hubris, and hatred--the unraveling of the greatest chess
was singing the blues. As he wailed along with a 1965
recording by Jackie ("Mr. Excitement") Wilson,
his voice--a gravelly baritone ravaged by age but steeled
by anger--rumbled through the microphone like a broken-down
freight train on rusty wheels: "You go walking
down Broadway, watchin' people catch the subway I Take it
from me, don't ask for a helping hand, mmm, 'cause no one
will understand!" With each note he became
increasingly strident. "Bright lights will find
you, and they will mess you around! Let me tell you,
millions will watch you! Have mercy now, as you sink right
down to the ground!" Even if you knew nothing
about Bobby Fischer, listening to him sing this song would
tell you all you needed to know. "There just ain't
no pity. No, no, no, in the naked city, yeah-New York
duet, featuring Jackie Wilson and the world's first and
only chess grand master fugitive from justice, was
broadcast live, on July 6, 2001, by DZSR Sports Radio, a
Manila-based AM station that has embraced Fischer as a
ratings booster. In exchange for these rare interviews
(Fischer hasn't given a magazine or TV interview in thirty
years), Sports Radio management has happily provided
Fischer with hours of free airtime to spin his classic R&B
records and to lash out at his enemies, both real and
imagined. Fischer categorizes these enemies-including the
former New York mayor Ed Koch, both Presidents Bush, and
the Times Mirror Corporation--as "Jews, secret Jews,
or CIA rats who work for the Jews."
broadcast was Fischer's seventeenth in the Philippines. The
bizarre karaoke interlude was a departure of sorts, but
otherwise the broadcast was no different from the previous
sixteen. Fischer's talking points never vary.
* Bobby Fischer
is being persecuted by world Jewry.
* The United
States government is a "brutal, evil
dictatorship" that has falsely accused Bobby Fischer
of a crime and forced him to live in exile.
* Bobby Fischer
has been swindled out of a "vast fortune" in
royalties by book publishers, movie studios, and clock
manufacturers (yes, clock manufacturers), who have brazenly
pilfered his brand name, patents, and copyrights.
* The Jews are a
"filthy, lying bastard people" bent on world
domination through such insidious schemes as the Holocaust
("a money-making invention"), the mass murder of
Christian children ("their blood is used for black-
magic ceremonies"), and junk food (William Rosenberg,
the founder of Dunkin' Donuts, is singled out as a
For chess buffs
who tune in for some shoptalk from the game's most revered
icon, there is this:
* Chess is
nothing more than "mental masturbation." Not only
is the game dead, it's fixed. Gary Kasparov, the world's
top-rated player, is a "crook" and a former KGB
spy who hasn't played a match in his life in which the
outcome wasn't prearranged.
The No. 1
transgression, however, the thing that has devastated
Fischer embittered him, and made him screech at night,
alone in his apartment, is the "Bekins heist."
* Millions of
dollars' worth of personal memorabilia, painstakingly
collected and stockpiled by Bobby Fischer in a ten-by-ten-
foot Bekins storage room in Pasadena, California, has been
stolen from him in a secret plot involving the Rothschilds
(Jews), Bill Clinton (a secret Jew), and unnamed Bekins
executives (CIA rats who work for the Jews).
international chess community, which tracks Fischer's
downward spiral the way astronomers track the orbit of a
dying comet, has been monitoring his radio interviews since
the first one aired, back in January of 1999. For the most
part chess people have for years downplayed the importance
of his outlandish outbursts, explaining that Fischer's
raging anti-Semitism, acute paranoia, and tenuous grasp on
reality are hyped by the media and misunderstood by the
public. In the early 1990s Fischer's girlfriend at the time
said, "He's like a child. Very, very simple." A
friend who spent a lot of time with him in the 1990s says,
"Aside from his controversial views, as a person Bobby
is very kind, very nice, and very human." Another
friend, asked how he could stand by someone so blatantly
anti-Semitic, replies, "A lot of people wouldn't care
if Michael Jordan was an anti-Semite if they could play a
game of Horse with him."
apologists argue that Bobby Fischer is in fact deranged,
and that as such he deserves not public castigation but
psychiatric help. They are quick to point out that he was
raised in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, has had close
friends who were Jewish, and in fact had a Jewish mother
(information he has gone to great lengths to deny). It
seems hard to imagine that his hate-filled rhetoric isn't
an unfortunate manifestation of some underlying illness.
But even the
Fischer apologists had to throw up their hands when he took
to the Philippine airwaves on September 11, 2001. In an
interview broadcast this time by Bombo Radyo, a small
public-radio station in Baguio City, Fischer revealed views
so loathsome that it was impossible to indulge him any
longer. Just hours after the most devastating attack on the
United States in history, in which thousands had died,
Fischer could barely contain his delight. "This is all
wonderful news," he announced. "I applaud the
act. The U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the
Palestinians, just slaughtering them for years. Robbing
them and slaughtering them. Nobody gave a shit. Now it's
coming back to the U.S. Fuck the U.S. I want to see the
U.S. wiped out."
that the events of September 11 provided the ideal
opportunity to stage a long-overdue coup d'état. He
envisioned, he said, a "Seven Days in May
scenario," with the country taken over by the
military; he also hoped to see all its synagogues closed,
and hundreds of thousands of Jews executed. "
Ultimately the white man should leave the United States and
the black people should go back to Africa," he said.
"The white people should go back to Europe, and the
country should be returned to the American Indians. This is
the future I would like to see for the so-called United
States." Before signing off Fischer cried out, "
Death to the U.S.!"
The United States Chess
Federation had always been willing to ignore Fischer's
public antics, no matter how embarrassing. He was, after
all, Bobby Fischer-the greatest player in the history of
the game. But this was too much. On October 28 of last year
the USCF unanimously passed a motion denouncing Fischer's
incendiary broadcast. "Bobby has driven some more
nails in his coffin," Frank Camaratta Jr., a USCF
board member, says. The backlash has reached all the way to
grassroots chess clubs. "It's because of Fischer that
I'm involved in chess," says Larry Tamarkin, a manager
at the Marshall Chess Club, a legendary New York parlor
frequented by Fischer in his teens. "But I can't help
feeling a sense of betrayal, anger, and sadness. You devote
your entire life to one player and find out he's completely
off his rocker. It ruins everything. He's an
embarrassment." Asked about the possibility of a
Fischer comeback, Tamarkin can't conceal his disgust.
