to the US. Bobby was born in Chicago in 1943. The father would leave the home when Bobby was 2. The mother, Regina, would raise Bobby herself. The two of them moved to Arizona where Regina taught elementary school. Soon, Bobby and his mother would migrate to Brooklyn and this is where Bobby’s tale begins.
Bobby began playing Chess at the age of 6. He would play in small tournaments, but he would learn from the masters of the game. Carmine Nigro, President of the Brooklyn Chess Club, introduced him to the club and became his mentor. Fischer claimed to have read over 1000 books on Chess. He was like a sponge. Later, at 12, Fischer would join the prestigious Manhattan Chess Club.
Bobby Fischer exploded on the national scene at the age of 13. Fischer joined the Hawthorne Chess Club and moved from competing against kids his close to his age to adults full time. For chess aficionados, here is a blow-by-blow of Fischer’s game against Donald Byrne. The game shows Fischer’s ability to think creatively and draw his opponents into a trap from which there is no escape. Fischer had lost his queen yet still was able to win the game. It has become known as a “Brilliancy” game but is better known as the “Game of the Century”.
Fischer, for all intents and purposes, tried to lead a normal childhood. He went to Erasmus High School in Brooklyn. He would drop at the age of 16 to pursue Chess full time. His home life was different, too. Although Bobby’s father was never around (he died in 1952), there were several father figures in his life. In the 1950s, it was Arnold Denker, a Chess master, and sportswriter Dick Schaap. They would often take Bobby to sporting events and cultural activities to socialize him. Fischer and the two men would be lifelong friends.
As Fischer’s reign as US Chess Champion began at the age of 14, so did a variety of idiosyncratic behaviors. He would often place demands to be met in order for him to appear. Most of the demands had to do with the design of the board, the relationship of the lights, the type of lights, the closeness of the audience. Most of the demands were met. They had to be. For the chess world, Bobby was the draw for the tournament. Without Bobby, no one would come to see the matches.
By the age of 25, he was an American icon. He had yet to win the World Championship, but many thought it was only a matter of time. Bobby often played overseas. Once, the US government forbid him to play a tournament in Cuba. So, Bobby being Bobby, played over the telephone and won the Capablanca Championship.
Here, Fischer, a huge celebrity, appears on the Dick Cavett show in 1971 and comes across as quite a normal person.
1972 would be the year that everything would change. In 1972 at the World Chess Championship, in Iceland, Fischer quickly disposed of his opponents in a run of undefeated matches unlike anything anyone had ever seen. At 29, Fischer was at the peak of his powers. He didn’t just beat opponents, he annihilated them. Fischer had reached the final against Boris Spassky of the USSR. The matches, a total of 24 scheduled, would be anything but normal. Fischer fell behind early. The next match, Fischer would fail to show up unless his demands were met. Eventually, organizers of the event gave in. I tend to think that for Fischer, these were all head games. Spassky and the organizers of the event did not have to give in to Fischer’s demands. If they had not, Fischer would have forfeited the matches and Spassky would have retained his title. Instead, the audience was moved back, lights were changed, and the cameras turned off – all demands of Fischer.
Fischer came back, and game three began. Over the next 18 matches, Fischer regained his footing despite being down 0-2. Slowly, Fischer began to assert himself. For the first time in game 3, Fischer beat Spassky. After a draw in game 4, Fischer came back to win game 5 and never looked back. Fischer had gone from national hero to world celebrity. By breaking the Soviet dominance of Chess World Championship, Bobby had become an American icon.
The victory did not stun the world, but it did stun the Soviets. Garry Kasporov stated,
“Fischer’s victories brought problems for many people in the Soviet camp, because it was thought there had been failures of training or discipline that should be corrected. No one could accept that it was simply Fischer’s genius that was causing the trouble.”
However, Bobby never cashed in on his fame afterwards. He basically fell of the face of the Earth. He would never defend his title, even on his terms.
There were rumors around surrounding Fischer for the next 20 years. The Worldwide Church of God was said to have had an influence. The occasional appearance to play against a computer or the occasional arrest happened, but it was not until 1992 that Bobby appeared. A rematch against Boris Spassky would take place in war-torn Yugoslavia. Against UN and American sanctions, Fischer appeared and won. He took the prize money of $3 million and ran. His voice and words would appear on radio from time to time. He would make anti-Semitic comments along with anti-American comments throughout the 1990s and again after the events of September 11, 2001. Rumors began to swirl that Fischer’s father was not his father. In fact it was another emigre from Hungary, a Jewish physicist. In the next few years, Fischer would continue his bizarre rants, end up in jail, somehow get to Iceland, and he would die there in 2006.
His life, although quite public through 1972, turned inward and bizarre. Much like Howard Hughes, an appearance by Bobby Fischer was something to behold. Yet, he would only play publicly once after his 1972 title. He remains an American master. As to what went wrong and why he would never defend his title, no one will know. Those he stayed with those years are not talking. Close friends tend to believe it was his father. Whenever his father was mentioned, Fischer would often clam up.
Chess Champion and Master Garry Kasparov stated about Fischer, “perhaps the most mythologically shrouded figure in chess”. He is. He is also one of the most shrouded figures in American history. We are all left to wonder what could have been and what went wrong. Fischer once said “Chess is life.” That life ended at 29.
Here is a video biography of Bobby up to shortly before his death.