Bobby Fischer's Dumbest Move

Was this heavy, bearded, balding guy Bobby Fischer? Last time we saw him, twenty years ago, he was a bonily handsome chess prodigy who in Reykjavik in 1972 snatched the world title away from the Soviet world champ, Boris Spassky, as rudely as if Spassky had stolen it from him.

Which, in a way, he had. The Soviets had schemed to save their successive champions from a showdown with the Brooklyn kid, until in 1971 he went through the world's toughest competition like a mad rhino at a garden party, winning 15 games in a row at a level where the players usually read each other's minds and agree to draw. It was astounding. Finally Spassky had to face him.

Andre Malraux once observed, apropos of politics, overturning the chessboard is not a chess move. Andre Malraux never met Bobby Fischer. The big question at Reykjavik was not whether Fischer would win, but whether he would show up. He fought petulantly over the playing conditions and arrived late, forfeiting one game. No matter; he won easily. But he refused to show for his first title defense, in 1975. And was the last we heard from him.

Since then, rumor has placed him in darkest California, joining an apocalyptic sect. Like everything else he did, it surprised, but it figured, in some obscure way.

So it surprised, but it figured, he should reappear in . . . well, Yugoslavia, for lack of a better word, where (war? what war?) he announced he was defending his title (in his own mind he'd never lost it) against Spassky, for the lion's share of a $5-million purse. Pushing fifty, he was accompanied by a 19-year-old girlfriend, just when the reading public was fretting over Soon-Yi Previn. Then again, she was the first female Bobby had ever been seen with.

At his first press conference, Fischer held up a letter from some outfit billing itself the U.S. Government, warning him whereas and hereby, etc., he was forbidden to play chess in Yugoslavia, under penalty of fine and imprisonment. "This is my answer," Fischer said, spitting on the letter. Yes, it was the real Bobby, all right. You gotta like this guy.

Then came the real gaspers. He said he hadn't paid income taxes since 1976 and wasn't going to start now. He called the recent top whadayacallem Soviet, Russian players "some of the lowest dogs around," and charged they'd been fixing games and he could prove it. He asked why there were sanctions against Yugoslavia but not Israel. He said he wasn't anti- Semitic because he's pro-Arab and Arabs are Semites too, you know. He said Communism --"Bolshevism," he quaintly called it was "a mask for Judaism," which must have come as news to the host country, not to mention Fidel Castro and Kim Il-sung. (If North Korea isn't goyish, the term may be meaningless.)

You didn't have to belong to the Amen Corner to be left wheezing by all this. But you could look on the bright side: at least Bobby's not a monomaniac about chess any more. He thinks globally now, though not, admittedly, in the Al Gore vein. You can even argue he's a refreshing presence in this election year, just about equidistant from "family values" and "compassion" and "saving the earth." As I say, you gotta like this guy, especially if your name is Abu Nidal.

The whole performance raised little questions like where he means to live the rest of his life, having publicly provoked the State Department, the IRS, and maybe Mossad into the bargain. He didn't give the impression he was thinking ten moves ahead, unless he plans to play chess by mail from a small cell.

Editorialists did their stuff. The New York Post called for his prosecution for violating UN sanctions. Chess experts said he was probably rusty after being away from competitive chess for two decades.

So Bobby sat down at the chessboard and whipped Spassky with what one analyst called a "stroke of genius" on the 42nd move. He played erratically over the next few games, but soon had a 5 to 2 lead. His fifth victory was hailed as a classic, featuring a novel attack trapped Spassky by the 15th move. I have to take the experts' word on this: like most Americans, I don't know Ruy Lopez from Garcia y Vega.

OFF THE BOARD, though, where the rest of us can judge, Bobby's moves are not so smart. It's too bad he doesn't have someone to tone him down a little. Father Coughlin, say. He may soon learn the relative strength of the Intergalactic Zionist Conspiracy and the Internal Revenue Service. (All civics books should start with the Sixteenth Amendment.)

Should Bobby go to prison? The answer, of course, is: Hell, no. There are people you just have to put up with, and sometimes the most brilliant are also the crankiest. Greatness on Fischer's scale is so rare in any activity, when it comes along, the world, including officialdom, should gratefully let it be, unless he robs, rapes, or kills.

This, however, is not how governments look at it. They tend to take the view at risk of oversimplifying -- they want your money, now. Bobby hasn't quite grasped this. It might avert possible misunderstandings by naive chessplayers if they replaced George Washington with the IRS Commissioner on the dollar bill, and excised a few misleading words from "The Star-Spangled Banner."

By JOSEPH SOBRAN
National Review, October 19, 1992


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