"We prefer that he doesn't come back. Because if he
does, it will destroy the last vestige of magic."
In reality the
magic has been gone for some thirty years. That's how long
it has been since Fischer played his first and only world-
championship match. Why he stopped playing tournaments, and
how his life unraveled so pathetically, is a story one can
learn only by seeking out those who actually know Fischer.
There are surprisingly few such people-and fewer yet are
willing to talk. Fischer doesn't tolerate friends who give
interviews. His address book is a graveyard of crossed-out
names of people who have been quoted in articles about him.
formerly loyal Fischer associates, appalled at his recent
behavior, are finally talking about him. They reveal that
Fischer's story doesn't follow the usual celebrity-gone-to-
seed are. He has not been brought low by drugs or alcohol,
by sex scandals or profligate spending. Instead he is a
victim of his own mind-and of the inordinate attention that
the world has given it. Fischer's paranoia, rage, and
hubris have been enough to transform him into an enemy of
the state; they have been enough to sabotage a brilliant
career and turn a confident, charismatic figure into a
dithering recluse; and, sadly, they have been enough to
make us forget that when Bobby Fischer played chess, it was
absolutely riveting theater, even for those who didn't play
In many ways
Fischer's story resembles that of the mentally unstable
Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash Jr., the mathematician
who inspired the book and Oscar-winning movie A
Beautiful Mind, but without the happy ending. Both
Fischer and Nash were the best at their chosen professions.
Both were widely considered to be geniuses. Both were also
supremely arrogant, rebellious, eccentric, and--although
respected--not necessarily well liked by colleagues.
Fischer left the United States to live in exile. So did
Nash. Even eerier, while in the grip of schizophrenia Nash
was an anti-Semite and was convinced that Communists (the
men at MIT wearing red ties) were observing him.
popular belief, Fischer didn't emerge from the womb a full-
blown grand master. While he was learning the game, as a
child in Brooklyn, he was essentially a hotshot club
player-a prodigy, to be sure, but not obviously world-
championship material. But at age thirteen, in 1956,
Fischer made a colossal leap. That year he became the
youngest player ever to win the U.S. Junior Championship.
He also dominated the U.S. tournament circuit. What was
astounding wasn't simply that a gawky thirteen-year-old kid
in blue jeans was suddenly winning chess tournaments. It
was the way he was winning. He didn't just beat people-he
humiliated them. The thing he relished most was watching
his opponents squirm. "I like the moment when I break
a man's ego," he once said, during a Dick Cavett
Later in the
year he played a game so remarkable that it was immediately
dubbed "the Game of the Century." Fischer faced
Donald Byrne, then one of the top ten U.S. players, at the
Rosenwald Memorial Tournament, in New York. The now
legendary battle was packed with more chess pyrotechnics
than are typically seen during the course of an entire
match. There were complex combinations, ingenious
sacrifices, danger and apparent danger-enough to make
Fischer, who won, a chess god overnight. Asked to explain
his sudden emergence on the world stage of chess, Fischer
shrugged and said, "I just got good."
Byrne duel was dissected in newspapers and magazines around
the world and won Fischer the Brilliancy Prize, an annual
chess award that recognizes particularly imaginative play.
Chess analysts, a decidedly reserved lot not given to
spasms of hyperbole, peppered their dry annotations with
exclamation marks ("Be6!"). "While we have
learned to distrust superlatives, this is one game that
deserves all the praise lavished on it," wrote Fred
Reinfeld, a leading chess journalist of the day. Even the
Russians, loath to acknowledge so much as the existence of
American players, grudgingly tipped their hats. After the
Fischer-Byrne game, Mikhail Botvinnik, the reigning world
champion, reportedly said, "We will have to start
keeping an eye on this boy."
That is exactly
what the chess world did from that moment forward.
Fischer's achievements were staggering: In his time he was
the youngest U.S. master (at fourteen years and five
months), the youngest international grand master, and the
youngest candidate for the world championship (at fifteen
years and six months). He also won eight U.S. chess
championship titles--a record not likely to be broken. In
1966 he co-authored Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess,
the best-selling chess book ever, and in 1969 he published
My 60 Memorable Games, arguably the best chess
just won a lot of games--an impressive fact given that
draws among grand masters are commonplace. At the highest
level of competitive chess, players are so familiar with
one another's games that they can practically read their
opponents' minds. The memorization of opening theory and
the intensive study of an opponent's oeuvre so dominate the
modern game that when two grand masters square off, the
first twenty moves unfold like a stale sitcom plot. Players
often lament that "draw death" is killing the
didn't play for draws. He was always on the attack-even
rhetorically. Of the Soviet champions who had dominated the
game so completely, he said, "They have nothing on me,
those guys. They can't even touch me."
The Soviets were
not amused. They dismissed the young American upstart as
This wasn't far from the truth, and Fischer knew it. He
lacked education, and had always been insecure about this.
His deficiency was particularly glaring now that most of
his interaction was with adults, many of whom were
sophisticated and well-read.
Fischer thought, was to upgrade his wardrobe. So at
sixteen, using his chess winnings, he traded in his uniform
of sneakers, flannel shirt, and jeans for luxurious bespoke
suits. He reveled in his new Beau Brummell image. When he
traveled abroad for tournaments, he frequently visited
local tailors and had suits cut for his gangly, broad-
shouldered physique. He liked to brag that he owned
seventeen such suits, which he rotated to ensure even wear.
"I hate ready-made suits, button-down collars, and
sports shirts," he once said. "I don't want to
look like a bum. I get up in the morning, I put on a
The change did
wonders for Fischer's self-esteem. He boasted that once he
had defeated the Russians and become the world champion,
he'd take on all challengers. Like the boxing champ Joe
Louis, he'd have his own bum-of-the-month dub. He boldly
promised that he was "gonna put chess on the
map." He envisioned a rock-star existence for himself:
a $50,000 custom-made Rolls-Royce, a yacht, a private jet,
and a mansion--in either Beverly Hills or Hong Kong--"
built exactly like a rook." Asked what his long-term
goals were, he replied, "All I want to do, ever, is
sartorial façade of sophistication was a flimsy one.
