Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bobby Fischer

The Hill notes the passing of eccentric chess genius Bobby Fischer, who died Thursday at age 64. Fischer was widely regarded as the greatest American chess player of all time. His victory over the Russian Boris Spassky made him an unlikely hero of the Cold War, and an inspiration to countless numbers of junior high school chess-playing geeks like myself.

Bobby Fischer was born in Chicago, and raised in Brooklyn. He began learning the game at age 6 when his older sister bought him a chess set. By age 12 he was regularly defeating the elite players of New York's chess clubs. At age 14, he became the youngest player to hold the US title. At 15, he became the youngest to achieve the title of grandmaster to that point. At 16, he dropped out of high school in order to devote all his time to the game of chess.

During the 60's he dominated the game in America with his brilliant tactics and aggressive play. He said of opponents, "I love to see them squirm". During this time, Fischer also developed a reputation for egotism and eccentricity. He made ever-lengthening lists of demands upon tournament sponsors for things like special lighting and seating. He feared flying because he thought the Russians would try to blow up the plane. He told an interviewer that women couldn't be great players. One grandmaster suggested that Fischer see a psychiatrist; Fischer replied that a psychiatrist should have to pay him for the privilege of studying his brain.

By 1972, Fischer had earned the right to play Boris Spassky for the world title. Russians had dominated the chess world for decades, and Fischer's challenge became a focus for American patriotism and anti-Soviet passions. Throughout the match, Fischer drove the chess world crazy with his demands and his quirks. He lost the first game, then forfeited the second because he said he couldn't think due to the prescence of TV cameras (which he had insisted upon at the start of the match). A 2-0 deficit is considered insurmountable in a chess match, but Fischer roared back to claim the title. His victory made him the first, and so far only, American to win the world title, and a national hero.

After winning the title, Fischer seemed reluctant to defend it. He drifted into isolation, and turned down several million-dollar offers to defend his title. In 1975, he was required by International Chess Federation rules to face challenger Anatoly Karpov, but Fischer placed so many demands upon the federation before he would agree to play the match that he was finally stripped of his title.

Fischer spent the remainder of his life in seclusion. For nearly 20 years, he stopped playing chess competitively. He lived off of his previous earnings until it was said that he was broke. Finally, he agreed to a rematch with Spassky for a $5 million purse. He defeated Spassky handily, and never again played tournament chess. The rematch led to trouble with the US government as Fischer violated a ban on doing business with Yugoslavia. Fischer left the United States a fugitive, and never returned. During his later years, Fischer also made increasingly controversial anti-Semitic statements, culminating in remarks made in a Phillipine radio interview after the 9/11 terrorist attack that the US and Jews deserved what had happened. For this, the International Chess Federation stripped Fischer of his membership.

Fischer spent his last days in political asylum in Iceland, a nearly forgotten figure. He was one of the greatest players in chess history, yet in the end wound up consumed by his animosities, his eccentricities, and his paranoia.

For the chess-obsessed, here's a link to many of Bobby Fischer's greatest games.