Fischer, Bobby

Fischer, Bobby
Mar. 9, 1943-Jan. 17, 2008
American chess player


In the autumn of 1992, the international grand master of chess Bobby Fischer emerged from two decades of self-imposed obscurity to play a remarkable exhibition match against his old rival Boris Spassky. Fischer, who had defeated Spassky in the famous 1972 World Championship held in Reykjavik, Iceland, only to be stripped of the title three years later after refusing to defend it, won the 1992 encounter handily. His dramatic return to competition was just the latest episode in a career marked by a string of impressive victories. An eight-time United States champion, he is the only American to win a world championship in recent memory, and, until 1992, he held the record for being the youngest person to become an international grand master.

Some observers have suggested that Fischer, in bringing to chess an impressive mastery of technique and combinative brilliance, created a whole new climate of appreciation for the game in the United States. "It was Bobby Fischer who had, singlehandedly, made the world recognize that chess on its highest level was as competitive as football, as thrilling as a duel to the death, as aesthetically satisfying as a fine work of art, as intellectually demanding as any form of human activity," Harold C. Schonberg wrote in Grandmasters of Chess (1973). "If for no other reason, Bobby Fischer was and would be the greatest chess champion who ever lived."

Robert James Fischer was born in Chicago, Illinois, on March 9, 1943, the son of Regina Wender Fischer, who was born in Switzerland, and Gerard Fischer (alternate spellings of his forename include Gerhard and Gerhardt), a German-born physicist. After his parents divorced, in 1945, his father, according to some reports, left the United States and played no further role in his son's upbringing. Bobby and his older sister Joan were thereafter raised by their mother, a domineering woman who worked as a schoolteacher and nurse and who later studied medicine.

The Fischers lived for several years in the American West and Southwest before settling in Brooklyn, New York in 1949. At the age of nine, Bobby received a scholarship to attend the Community-Woodward School, a progressive, private elementary school in Brooklyn where he developed a reputation for being competitive, highly intelligent, and nonconformist in attitude. According to one of his teachers, as quoted in Grandmasters of Chess, "No matter what he played, whether it was baseball in the yard or tennis, he had to come out ahead of everybody."

Chess has been Bobby Fischer's abiding passion since his earliest years. He learned the basic rules of the game when he was six years old, and by the age of eight he was frequenting the Brooklyn Chess Club, where he received instruction from its president, Carmine Nigro. He also played matches in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, a perennial gathering place for chess players of all levels. Before long he was good enough to join the Manhattan Chess Club. In 1956 he came to the attention of John Collins, a chess master who served as mentor to several of the more promising American players of the day. Collins became one of Fischer's teachers, although, as Collins wrote in his book My Seven Chess Prodigies (1974), "in a larger sense neither [his sister] Joan, nor Nigro, nor I, nor anybody else taught Bobby. Geniuses like Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Fischer come out of the head of Zeus, seem to be genetically programmed, know before instructed." Notwithstanding Collins's encomiums and his student's obvious talent, Fischer was not a child prodigy with an idiot savant's comprehension of chess. In his early years he both won and lost many games, and his own formula for becoming a champion was, as he later stated, "Practice. Study. Talent."

It was not long before Fischer's talent and hard work transformed him into a world-class chess player. In 1956, after having played well in several events the previous year, he scored his first important triumph: he captured the United States Junior Championship and thus became the youngest person ever to win that tournament. That achievement was followed by an impressive performance at the 1956 Lessing J. Rosenwald Trophy Tournament, then the most important invitational tournament in the United States, where he won an extraordinary game against the chess master Donald Byrne. "The game of the century," as a writer for Chess Review called it, involved an astonishing, unexpected, but entirely sound queen sacrifice, which led, through a long forcing series of moves, to an overwhelming position.

Fischer continued to play well in competition in 1957, when he again won the United States Junior Championship and tied for first in the United States Open Championship, and in 1958, when he became the youngest player ever-he was just fourteen-to win the United States Championship. No less astonishing was his score of eight wins, five draws, and no losses. "The American chess world was aghast with wonder, admiration, envy, and excitement, generated by his result of thirteen games played without a loss against the very best players of the nation," Arthur Bisguier wrote in his article "The Making of a Legend," which was included in the book Bobby Fischer's Chess Games (1973).

As the United States champion, Fischer qualified to compete in the 1958 Interzonal Tournament, held in Potoroz, Yugoslavia. He finished fifth and thus became one of the six challengers for the world title-a distinction that made him the youngest player ever to achieve international grand master status. He won the United States championship again in 1959, once more without a loss, an outcome that was to be repeated in the following year. He also competed in international tournaments in Argentina, Chile, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia.

By this time Bobby Fischer's devotion to chess had become all-encompassing. Soon after his sixteenth birthday, in 1959, he dropped out of Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School. About a year later Fischer's mother moved to England and remarried, and his sister left New York. Fischer subsequently lived alone in the family's Brooklyn apartment. One of his more notable matches during this period took place in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1960, in which he tied for first place with his future nemesis Boris Spassky, then an up-and-coming Soviet chess master. Even more memorable was his match against Samuel Reshevsky, a former child prodigy who was thirty years Fischer's senior, in the following year.