Those close to Fischer knew that when it came to art,
politics, or anything else the cosmopolitan set talked
about, he was at a total loss. "If you were out to
dinner with Bobby in the sixties, he wouldn't be able to
follow the conversation," says Don Schulte, a former
friend. "He would have his little pocket set out and
he'd play chess at the table. He had a one-dimensional
outlook on life."
world view prompted Fischer to drop out of Brooklyn's
Erasmus Hall High School midway through his junior year. It
was hardly a case of a promising academic life being cut
short. Pulling courtesy D's, ostracized by the
other students, Fischer was going nowhere. Many chess
insiders have insisted that the poor grades were a direct
result of an abnormally high IQ--that is, Bobby wasn't
stupid, he was just bored. (Although Fischer was a poor
student, he was regularly reading Russian chess journals.)
It's a point that has long been debated. Everybody agrees
that Fischer is no dummy, including Fischer himself (during
one interview he said, "I object to being called a
chess genius, because I consider myself to be an all-around
genius who just happens to play chess"), but chess
champions aren't necessarily geniuses. What they need for
success is powerful memories, the ability to concentrate
deeply, refined recognition and problem-solving skills,
decisiveness, stamina, and a killer instinct.
When he dropped
out of high school, Fischer was living in Brooklyn with his
older sister, Joan, and his mother, Regina. Regina was a
registered nurse, a secular Jew, and a single mother with a
bohemian lifestyle that included leftist politics and
social activism but not chess. (When Fischer was born, his
mother was married to Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German
biophysicist, who is generally assumed to be Bobby's
father, although Bobby's paternity is the subject of some
speculation.) Fischer's relationship with his mother was
strained, in part because of her politics, her religious
heritage, and her general eccentricity. "Bobby's
mother was a cuckoo," the New York Times
chess columnist Robert Byrne says. "She was an
intelligent neurotic full of far-fetched ideas." As
Fischer developed as a chess player, he distanced himself
from his mother. In 1962, three years after dropping out of
high school, he began living alone in the family apartment
(his mother and Joan had moved out).
Fischer began to
devote fourteen hours a day to studying chess. According to
a 1962 interview in Harper's, he had some 200 chess books and
countless foreign chess journals stacked on his floor. He
had an exquisite inlaid chess table, made to order in
Switzerland, and three additional boards, one beside each
bed in his apartment. As part of a Spartan training regime
he would play matches against himself that lasted for days,
sleeping in the three beds in rotation. Asked how he spent
his free time, Fischer once replied, "I'll see a movie
or something. There's really nothing for me to do. Maybe
I'll study some chess books."
became more successful, he began to generate more and more
criticism. In a very short time he managed to offend and
estrange almost everyone who was in a position to advance
his career, including USCF officials, patrons, journalists,
and sponsors. He frequently backed out of tournaments. He'd
threaten a no-show unless the promoters ponied up more
prize money. He also regularly groused about noise and
The press loved
it. Fischer was labeled an insufferable diva and a psych-
out artist who made life hell for tournament officials and
tried to rattle opponents by complaining about, among other
things, high-frequency sounds that only he and several
species of non-human mammals could detect. The press also
loved to talk about his greed. But Fischer never cared
about money per se. "Bobby wanted to get all kinds of
money for everything," says Arnold Denker, a former
U.S. chess champion, "and yet when he got it, he
pissed it away. In Reykjavik [the site of the 1972 world-
championship match between Fischer and Boris Spassky] the
maids who cleaned up his room made thousands of dollars
because he left money under the pillows and all over. He
wanted money because to him it meant that people thought he
richer purses not only to validate his self-worth but
because he was convinced that tournament promoters were out
to fleece him. He would sign a tournament contract only to
obsess later about how quickly his demands had been met.
Although the prize money involved was always more than
fair, Fischer's paranoia invariably got the best of him.
"Away from the board, Bobby suffered from a terrible
inferiority complex," says Allan Kaufman, the former
director of the American Chess Foundation. "In his
mind he concocted lots of excuses: people were taking
advantage of him; they were smarter than he was; if he had
only had their education, he would know what to ask for in
negotiations." Often before the ink on a contract was
dry, Fischer would refuse to play unless the purse was
raised. Promoters would cave, only to receive word later
that Fischer was demanding even more money. Frequently the
negotiations became so impossible that frustrated promoters
simply walked. These confrontations prolonged his quest for
the world tide. "A couple of times Bobby dropped out
of tournaments that would have led to him playing for the
world championship earlier," says
Shelby Lyman, a chess pundit who analyzed
Fischer's famous 1972 match with Boris Spassky on PBS.
certainly weren't willing to lend support to Fischer's tide
Sports Illustrated in 1962 published an interview with
Fischer in which he accused the Soviet chess establishment
of cheating in an effort to deny him what he viewed as his
birthright: the world chess championship. In the interview,
titled "The Russians Have Fixed World Chess,"
Fischer alleged that Soviet grand masters were forced to
lose or draw games in order to advance the careers of
favored players who were being groomed as potential world
champs. Fischer argued that he was at a great disadvantage,
because during a tournament he had to endure a grueling
schedule of games while several anointed Soviet grand
masters cruised from one victory to the next, conserving
their strength for the real competition-which more often
than not was Fischer himself in the finals.
Fischer had finished a disappointing fourth in the 1962
Curaçao Candidates tournament, the interview was
denounced by the Soviets as a classic case of sour grapes.
Those familiar with the palace intrigue of the Soviet Chess
Federation, however, knew better. Nikolai Krogius, a Soviet
grand master now living in Staten Island, acknowledges that
Fischer's allegations of foul play were valid. "There
were some agreed draws at Curaçao," he admits.
According to Arnold Denker, beating the Soviet chess
machine during that era was all but impossible. "In
1946," he says, "I had an adjourned game with
Mikhail Botvinnik in which I was ahead. During the break I
saw Botvinnik eating dinner and relaxing. I didn't have
dinner. I went to my room and studied. When the game
resumed, Botvinnik remarkably found the only move to draw
the game. I said, ‘How is that possible?’ Someone told me,
‘Listen, young man, all of these people were analyzing for
him while he was having his dinner.’ I was naive in those
play in one of those rigged tournaments again,"
Fischer fumed after losing to the Soviet Armenian champion
Tigran Petrosian at Curaçao. "[The Soviets]
clobber us easy in team play. But man to man, I'd take
Petrosian on any time." The five-time U.S. chess
champion Larry Evans agrees that the Soviets were less than
good sportsmen when it came to defending their world title.
