Mercurial temperament eroded Fischer's status as international chess legend
Bobby Fischer, an eccentric genius many considered the greatest chess player in the history of the game and who remains the only American...
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Bobby Fischer, an eccentric genius many considered the greatest chess player in the history of the game and who remains the only American of the modern era to win a world championship, died Thursday at a hospital in Reykjavik, Iceland. He was 64.
A friend, Gardar Sverrisson, said he died of kidney failure.
Fischer learned the game at 6, won his first U.S. championship at 14 and in 1958 became the youngest international grandmaster of chess. He was world champion at 29. By then, the name Bobby Fischer, like Babe Ruth in baseball or Albert Einstein in physics, was synonymous with brilliance nonpareil.
His 1972 world-championship match against Russian master Boris Spassky in Reykjavik focused global attention on the quietly insular world of international chess and transformed it.
Troubled, temperamental and eccentric, Fischer developed a reputation as "the bad boy of chess," and over the years, his petulance and outbursts of temper spiraled into paranoia, antisocial behavior and virulent anti-Semitism. Renouncing his U.S. citizenship in 2005, he settled in Iceland, site of his greatest triumph.
"He was always arrogant and self-centered," said Frank Brady, author of the Fischer biography "Profile of a Prodigy." "But it was only after he won the world championship in '72, after he sort of reached the summit of his life's goal, that he went bad."
Larry Evans, a U.S. grandmaster, described Fischer as "the most individualistic, intransigent, uncommunicative, uncooperative, solitary, self-contained and independent chess master of all time, the loneliest chess champion in the world. He is also the strongest player in the world. In fact, the strongest player who ever lived."
Robert James Fischer was born March 9, 1943, in Chicago. His father, a German-born biophysicist, and his mother, a Swiss-born schoolteacher and registered nurse, were divorced when he was 2, and he was raised by his mother and his older sister, Joan Fischer. He started school in a small Arizona town and lived with his mother and sister in Los Angeles and Phoenix before the family settled in Brooklyn in 1948.
His sister bought him a cheap plastic chess set and taught him the rudiments of the game. In 1951, the 8-year-old took part in a chess exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library. Although he was quickly defeated by an international chess master, his playing impressed the president of the club, who offered to give him lessons.
Soon, he was regularly defeating adult players. By the time he was 12, he was a member of the Manhattan Chess Club and was winning matches against some of the best players in the United States, becoming U.S. champion in 1958.
Later that year, Fischer entered international competition and became the youngest player ever to be named an international grandmaster.
As a player, he was known for his boldness and unpredictability. He did not wait for his opponent to make mistakes but attacked relentlessly and rarely repeated gambits.
"He was a classicist," said Brady, who played speed chess against Fischer hundreds of times. "He didn't go into great fireworks and deep sacrifices. He was almost like Bach instead of Beethoven, plus he played every aspect of the game."
Brady also called him "probably the most booked-up player of the game," meaning that he was familiar with writings on chess gambits and chess masters from the earliest days of the game.
In 1970, he won the unofficial world five-minute championship in Yugoslavia with 17 victories, 4 draws and 1 loss. After the tournament, he recalled from memory all of the more than 1,000 moves from his 22 games.
In July 1961, he began a scheduled 16-game match with Samuel Reshevsky. Reshevsky was an Orthodox Jew and would not play on the Sabbath, so the 12th game, which had been scheduled for a Saturday evening, was postponed until the next morning. Contending that he was not accustomed to playing in the morning, Fischer refused to appear, thus losing the game, and ultimately the entire match, by default.
The 1972 world championship that pitted Fischer against Spassky — the lone American in a "High Noon" showdown with the product of the soulless Soviet machine — was the Cold War personified.
They sat across from each other at a marble-and-mahogany chess table in tranquil, out-of-the-way Reykjavik.
Constantly complaining about his chair, the lighting and the whirring noise of TV cameras, he defeated Spassky, breaking a 26-year Russian monopoly on the title.
In a game long dominated by Europeans, Fischer became the first U.S. champion since Wilhelm Steinitz, a naturalized American from Bohemia, reigned from 1886 to 1894.
Fischer received a record purse of $250,000 at Reykjavik, thanks in part to his threatened walkouts and outspoken demands. He also transformed a genteel game, and soon membership in the U.S. Chess Federation nearly tripled.
Reykjavik was the pinnacle of Fischer's career. From then on, his eccentricities overwhelmed his brilliance. In 1975, he lost his title by default, refusing to defend it against Anatoly Karpov after a dispute over match rules.
After he moved to South Pasadena, Calif., shortly after the Spassky match, Fischer sightings became rare and often under bizarre circumstances. In 1981, he was arrested in Pasadena by mistake on suspicion of bank robbery, which prompted him to publish the pamphlet "I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse."
He gave $90,000 of his world-championship winnings to the Pasadena-based Worldwide Church of God, a fundamentalist denomination whose founder, Herbert W. Armstrong, had predicted that Jesus would return to Earth in 1975 after a nuclear holocaust. When the year came and went without nuclear incident, Fischer left the church.
He reportedly had the fillings removed from his teeth to prevent the Soviets from transmitting secret messages.
In 1992, his infatuation with a 19-year-old Hungarian girl and a Yugoslavian financier's monetary blandishments lured him into a rematch in Yugoslavia with Spassky, his 1972 foe. He got $3.5 million in prize money — and an indictment from the U.S. government for violating a United Nations embargo aimed at the "ethnic cleansing" regime of Slobodan Milosevic.
Although his mother and perhaps his father were Jewish, his anti-Semitism grew more virulent as he grew older. He began broadcasting radio rants, often from the Philippines, about Jews, communists, the criminality of the United States and the perfidy of the international chess establishment.
Asked on Sept. 11, 2001, about the attacks on the World Trade Center, he said, "This is all wonderful news."
In 2004, Fischer was arrested at the Tokyo airport, where he was accused of trying to leave Japan on a revoked passport. Japanese authorities considered deporting him to the United States but released him to Iceland after the country offered him citizenship. He lived in Reykjavik until his death.
Survivors include his longtime companion, Japanese grandmaster Miyoko Watai.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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