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Originally published Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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First Person

Dear Bobby F.: You were my childhood hero

In my office, I have a framed black-and-white photograph of a young Bobby Fischer, dressed impeccably in a suit, engrossed in a chess game.

Special to The Seattle Times

In my office, I have a framed black-and-white photograph of a young Bobby Fischer, dressed impeccably in a suit, engrossed in a chess game.

Bobby Fischer was my childhood hero. He was U.S. chess champion at 14 and a year later became the youngest grandmaster in history. He took on the Soviets at their favorite game and beat them all, breaking the decades-long string of Soviet champions. When he defeated Boris Spassky for the world championship in 1972, I was 7 years old.

It was the height of the Cold War. Public television covered each move of the 21-game match. One evening, a New York City reporter visited 21 Manhattan bars and discovered that 18 had the Fischer match on television instead of the Mets game. That epic event was my first exposure to chess.

There was something intriguing about Fischer's intensity and those mysterious wooden pieces, so I asked Santa Claus for a chess set. Santa delivered.

As I began to study chess, I reveled in sharing Fischer's initials. I signed everything "Bobby F." When my dad came home with a copy of Fischer's classic book, "My 60 Memorable Games," I devoured every word. By the third reading, the binding was destroyed, and I kept the book together with a thick rubber band. When I read that Fischer subscribed to Russian chess magazines to learn the secrets of the Soviet masters, I got my hands on similar publications and taught myself the rudiments of the Russian alphabet so I could follow the moves.

Fischer possessed a relentless will to win. His great rival Spassky said, "When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive." Unlike other grandmasters, Fischer didn't believe in occasionally taking short draws to conserve his energy in long, draining tournaments.

In the world championship qualifying matches, Fischer won 19 games in a row without conceding a single draw (the majority of grandmaster games are draws). It would be as if the New England Patriots didn't just win every football game they played this year, but didn't even allow their opponents to score. One Fischer opponent observed, "It began to feel as though you were playing against chess itself."

But after winning the world championship at age 29, the man who once said, "All I want to do, ever, is play chess," stopped playing. He didn't bother to defend his world championship in 1975 and went into seclusion.

I couldn't believe it. My own chess skills were improving, and I grew impatient for Bobby to provide new brilliancies. But as I entered high school and gradually mastered the game, Bobby Fischer was letting me down.

He quit chess and wrote a pamphlet titled "I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!" I didn't read it. The son of a Jewish mother, Fischer began to spew anti-Semitic invective. An American hero, Fischer cheered the Sept. 11 attacks. It appeared that chess had kept him sane. Once he lost touch with the game, he lost touch with his sanity.

The romanticized view of Fischer that I held as a boy needed to adjust to a more complex reality. Aristotle said, "There was never a genius without a tincture of madness." That may be true, but Fischer's madness provoked tirades that were hard to forgive.

How was I to reconcile the boy who played the "game of the century" at 13 with the man who held such ugly views? I nodded my head when, in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer," Ben Kingsley's character said, "I want back what Bobby Fischer took with him when he disappeared."

Why couldn't Fischer be like Garry Kasparov? Kasparov dominated chess for the past 20 years and recently entered Russian politics to challenge Vladimir Putin, at tremendous personal risk, and lead the pro-democracy movement. From my perspective as a local politician and chess master, this was a man I could admire.

When I learned of Fischer's death, I reflected on the hundreds of hours I spent studying his games while my schoolwork went unattended. Bobby Fischer was a big part of my youth, and I wondered how best to remember him.

A few years ago, I taught chess to a class of second- graders and regaled them with stories of a kid from Brooklyn who dreamed of becoming world champion, studied hard and then reached his dream.

I showed the students my framed photograph of the young Bobby Fischer, told them that it possessed secret powers and that I always won whenever I played with it next to me. I promised that the best-behaved student could borrow the picture when the second- graders paired up to play chess. That got their attention.

Later, as I walked amongst their games, quietly offering advice, I passed the boy who had earned the Fischer photograph, which he held tightly in his little hands. He leaned over to the girl sitting next to him and whispered "the Bobby Fischer picture really works!"

That's the Bobby Fischer I will remember.

King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson is an internationally rated chess master and two-time Washington State Chess Champion. He can be contacted at bob.ferguson@kingcounty.gov.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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