But he also believes that Fischer was looking for a
convenient excuse for losing. "The fact of the matter
is," Evans says, "that in '62 at Curaçao,
Bobby just wasn't good enough yet."
Curaçao, Fischer dropped out of international
competition for several years. His cash flow, which was
about $5,000 a year, slowed to a trickle. Money was so
scarce that he began living at a YMCA. When he couldn't
afford that, he moved in with friends, hopping from
apartment to apartment and running up phone bills he
couldn't pay. Broke and feeling increasingly detached from
New York's insular chess community, he moved to California
in the spring of 1968. He was twenty-five years old.
to the West Coast has sometimes been considered the
beginning of his so-called "wilderness years."
Although he wasn't playing in many tournaments, his work
ethic never wavered: he continued studying chess during
most of his waking hours. But late at night, Arnold Denker
recalls, Fischer began prowling parking lots, slipping
white-supremacist pamphlets under windshield wipers. He
began studying anti-Semitic classics such as Mein Kampf
and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He
became obsessed with German history and the Third Reich,
and collected Nazi memorabilia. It was rumored that he
slept with a picture of Adolf Hitler hanging over his bed.
Larry Evans says that Fischer's admiration for the Führer
had less to do with anti-Semitism than with insatiable ego.
"We once went to see a documentary on Hitler,"
Evans recalls. "When we came out of the theater, Bobby
said that he admired Hider. I asked him why, and he said,
‘Because he imposed his will on the world.’" (Fischer
has never made an effort to conceal his distaste for Jews.
As early as 1962, in the Harper's interview, he
expressed his prejudice, mentioning what he perceived to be
a growing problem affecting the upper ranks of his
profession. "Yeah, there are too many Jews in
chess," he said. "They seem to have taken away
the class of the game. They don't seem to dress so nicely.
That's what I don't like.")
In the fall of
1968 Fischer walked out of the Chess Olympiad in
Switzerland. He refused to play for another eighteen
months, and some feared that his competitive drive had
stalled, but that wasn't the case. He was still training
fourteen hours a day and playing chess privately. And in
1970 and 1971 he returned to public competition and had the
longest winning streak in tournament chess, when he won
twenty consecutive outright victories against the world's
top grand masters, a record unrivaled in the modern era.
By 1972 Fischer
had reached his peak. That year the reigning world
champion, Boris Spassky, agreed to meet him in Reykjavik to
play what would be the most carefully scrutinized match
ever, a contest the press heralded as "the chess match
of the century."
match became a Cold War battleground. The world's two
superpowers were about to lock horns across a chess board.
The political stakes were high enough that President
Richard Nixon ordered Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to
intercede personally when Fischer began hinting that he
might not play. "In short," Kissinger reportedly
said at the time, "I told Fischer to get his butt over
to Iceland." According to the Boston
Globe chess columnist Harold Dondis, however, "
Kissinger tried to call Bobby, but Bobby wouldn't take the
had worked his entire life for an opportunity to play for
the world chess crown, now that he finally had the chance,
he began to be taken over by anxiety, self-doubt, and
paranoia (he feared the Soviets would shoot down his
plane). All the youthful bravado and swagger--the bum-of-
the-month club, the taunting of the Russians--was a memory.
"They had to drag Bobby kicking and screaming to play
in Iceland," Shelby Lyman says.
The prize money
troubled Fischer too. Up to this point the world-
championship chess purse had not been particularly
noteworthy. When Spassky won the world title, in 1969, his
take was a paltry $1,400. The promoters in Iceland were
willing to pump the prize money up some, but not to a level
Fischer deemed sufficient When a handsome five-figure purse
was suggested, Fischer balked and threatened a no-show.
When Spassky and his entourage were in Reykjavik for the
opening t festivities, Fischer was still in New York,
grumbling about indentured servitude.
After a series
of escalating demands, Fischer managed to drive up the
match's prize money to $250,000 and was guaranteed a
considerable slice of film or TV revenues. But even then
the match hit a snag. Fischer refused to play because his
favorite television program, The Jack LaLanne
Show, wasn't available on Icelandic TV. It was Lina
Grumette, a Los Angeles chess promoter and Fischer's "
chess mother" at the time, who finally managed to talk
Fischer into playing.
performance in Iceland was no disappointment He put on a
show that was equal parts Ionesco play, soap opera, and
political potboiler. Between acts he managed to play some
brilliant chess. The games were an instant hit. "World
Chess Championship," the Shelby Lyman program created
by PBS to cover the tournament, was at the time the
highest-rated PBS show ever--an amazing fact, considering
that it consisted of little more than a giant wall-mounted
chess board on which each move was recorded and then
discussed by several analysts.
poorly in the beginning, and Spassky easily won the first
game, on July 12. Fischer refused to play the second game
unless all cameras were removed from the hall. The match
organizers tried to minimize the intrusiveness of the
cameras, but still he refused to play. Finally Fischer was
warned that if his demands didn't stop, game two would be
awarded to Spassky. Fischer thought, wrongly, that they
were bluffing, and ended up forfeiting the game. Suddenly
he was in a hole, with Spassky ahead 2 to 0. At this
juncture Spassky could easily have retreated to Moscow
still in possession of his crown, and nobody would have
blamed him because of Fischer's behavior.
Fischer the third game was played in another room and
broadcast to the dismayed audience on closed-circuit
television. He won handily. The players returned to the
exhibition hall for the rest of the match, and Fischer soon
grabbed the lead and held it, albeit still complaining
about the presence of cameras (in the end very little of
the match was filmed), the surface of the chess board (too
shiny), the proximity of the audience (he insisted that the
first seven rows of seats be removed), and the ambient
noise. Distressed at their countryman's poor showing,
members of the Soviet delegation began to make their own
unreasonable demands, hoping to unnerve Fischer. They
accused him of using a concealed device to interfere with
Spassky's brain waves. The match was halted while police
officers searched the playing hall. Fischer's chair was
taken apart, light fixtures were dismantled, the entire
auditorium was swept for suspicious electronic signals.
