Cocky boy wonder of chess begins to grow up

One-Track Mastermind

Victorious Bobby shrugs off congratulations on his latest U.S. title, then stands at magnetized board to explain moves in a crucial game.

In all the world there is only one chess player--a Soviet Armenian named Tigran Petrosian, the world champion--who might be expected to beat the young man shown here. But the young man, Bobby Fischer, who eats, sleeps and breathes chess, doesn't think Petrosian could win. Now that Fischer had just taken his sixth U.S. championship, most experts agree with him. Though he is not quite 21, he has brought back master tournament honors from all over the world to his native Brooklyn. In the process he has played Petrosian 10 games and won only once. But these mettings were always tournaments which Fischer says the Russians organize in such a way as to insure their own victory. "I'll never play in one of those rigged tournaments again," he says. "They clobber us easy in team play. But man to man, I'd take Petrosian on any time." In the first years of Bobby's boy-wondership such statements gave him a well-deserved reputation for cockiness. To see what Bobby has become in his young manhood, turn the page.

'I don't want to look like a bum'

Once in a while Bobby Fischer strolls into one of those Times Square amusement arcades and stokes coins into a pinball machine. If you noticed him at all as he stands there, staring at the lighted scoreboard, you'd probably write him off as just another lost young man, and maybe not a very bright one.

You would be mistaken. Bobby hasn't the slightest flicker of doubt of who he is or what he wants to do. In an age that idolizes well-roundedness he has a single aim: "All I want to do, ever," he says, "is play chess." As for intelligence, he is bright enough to have won the U.S. chess championship six times and is considered among the game's most spectacular strategists of the century. Enthusiasts call him "the Mozart of chess." He has earned a comfortable of modest living at it for six years--no sorry feat, considering that it is not a game that would ever fill Yankee Stadium.

"Chess," affirms Bobby, "is a good game. It's better than some things people do, like watching television or going to movies. It's fun. You're the boss of the whole thing. You don't have to have a whole lot of arguements with other people. I guess I was just born with a talent for chess. It takes a certain kind of intellect. It's a matter of strategy. There's no room for luck, or outside influences like the weather. You can either play it or you can't."

For all his amazing skill, Bobby's fans don't make much fuss over him. A few weeks back, when he won his 11th and final round-robin game to take his newest championship with the only perfect score in the U.S. chess since Grover Cleveland's administration, very little hoopla ensued. "I didn't do nothing special to celebrate," he said. "Yeah, I guess some people came up to shake hands and all, but there weren't any parties or anything like that."

That was all right with Bobby, who never cared much for camaraderie. There was a time when he antagonized just about everybody with his antisocial remarks. "High school," he announced after he became the country's most celebrated dropout, "is for dumb bunnies. The teachers are all nitwits. Why do I need a diploma to play chess? I don't know what my I.Q. is, but I guess I'm brighter than most people. I read somewhere that the people who give I.Q. tests are too stupid to even be substitute teachers."

Lately, though, Bobby has mellowed some. He is much more tolerant of people who don't know a queen's pawn from a royal hock shop. He holds doors for girls, phones you back if you leave a message for him, grins and carries around with him, of all things, a boxed, gold-edge revised edition of the Bible. "No, it doesn't help you with chess," he admits, "but it makes you a better person." With chess problems spinning in his head by the millions, Bobby relaxes at a coin pinball machine.

One couldn't, however, accuse Bobby of going soft. "I'd say a really gentle person couldn't be a good chess player," he says. "You have to have the fighting spirit--no holds barred. You have to force moves and take chances."

In Bobby's opinion, chess is the hardest game in the world, excepting maybe the Japanese brain twister, Go. "It's much harder than bridge," he says. "Chess players who take up bridge are very good at it but not vice versa. You need to be able to look far ahead and you need a good memory. I can remember every big match I've ever played.

He has played some big ones--in Russia, Curacao, South America, Yugoslovia and nearly everywhere except the Orient. He would love to play there too--and just not for chess reasons.

"I'd love to see what the services are like there," he says. "You know, like rickshas. And I'd like to have a suit made in Hong Kong. I hate ready-made suits and button-down collars and sports shirts. I don't want to look like a bum. I get up in the morning, I put on a suit."

Bobby lives alone in the Brooklyn apartment he used to share with his mother and sister. His sister, who is now the wife of a physicist in California, taught him chess when he tired of parcheesi and other children's games. His mother, of whom he credits with "a sort of antitalent for chess," now lives in England. She and his father separated when Bobby was a baby. As a stranger looks on, Bobby whiles away subway ride with chess set made of leather.

"Women are lousy at chess," says Bobby. "They're meant to stay home. I bet I could take any man of average intelligence, a rank beginner, give him around two months of lessons, and have him at the end of that time beat any woman's world champion. Any man."

Except for such things as his bouts with pinball machines, and an occasional visit to the circus ("I like the freaks and acrobats best"), Bobby's days are devoted unswervingly to chess. "I go grab something to eat at the Automat. I pick up the Times, see if it's got anything on chess, then read The News. But mostly I read chess magazines. I get around 10 a month. You have to keep up. I've learned enough Russian and some of those languages to make out their chess magazines. Chess is much more popular other places than here. The Latvian chess magazine has a circulation of 30,000 a month; ours is only 9,000."

Sometimes Bobby goes to to foreign bookstores in search of old and old chess literature. Some times he drops by at one of New York's several chess clubs. He is only a little curious about the feast of wonders that is New York. He has been to racetracks, but not to place any bets ("Those guys that bet are mostly bums"). Even the pinball machines, to Bobby's way of thinking, prove something about his first and only love: "Those machines are amusing and relaxing," he says. "You can test your skill. But it's hard to get good at them. Sometimes the mechanism breaks down and it gets out of control. Chess isn't like that. Chess depends on you."

Always in his mind are the 64 squares of a chessboard, with its pieces arranged in one of millions of possible combinations. Always he is thinking of his next match.

"It's not exactly easy, keeping up the championship," he says. "It'll keep me busy all the rest of my life."

by Jane Howard
LIFE - February 21, 1964


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