Although Fischer was then the United States champion and had finished ahead of Reshevsky in several events, a straw poll of grand masters before the event favored the latter, who, having never lost a set match in his life, had a fabled capacity to outlast any opponent. In fact, their encounter turned out to be a seesaw match, with victories on both sides, steadily mounting tension, fierce competition, and barely concealed animosity. Then, when the score was tied at 5 1/2, the competition came to an abrupt halt. Citing an unexpected rescheduling of one of the games, Fischer decided not to continue the match, and Reshevsky was declared the winner.

Bobby Fischer's career soon became marked by similar incidents, and he came to be perceived by the public as stubborn, unreasonable, demanding, and eccentric. His reputation as a troublemaker became more firmly established following the publication of an article in Harper's (January 1962), in which Fischer was portrayed "as a monster of egotism, scornful of everything outside himself and the game," according to Frank Brady, the author of Profile of a Prodigy (1973). Ever since the Harper's piece appeared, Fischer has remained distrustful of the news media.

However Fischer was regarded by the public at large, his star continued to rise in the world of competitive chess. At home, he captured the United States Championship in 1960 and 1961, continuing the winning streak that had begun with his 1958 victory. (Of the ten United States Championship tournaments held between 1958 and 1967, Fischer won eight.) On the international front Fischer was also playing well. At the International Tournament in Bled, Yugoslavia in 1961, he finished second, behind the world champion Mikhail Tal-a superb achievement that prompted the American grand master Larry Evans to write of Fischer, "He has shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is a contender for the world title."

Fischer followed his performance in Yugoslavia with an equally impressive showing at the 1962 Interzonal Tournament in Stockholm. As Leonard Barden reported in Chess Life, "Fischer's winning margin of 2 1/2 points" reflected his "complete domination of the event." Comparing Fischer to several twentieth-century chess stars, Barden added, "It seemed that Fischer was combining the iron logic of a [Mikhail] Botvinnik, the fanatical zeal to win of an [Alexander] Alekhine, and the endgame purity of [Jose] Capablanca and [Akiba] Rubinstein."

Fischer's Stockholm victory qualified him to compete in the 1962 Candidates' Tournament, held in Curacao, in the Netherlands Antilles. (The winner of the Candidates' Tournament goes on compete in the World Championship against the reigning world champion.) Fischer fared poorly at Curacao, finishing fourth behind three Soviet contenders. While the general consensus regarding Fischer's loss was that he had simply not played well, Fischer himself maintained that the outcome had been the result of collusion among the Soviet participants, who had agreed to draw games among themselves to ensure that one of them would emerge victorious. Fischer published his charges in an article for Sports Illustrated (August 20, 1962).

The suspicion that the prevailing system of choosing the challenger for the world championship was flawed had in fact been a matter of considerable debate even before the 1962 Candidates' Tournament. Fischer's complaints thus may have contributed to the decision taken by the Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE), which oversees international chess competitions, to reform that system. Frank Brady, among others, has made this argument. As Brady wrote, "Curacao was the turning point in Bobby's career-and neither he nor world chess has been the same since."

At least partly because of the goings-on at Curacao, Fischer withdrew from international competition for nearly five years. He had no objections to playing in the United States, however, and during the next few years he racked up an incredible record of victories. He won the United States Championship in both 1963 and 1964, running away with the latter contest with a score of 11-0-that is, eleven wins with no losses or draws. The January 13, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated reproduced each of the eleven games in an article entitled "The Amazing Victory Streak of Bobby Fischer." One of those contests, against Robert Byrne, is still considered one of his most brilliant games. According to Roger Omond, writing for the Guardian (August 23, 1992), Fischer's final combination of moves in this game constituted "one of his best finishes, a sudden attack from a sterile position. Fischer had a laser-beam flair which could spot a decisive trick far ahead. Experts thought he was losing this game right up until his opponent resigned."

When, in 1965, Fischer was invited to play in a tournament in memory of the great Cuban champion Jose Capablanca, in Havana, Cuba, he accepted, only to be denied a visa by the United States Department of State; he ended up playing by teletype, finishing second. In the following year he participated in the Piatigorsky Cup, which, with $20,000 in prizes-a large sum in those days-fielded some of the strongest players Fischer had ever faced. He fared poorly in the first half of the tournament, tying for last place, but then made a spectacular comeback in the second half to finish second to Boris Spassky.

Fischer reentered international competition in earnest in 1967, when he agreed to participate in the 1967 Interzonal Tournament, held in the ancient Tunisian city of Sousse. His reentry turned out to be short-lived, however. After becoming involved in a series of disputes both with other players and with officials, he dropped out of the tournament. His withdrawal, which was surprising if only because he was leading the field at the time, meant that he could not compete in the 1969 World Championship, which was won by Boris Spassky.