Nothing was found. (In a subsequent investigation a Soviet
chemist waved a plastic bag around the stage and then
sealed it for lab analysis. The label affixed to the bag
read "Air from stage.")
flustered. If anything, his play became stronger. As the
week wore on, Spassky began slowly to crack, and on
September 1 he resigned.
accomplishment cannot be overstated. A brash twenty-nine-
year-old high school dropout, armed with little more than a
pocket chess set and a dog-eared book documenting Spassky's
important games, had single-handedly defeated the Soviet
chess juggernaut. Spassky had a wealth of resources at his
disposal to help him plot moves, including thirty-five
grand masters back in the Soviet Union. Fischer, on the
other hand, had two administrative seconds who served
essentially as companions, and Bill Lombardy, a grand
master, whose role was to help analyze games. However,
Fischer did almost all the analysis himself-when he
bothered to do anything. "After the games were
adjourned, all the Soviets would go back to Spassky's hotel
room to plan for the next position," recalls Don
Schultz, one of the seconds. "Lombardy said to
Fischer, ‘That's a difficult position. Let's go back to the
hotel and analyze it.’ Fischer said, ‘What do you mean,
analyze? That guy's a fish. Let's go bowling.’"
home to a hero's welcome. In a televised ceremony at New
York's City Hall, Mayor John Lindsay presented him with the
key to the city. Shelby Lyman recalls, "Here's Bobby
in his great moment of triumph. He's resplendent in this
beautiful suit. The world is his: he's young, handsome,
women adore him, there's all this money if he wants it. And
he later said to a reporter, ‘The creeps are beginning to
gather.’ He was referring to press, lawyers, agents--
everyone he drought was out to take advantage of him. After
that his whole life was about avoiding the creeps."
in fact get the full hero treatment. "I was never
invited to the White House," he said in one of his
radio interviews. "They invited that Olympic Russian
gymnast--that little Communist, Olga Korbut." In his
notorious September 11 interview he elaborated. "Look
what I have done for the U.S.," he said. "Nobody
has single-handedly done more for the U.S. than me. When I
won the world championship, in 1972, the United States had
an image of, you know, a football country, a baseball
country, but nobody thought of it as an intellectual
country. I turned all that around single-handedly, right?
But I was useful then because there was the Cold War,
right? But now I'm not useful anymore. You see, the Cold
War is over and now they want to wipe me out, steal
everything I have, and put me in prison."
City Hall ceremony Fischer returned to Pasadena, leaving $5
million worth of unsigned endorsement contracts on his
lawyer's desk. It wasn't that he didn't want the extra
income; he just couldn't deal with the creeps.
He also stopped
playing tournament chess. And in 1975 the World Chess Federation
(known by its French acronym, FIDE) stripped him of his
world-championship tide for failure to defend his crown
against the Russian grand master Anatoly Karpov. Such
stonewalling was difficult for chess people to fathom,
given that Fischer was so much stronger than the
competition. The truth was that Bobby Fischer was running
scared. "Bobby was always afraid of losing,"
Arnold Denker says. "I don't know why, but he was. The
fear was in him. He said that if he played Karpov, he was
going to insist on a long match. After not playing for
three years, he was very concerned about how good he would
be." Shelby Lyman echoes that assessment. "Hating
to lose, and having the myth destroyed," he says,
"was a big part of him not playing."
playing tournaments, Fischer retreated to the protective
cocoon of the
Worldwide Church of God, an apocalyptic cult that
predicted the end of the world every four to seven years
and whose members tidied up to 30 percent of their income.
Such protection came at a steep price. It was reported that
out of his $200,000 income that year he donated $61,200 to
the WCG. "They cleaned out my pockets," he later
said. "Now my only income is a few royalty checks from
my books. I was really very foolish." To show its
appreciation for such a generous contribution, the WCG
treated Fischer almost as if he were the very deity the
Church's members had been waiting for. He lived in WCG-
owned apartments, was entertained at fancy restaurants, and
flew to exotic spots in the Church's private jet. And
Fischer was set up on the first dates of his life, with
attractive WCG members. A fellow WCG member, Harry Sneider,
says that this hedonistic lifestyle had a detrimental
effect on Fischer: "He got pampered and got a lot of
attention. It made him soft."
relationship with the WCG, like all the others in his life,
didn't last, in 1977, after a bitter falling-out that led
Fischer to claim that the WCG was taking its orders from a
"satanical secret world government," he cut all
ties with the Church. Then he crawled even further into his
own netherworld. He began dressing like a hobo. He took up
residence in seedy hotels. He began worrying about the
purity of his bodily fluids. He bought great quantities of
exotic herbal potions, which he carried in a suitcase, to
stave off the toxins he feared might be secretly put in his
food and water by Soviet agents. According to a 1985
article in Sports Illustrated, Fischer medicated
himself with such esoteric remedies as Mexican rattlesnake
pills ("good for general health") and Chinese
healthy-brain pills ("good for headaches"). His
suitcase also contained a large orange-juice squeezer and
lots and lots of vitamins. He always kept the suitcase
locked, even when he was staying with friends. "If the
Commies come to poison me, I don't want to make it easy for
them," he explained to a friend. Perhaps the most
telling sign of his rapid mental deterioration was that he
insisted on having all his dental fillings removed. "
If somebody took a filling out and put in an electronic
device, he could influence your thinking," Fischer
confided to a friend. "I don't want anything
artificial in my head."
The low point of
Fischer's California sojourn came on May 26, 1981, when two
Pasadena police officers stopped him for an ID check. By
then he had unkempt hair, a scraggly beard, and tattered
clothes, and looked like an aging hippie down on his luck.
He also generally fit the description of a man who had
recently committed two bank robberies in the neighborhood.
He refused to answer questions and was taken to jail, where
he spent forty-eight hours. "All he had to do was tell
the police he was Bobby Fischer, the chess player, and the
whole thing would have been over," a friend says.
"But he just couldn't bring himself to do it.
