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The chess thumper

Bobby Fischer was eccentric, paranoid and a bigot. He is reckoned the greatest player of all time by fans and players. Devangshu Datta takes us down the memory lane.

india Updated: Jan 20, 2008 18:47 IST
Devangshu Datta
Devangshu Datta

There is a proverbial thin line dividing genius and lunacy. Robert James Fischer, the 11th and most famous of world chess champions, did not merely cross that line occasionally. Before he died of kidney failure in Reykjavik, Iceland, on January 17, ‘Bobby’ had made a habit of straddling that line squarely throughout the 64 years of his existence.

Fischer is reckoned the greatest player of all time not just by fans but also by players such as Gary Kasparov, who is the only credible rival for that accolade. (Gracious on Kasparov’s part since Fischer once described him as a “dog”). On the basis of his public statements and actions, he would also qualify as an eccentric, a paranoid and a bigot, who howled at the moon at every given opportunity.

In the summer of 1972, the American did more to popularise the game than anyone, before or since. When Fischer challenged world champion and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky for the title at Reykjavik, he was iconised as the lone warrior taking on the might of an evil empire. For a few brief weeks, chess was up there in the headlines.

Unlike most glib characterisations, the Lone Ranger versus the Totalitarian System was actually close to the truth. Fischer was self-taught and worked alone, partly due to fear that his secret discoveries would be stolen. (He once asked a designated second to read him a Tarzan novel instead.) The Brooklyn boy did not come from a traditional chess-playing nation. His rival Spassky was a talented and gentlemanly product of a totalitarian sports programme. The Leningrader had a vast number of top quality seconds available to back up his attempt to uphold the honour of the Soviet system.

The match became a proxy for the Cold War — remember, this was the Vietnam era. The result showed that one self-taught genius from a capitalist bastion could smash the myth of Soviet intellectual superiority by simply playing better than the best products off their polished assembly line.

Yet being who he was, Fischer almost didn’t play at all. When match conditions were negotiated, he came up with endless demands. It finally took a phone call from Henry Kissinger (and a doubling of the prize fund), to persuade him to go to Iceland. Reputedly Nixon’s Secretary of State started the key conversation by saying, “This is the worst player in the world begging the best player to play!” After sitting down, he defaulted Game Two because the TV cameras were too intrusive and insisted on playing Game 3 (which he won) in a converted closet rather than onstage.

In that match, he came back from a 2-0 deficit (including the default) to blow away Spassky 7-3. At that point of time, he was 29 and may still have been several years short of his peak. Chessplayers resemble spin bowlers — they peak in their mid/late 30s after they develop experience and before the physical stamina erodes. We’ll never know. For the next 20 years, he did not play a single competitive game.

The details of his career till that retirement are enough to convince anybody that he was clearly a genius, even if he was a ‘one-trick pony’. The school dropout with the 180 IQ was US champion at 14, a Grandmaster and world title candidate at 15 and champion at 29 — after he had refused to participate in title contests for six years out of that 15-year-career because “the commies cheated”. (They later confessed they did, under duress!)

Through that magical period, he was light years ahead of his contemporaries. During a sabbatical, he wrote My 60 Memorable Games. The autobiography ranks as one of the best and most searingly honest books ever written and those games included three key defeats and several draws. He confessed that he loved to crush his opponents’ egos and lived for the moment when their shoulders slumped as they acknowledged defeat.

The day after he won the world title, he joined the apocalyptic Doomsday cult, The Church of Worldwide God. After 20 years in obscurity, he suddenly reappeared, penniless, styling himself the “undefeated” world champion in a bizarre exhibition match held in strife-torn Yugoslavia in 1992. The US authorities declared him a fugitive. He publicly spat on a “cease-and-desist” notice the US State Department issued, warning him that he was breaking sanctions. He beat his old foe Boris Spassky, collected a large payment, and disappeared again.

In his comeback, he showed that he was rusty but capable of competing at close to the highest levels. During his exile, he also created a flexible new method of time allocation and patented an electronic clock. That clock and time-control (both unoriginally named ‘Fischer’) are now central to the structure of modern chess.

Then he declared that all the games of normal chess were composed and ‘fixed’ beforehand. So he invented a new format, modifying the initial position. While ‘Fischherrandom’ or ‘Chess 960’ (so called because it had 960 legal initial positions) hasn’t replaced the classical game, it has certainly become a popular variant.

There was a sojourn in the Philippines where he gave weird radio interviews and fathered a daughter. He also spent a lot of time in Japan with his companion, Miyako Watai. He hailed 9/11 in one of those radio interviews, claiming that it was “wonderful news that America was getting f***ed”. He repeatedly said America and the world were controlled by a global Zionist conspiracy and it would be a better place if every Jew was killed. This was strange since he was at least half-Jewish (there is a chance that his biological father was also Jewish) and most of his best friends were Jewish too!

In 2005, he was arrested at Tokyo airport and scheduled for deportation to the US. He orchestrated a complicated legal defence and stalled the deportation long enough for his friends in Iceland to organise citizenship on compassionate grounds. Iceland refused to extradite him to the US because America has the death penalty. So Bobby felt safe in a nation of less than three lakh, where everybody plays chess and considered him a hero. Unfortunately, he wasn’t well. Last September, he was hospitalised for renal failure and it eventually turned fatal.

While he was in hospital, there was one bizarre incident when eBay Canada advertised a new special edition of My 61 Memorable Games. The auction was withdrawn with the seller claiming that she faced death threats from Zionist organisations.

This was probably a scam but with Fischer, nobody could tell for sure. He may have updated the book; he may have chosen this strange route to test the market. There may have been genuine death threats. Fischer insisted as a teenager that he was stalked by the FBI. The release of classified papers in the 2000s proves he was! His mother was on the watchlist as a known communist sympathiser (she had studied medicine in the Soviet Union). He was on the watchlist because he spent time behind the Iron Curtain, playing tournaments.

Bobby the chessplayer will always be idolised by chess players as the ultimate genius. Yet, Bobby the paranoid anti-semitic racist, is either reviled or pitied, even by those who love his games.

Will it be a case of the good being interred with the bones or vice-versa? He wouldn’t have cared. On one occasion he claimed that he didn’t understand why there was all this media focus on his personality. “I am boring, boring!” he said. That is the one thing he wasn’t.

Devangshu Datta is a journalist who is also an internationally rated chess player