In 1968 Fischer moved to Los Angeles, where he completed his autobiography, My 60 Memorable Games (1969). According to Frank Brady, it is "one of the most painstakingly precise and delightfully presented chess books ever written." Meanwhile, the first edition of Brady's biography, Profile of a Prodigy-The Life and Games of Bobby Fischer, had appeared in 1965, and a roman a clef inspired by Fischer, James W. Ellison's Master Prim, had been published in 1968. As Fischer's fame grew, so too did the public's desire to see him compete in the world championship. "We think he is the world's best player," Al Horowitz, the veteran chess commentator, observed, as quoted in Profile of a Prodigy. "There has never been another to equal him in playing ability and we hope some way can be found to get him back into global competition."

In 1970 Fischer obliged public sentiment and returned to international competition. His ambition was to win the right to play against the reigning champion, Boris Spassky. He achieved that goal by winning three major tournaments in 1970, in which he won a total of thirty-eight games, losing only two. Negotiations for the eagerly awaited 1972 World Chess Championship were protracted and difficult, partly because of Fischer's demanding and increasingly mercurial nature. The contest itself was fraught with tension: it was as if the Cold War were, for a brief period of time, being played out on the chess board between the United States' Fischer and the Soviet Union's Spassky.

For his part, Fischer caused a stir by demanding that players receive a share of the profits from gate receipts, a stipulation he was ultimately forced to relinquish. Then, on the day of the match, he arrived late and had to apologize to Spassky for holding up the game, and once the game had commenced, he began to complain about playing conditions. "From being the Mozart of chess," Harold C. Schonberg wrote, "he had developed into the Beethoven of chess-a surly, cantankerous genius with the notion that the world has to accommodate itself to his wishes."

The match, which began July 11, 1972, in Reykjavik, Iceland and which was closely followed by the whole world, combined play of the highest caliber with exceptional blunders on both sides. Fischer lost the first game through a gratuitous piece sacrifice in a sterile position, forfeited the second game by failing to show up, and came to form only in the third, which he demanded be played in a private room. But once he had beaten Spassky, Fischer never lost control of the match. He came from behind and forged ahead, allowing Spassky only one more win. On September 1, the match ended, with Fischer taking the final game, the match (with 12 1/2 points to 8 1/2 for Spassky), and the title.

Having at last won the World Championship, Fischer enjoyed a brief period of celebrity during which he made appearances on television and was pursued by magazine and newspaper reporters. Then, in 1975, he resigned his title, after refusing to defend it against challenger Anatoly Karpov because of disagreements over the conditions set forth by FIDE. Fischer thus became the first world champion to give up his title without losing. Fischer's withdrawal from competition was accompanied by his self-imposed seclusion from the rest of the world. For a time he lived in the homes of various officials of the evangelistic Worldwide Church of God, of which he was a longtime member and to which he apparently tithed a percentage of his winnings. He later broke with the church, and by the late 1970s, according to some sources, he had become virtually destitute. "The rare accounts of his situation," Ivan Solotaroff wrote in Esquire (December 1992) of Fischer's circumstances since the late 1970s, "all mention cheap rooms in Pasadena and L.A., months of his crashing on former friends, and days spent riding the orange city bus between L.A. and Pasadena, analyzing chess games on his pocket set."

For years following the 1972 match, there were persistent rumors that Fischer might be planning to make a comeback, though insiders were dubious about his ability to compete successfully. "By now, even if he did try to come back, there's the question of whether he could do it…," John Curdo, an American chess player, told Larry Eldridge in an interview for the Christian Science Monitor (October 25, 1982). "He always stayed in shape, but a lot would depend on whether he has continued to do so. Also how much he's really studied chess in these ten years."

Another decade passed before the rumors became reality. In 1992 Fischer agreed to play a match with his old rival Boris Spassky in Sveti Stefan, a resort community in the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, just seventy miles away from the bloody conflict raging in the former republic of Bosnia and Herzcegovina. The match was sponsored by a Serbian nationalist and businessman, Jezdimir Vasiljevic, who provided a purse of $5 million. At a press conference on September 1, 1992, Fischer (himself half-Jewish) made public some of his anti-Semitic beliefs and spat on a letter from the United States Treasury Department informing him that he could face a fine and/or a prison sentence if he were to play the match. The threat was made on the grounds that the prospective contest was a "commercial project," and, therefore, in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the law used by President George Bush to impose sanctions against Yugoslavia.

From the start of the match, Fischer demonstrated that he was still capable of playing a world-class game of chess. His playing, though somewhat rusty, was marked by the same punishing logic and combinative brilliance that had turned him into a world champion two decades before. The match was billed a "world championship," though it was by no means officially recognized as such. Of the thirty games in the match, Fischer won ten and lost five; the remaining fifteen games were draws. On December 15, 1992 United States officials indicted Fischer and issued an arrest warrant-an action that surprised some legal scholars, in view of the numerous unpunished violations of the United Nations sanctions committed by arms manufacturers and other companies.

Bobby Fischer stands six feet, two inches tall, has hazel eyes and a reddish-brown beard, and retains his Brooklyn accent. Following the 1992 match, Fischer remained in Yugoslavia, where he reportedly lived in seclusion in a hotel. Since 1993 he has been living in Budapest, Hungary.

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