Submitting to authority is a foreign concept to
Bobby." A year later Fischer privately published a
fourteen-page pamphlet tided "
I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!" The
pamphlet, which became a surprise best seller in chess
shops across the country, is a melodramatic account of
Fischer's confinement. The subheadings say it all: "
Brutally Handcuffed." "Choked." "
Isolation & Torture." "Sick Cop."
was turning down big money to come out of retirement.
Caesars Palace in Las Vegas offered him $250,000 for a
single exhibition game. After Fischer had agreed to the
terms and a date had been set, he reneged. "I'm
risking my title," he griped. "I should get a
million dollars." According to a 1992 article in
Esquire, despots and rogue millionaires were also willing
to pay outrageous purses to Fischer: Ferdinand Marcos
offered him $3 million to play a tournament in the
Philippines; the Shah of Iran offered $2 million; Qatar,
South Africa, Chile, and Argentina are believed to have put
similar deals on the table. When a Francoist millionaire
from Spain offered $4 million, Fischer replied, "Nah.
The figure's too low."
craved far more than wealth was anonymity. To achieve it he
assumed a new identity and began carrying a Nevada driver's
license and a Social Security card bearing the pseudonym
Robert D. James. This is the name that appears on the 1981
Pasadena police report. (His full name is Robert James
income, however, he resorted to selling himself to chess
fans and curiosity seekers. The going rate for an hour's
phone conversation was $2,500. Bob Dylan is said to have
received a call from Fischer as a gift from his manager.
For $5,000 a personal meeting could be arranged. A student
of the three-time U.S. chess champion Lev Alburt once paid
$10,000 for several "chess consultations." Alburt
says his student considered the money well spent.
In the years to
come insiders knew that Fischer was still the man to beat.
In 1981 the grand master Peter Biyiasas played seventeen
straight games of speed chess against Fischer and lost
every one. "He was too good," Biyiasas said at
the time. "There was no use in playing him. It wasn't
like I made this mistake or that mistake. It was like I was
being gradually outplayed from the start. He wasn't taking
any time to think. The most depressing thing about it is
that I wasn't even getting out of the middle game to an
endgame. I don't ever remember an endgame."
In 1992 Fischer came out of retirement to play Boris
Spassky in a $5 million rematch that commemorated the
twenty-year anniversary of their meeting in Reykjavik.
Aficionados dismissed the match as meaningless, since
Fischer was no longer the world champion, and Spassky was
then ranked ninety-ninth in the world. But the press had
reason to celebrate: Fischer was a big draw; there was the
nostalgic superpower angle; and the setting was Yugoslavia.
United Nations sanctions had been imposed in an effort to
halt the fighting in the country, and Americans were
forbidden to do any business there, even in the form of a
chess match. Fischer spoke arrogantly to the press about
the irrelevance of the sanctions, and practically dared the
United States to keep him from playing. Annoyed, Washington
decided to make an example of him; the Department of the
Treasury issued a cease-and-desist letter to Fischer,
stating that if he played chess in Yugoslavia, he would be
in violation of Executive Order 12810. The penalty for
defying the order was a $250,000 fine, ten years in prison,
or both. Fischer appeared untroubled.
He had signed on
for the match because he desperately needed money. This was
to be his big payday. After all the missed endorsements and
spurned multimillion-dollar matches, he was prepared to
play one last time, to ensure his financial security: the
winner's share would be $3.65 million.
In the end,
though, Fischer didn't play for money. He played for love.
Not for love of the game but for the love of Zita
Rajcsanyi, an eighteen-year-old Hungarian chess prodigy who
had leveraged a pen-pal relationship with Fischer into a
full-fledged romance. With glasses, a long ponytail, and
Converse hightops, Rajcsanyi was hardly a goddess. But she
was exactly what was needed to coax Fischer out of his
shell. "Zita wrote Bobby beautiful letters telling him
how wonderful it was for her to be inspired by his great
genius," Harry Sneider, the WCG member, says. "
She had a lot to do with him coming back. Actually, it was
she who inspired him."
was able to talk Fischer out of his apartment, much less
onto a plane bound for Yugoslavia, is miraculous. By this
time his paranoia had intensified. Several months before
the match Darnay Hoffman, who produced a 1972 TV
exposé about Fischer and was working on another TV
project about him, had tracked Fischer to Orange Street-in
the heart, curiously, of the Fairfax district, then L.A.'s
largest Jewish neighborhood. When a film-crew member
knocked on the door to request an interview, he heard
Fischer inside frantically dialing a rotary phone and
screaming into the receiver, "They've found me!"
arrived in Yugoslavia, however, he showed not the slightest
indication of mental trouble. He wore a suit and appeared
healthy, robust, almost happy. "Bobby is so kind, so
friendly," Spassky marveled at the time. "He is
normal.!" Lev Alburt ventures an explanation. "
Chess is a game that forces you to be objective and to take
into account an opponent's views," he says. "It
forces you to make reasonable judgments and to be sane.
When Bobby quit playing, it was really the end of his
rational existence. And he began filling that void with
This was made
painfully evident when Fischer kicked off the pre-match
festivities in Yugoslavia with a press conference on
September 1. After the usual battery of chess-related
questions a journalist finally asked the question that was
on everybody's mind: "Are you worried by U.S.
government threats over your defiance of sanctions?"
Fischer calmly reached into a briefcase, pulled out the
Treasury Department letter, held it up, and said, "
Here is my reply to their order not to defend my tide
here." He then spat on the paper.
proceeded to rattle off a series of astonishing
proclamations: he hadn't paid his taxes since 1976 (and
wasn't about to start now); he was going to write a book
that would prove that Russian grand masters ("some of
the lowest dogs around") had "destroyed
chess" through "immoral, unethical, prearranged
games"; he really wasn't an anti-Semite, because he
was pro-Arab, and Arabs are Semites too. His assertion that
Soviet communism was "basically a mask for Bolshevism,
which is a mask for Judaism" elicited the most
The old Bobby
Fischer was back, and more bizarre than ever. This was made
eminently clear when Fischer informed tournament officials
that he wanted the toilet in his bathroom to rise higher in
the air than anyone else's.
beautifully in the first game. Spassky resigned on his
forty-ninth move. Considering that Fischer had been away
from formal competitive chess for two decades, this was no
small accomplishment. But the rest of the match featured
less-inspiring play. Although Spassky was clearly
outclassed, the contest dragged on for almost six weeks
before Fischer was finally declared the victor, with ten
wins, five losses, and fifteen draws. Today Fischer attacks
critics who dismiss the significance of the rematch. "
I hadn't played in twenty years!" he bellowed during
one of his Philippine radio broadcasts. "I did what
was utterly impossible. It's still my greatest match."
Administration wasn't impressed. Fischer was immediately
indicted, and an arrest warrant was issued. He hasn't
returned to the United States since.
apologists argue that Fischer's outlandish radio broadcasts
have been misunderstood. But even the apologists had to
throw up their hands when their hero took to the Philippine
airwaves on September 11, 2001, and revealed views so
loathsome that it was impossible to indulge him any longer.
achievements were staggering: in his time he was the
youngest U.S. master (fourteen), the youngest international
grand master, and the youngest candidate for the world
championship (fifteen). Asked to explain his sudden
emergence on the world stage of chess, Fischer shrugged and
said, "I just got good."
moved to California, in 1968, he began studying Mein Kampf
and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was rumored
that he slept with a picture of Hitler hanging over his
bed. When asked why he admired the Führer, Fischer said,
"Because he imposed his will on the world."
difficult position," a companion of Fischer's said
during the 1972 world-championship match, against Boris
Spassky. "Let's go back to the hotel and analyze
it." Fischer said, "What do you mean, analyze?
That guy's a fish. Let's go bowling."
In 1992 Fischer
came out of retirement to play Spassky in Yugoslavia, where
UN sanctions were in place. The Department of the Treasury
issued a cease-and-desist letter to Fischer. He was
immediately indicted after the match, and hasn't returned
to the United States since.
in Yugoslavia after the rematch, and began promoting what
he called Fischer Random Chess--a tweaked version
of shuffle chess, in which both players' back-row pieces
are arranged according to the same random shuffle before
play begins. Although not revolutionary, the premise of FRC
is compelling: with 960 different starting positions,
opening theory becomes obsolete, and the strongest player--
not necessarily the player who has memorized more
strategies or has the most expensive chess-analysis
software--is assured victory.
envisioned FRC as a means of democratizing chess and as a
lucrative business venture--and as an easy way to reinsert
himself into the world of competitive chess without having
to immerse himself in opening theory. He had designed and
patented two electronic devices that he hoped to sell to
FRC enthusiasts: a clock for timing games, and a pyramid-
shaped "shuffler" to determine the starting
positions. A 1996 press release described the two
instruments as "essential to playing according to the
new rules for the game of chess." Fischer desperately
wanted the Tokyo-based watch company Seiko to manufacture
his FRC products but couldn't generate interest.
Seiko's snub was the loss of Zita. After less than a year
she left Fischer and, against his protestations, eventually
wrote a book that chronicled their relationship. After the
book's release he accused Zita of being a spy hired by the
Jews to lure him out of retirement.
breakup Fischer roamed around Central Europe for several
years. He ended up being befriended by Susan and Judit Polgar, two young Hungarian Jews who were
at the time the Venus and Serena Williams of the chess
world. "I first met Bobby with my family," Susan
recalls. "I told him rather than spending the rest of
his life hiding … he should move to Budapest, where there
are a lot of chess players."
Fischer did, and
was welcomed as a guest in the Polgar household. He appears
to have behaved himself. "I remember happy times in
the kitchen cutting mushrooms," Susan says. "He's
very normal in that sense, very pleasant." Although
Fischer refused to play classic chess, he graciously helped
the Polgar sisters with their games. When he wasn't sharing
his expert analysis with them, he was playing FRC games
against them. He was astounded at how accomplished the
sisters were. Seeing that he was impressed by the Polgars'
play, a friend of Fischer's suggested a publicized match to
promote FRC. Fischer agreed.
Fischer was well
aware that a high-stakes match pitting the game's strongest
male player (in his own mind, anyway) against Judit Polgar,
the game's strongest female player (now ranked in the top
ten in the world), would interest the media. But the
battle-of-the-sexes extravaganza was not to be. "The
Jewish-nonsense stuff caused a problem between Bobby and
the girls' father," says a Fischer confidant. "
One day Bobby just changed his mind. He said, ‘No, they're
Jewish!’ He just couldn't handle it and walked away."
Would Fischer be
able to beat a top grand master in an FRC match today?
Doubtful. He played numerous FRC games with Susan, who
concedes that the results were "mixed." She isn't
optimistic about the prospect of a Fischer comeback either.
"He's not that young anymore," she says.
This may explain
why Fischer now lives in Tokyo, where chess buffs are
virtually nonexistent and he can live in complete
anonymity. He walks into bars g unrecognized and converses
with women who have no idea who he is. "Bobby g has
always liked Japan," says Larry Evans, the five-time
U.S. chess champion. "He likes their subservient
women." The culture, too, is a draw, according to
Harry Sneider. "Bobby loves Japanese food,"
Sneider says, "the great mineral baths, and the
electronics." Others, however, insist that Fischer
chose Japan for a different reason. "Bobby needs to be
in a place away from the Jews," one woman says.
But Tokyo is
only a home base. Fischer spends much of his time traveling
around the world, spreading his gospel of hate. Live radio
is his medium of choice. His modus operandi is to lull his
audience into a false sense of security by reminiscing
about past chess glories. Then, like clockwork, five
minutes into the interview the conversation takes a
detour--as it did on January 13, 1999, during Fischer's
very first live blitzkrieg, on Budapest's Radio Calypso.
After politely answering the stock questions, Fischer
became noticeably agitated and launched into his now
as well get to the heart of the matter and then we can come
back to chitchat," he curdy said to his host. "
What is going on is that I am being persecuted night and
day by the Jews!" Fischer proceeded to recite his
bizarre list of grievances: the emergence and sale of FRC-
clock knockoffs; a fortune owed him in unpaid book
royalties; the unauthorized use of his name to promote the
movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. His
rage reached a peak when he began detailing the precious
memorabilia allegedly stolen from his Bekins storage room
in Pasadena. Lost treasures supposedly include a book from
President Nixon and a letter from Ferdinand Marcos.
range from suspect to spurious. All U.S. book royalties due
him have been paid (since 2000 they have been held in
escrow by the State of California, because Fischer has not
provided a taxpayer-identification number). A movie can be
titled Searching for Bobby Fischer without his
consent. Unauthorized "Fischer Method" clocks,
which he claims infringe on his patent (expired in November
of 2001, because of overdue maintenance fees), may or may
not be legal. But the issue is irrelevant, because Fischer
refuses to file suit ("The Jews control the
As for the
Bekins theft, it, too, is a fiction. He did maintain a
Bekins storage room in Pasadena for twelve years, and the
memorabilia inside it were confiscated, but not in some
nefarious plot. The contents of the storage room were sold
at a public auction, because Fischer's account--maintained
by a Pasadena businessman named Bob Ellsworth, whom Fischer
had met through the Worldwide Church of God--was in
arrears. The Pasadena storage facility had been sold in the
late 1990s, and the new owners noticed that the account was
overdue. "It was my responsibility to pay the bill,
and I didn't pay it because I didn't know there were new
owners," Ellsworth says. "So they put Bobby's
stuff up for auction. I felt really bad and spent about
eight thousand dollars of my own money buying back all the
The storage room
was not a treasure trove worth "hundreds of millions
of dollars," as Fischer has claimed. "A lot of
it," Ellsworth says, "was old magazines and
things that were of personal interest to Bobby: books on
conspiracy theories, racy Mexican comics, lots of John
Gunther books. Things you could go down to Olvera Street
and replace for a dime a copy. That stuff I passed on. But
anything of intrinsic value I snagged." At the auction
Ellsworth acquired "about 80 percent" of the
corroborates Ellsworth's story, and says that his son
personally delivered the reclaimed memorabilia to Fischer
in Budapest. When a list of the numbered lots was read off
to him, Sneider confirmed that each one is again in
Fischer's possession. Lot 151: Box Lot of Telegrams to
Bobby Fischer During World Chess Championship. "
Delivered." Lot 152: Box Lot of Books Inscribed to
Bobby Fischer (not by authors). "Delivered." Lot
153: From the People of New York given to Bobby Fischer-
Leather Scrapbook with Letter and Telegram from Mayor John
V. Lindsay of New York City. "Delivered."
all of this, and would like nothing better than to see
Ellsworth drop dead--literally. During a Philippine radio
interview broadcast on January 27, 1999, he instructed the
host to read Ellsworth's home address on the air. "
Some Filipino who loves me should say hello to that
motherfucker," Fischer said. "Bob Ellsworth is
worthy of death for this shit he pulled on me, in cahoots
with Bekins. This was all orchestrated by the Jewish world
conduct, friends in recent years have thought they detected
a glimmer of light amid the darkness of Fischer's tortured
psyche. For one thing, he has a girlfriend--Justine, a
twenty-two-year-old Chinese-Filipina living in Manila, who
couldn't care less about chess and has no intention of
writing a tell-all memoir. And Fischer is now a parent:
Justine gave birth to a baby girl in 2000. Fischer's
fatherhood has until now been a well-kept secret, shared by
his Philippine friends, who hope that this child will fill
the void in Fischer's life that chess once occupied.
But their hope
appears to be in vain. Fischer is a far cry from being a
doting papa. According to one source, he "regularly
sends money to his girlfriend and child" but visits
them only "once every two months." Nobody has
rescued him from his paranoid fantasies either. During his
most recent radio interview, broadcast live from Reykjavik
on January 27, 2002, Fischer rattled off the same Bekins
"mega-robbery" drivel. He described the
fictitious crime as "probably, in monetary terms, one
of the biggest, if not the biggest robbery, in the history
of the United States." He also encouraged the
Icelandic government to close the local U.S. naval base.
"If they refuse to go," Fischer said, "send
them some letters with anthrax. They'll get the
For all the
anti-American bluster, those closest to Fischer say he'd
secretly like to return to his homeland. Sam Sloan, a chess
writer and longtime friend of Fischer's, says, "If he
knew he wouldn't be prosecuted for this executive order, I
think he'd come back." It seems that Fischer has a
sentimental side. Difficult as it is for some former
friends to believe, he still thinks about them. "Bobby
called someone in New York recently," says Stuart
Margulies, a co-author (with Fischer and Donn Mosenfelder)
of Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess (1966). "He
wanted to know how all his old friends were doing."
homesickness may explain why for a time Fischer continued
to pay property taxes on a piece of Florida real estate he
was unable to set foot on. But returning to America is no
more real a possibility than the rook-shaped house he once
dreamed of building. The federal arrest warrant issued in
1992 will not expire, and it is unlikely that Fischer will
be shown much leniency--especially since he referred to
George W. Bush during one of his radio interviews as "
certain that he won't play chess competitively again. But
the chess world continues to sing his praises. Last
December, for example, the World Chess Hall of Fame opened for business--a
rook-shaped building situated on an unlikely strip of land
just off the Florida Turnpike, in South Miami-Dade County--
and inducted the initial five members. One of them was
Fischer is now more alone than ever before. His mother and
sister both died in the late 1990s. According to friends,
he was extremely close to Joan and had reconciled with
Regina; not being able to attend their funerals is said to
have been a great blow to him. The New York chess players
he periodically inquires about have broken all contact with
him. As for Justine and his daughter, they appear to be an
inconvenience, a distraction best kept at arm's length.
Once one of the most famous men in the world, Fischer is
now nothing more than a ghost--a shrill, disembodied voice
heard only in faraway countries.
Rene Chun, a New
York-based Journalist, has written for numerous
publications, including The New York Times, Esquire, and
New York magazine.
On the radio
Fischer lulls his audience into a false sense of security
by reminiscing about past chess glories. Then, like
clockwork, he launches into his diatribe. "We might as
well get to the heart of the matter," he said during
his very first broadcast, in 1999. "I am being
persecuted night and day by the Jews!"
Tokyo is now
Fischer's home base. He spends much of his time traveling
around the world, spreading his gospel of hate. During a
recent interview, broadcast from Reykjavik, he encouraged
Iceland to close the local U.S. naval base. "If they
refuse to go," he said, "send them some letters
with anthrax. They'll get the message."
By Rene Chun
Atlantic Monthly, Dec 2002, Vol. 290 Issue 5, p79, 16p