Tom Fleming

Above the Rank and File

Endgame: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Bobby Fischer

By

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BOBBY FISCHER STRUGGLED to find peace, even in death. In July 2010, a group of officials visited his grave in Laugardaelir, a small country cemetery in rural Iceland. They were collecting DNA for use as evidence in the ongoing battle between the claimants to Fischer’s estate, worth more than $2 million; one of them, Jinky Young, was his alleged daughter. The only way to solve the dispute was to exhume the body. A team from the Reykjavik Official Cemeteries Department opened the coffin and extracted from Fischer’s corpse a fragment of bone from one of his toes. Such a violation would have been abhorrent regardless of who was concerned, but in the case of Fischer, a notoriously reclusive, close-fisted man, it marked a pitiful coda to his life. Even here, in a graveyard he had chosen for its remoteness and tranquillity, he was not to be left alone. Somebody always wanted something from him.

Reading Frank Brady’s new biography of him, it is not always easy to feel sorry for Fischer. Most people’s enduring memory of him in his later years will be his rant about 9/11 on a Philippines radio station: ‘Fuck the United States! Fuck the Jews … They’re murderous, criminal, thieving, lying bastards … This is a wonderful day … Cry, you crybabies! Whine, you bastards! Now your time is coming.’ Yet Fischer himself was of Jewish descent. ‘Paradoxes abound,’ as Brady writes in his foreword. Brady once counted Fischer a friend. As with many of Fischer’s friendships, they fell out, though Brady does not say why. His book, he writes, is an attempt to answer the question most often asked of him: ‘What was Bobby Fischer really like?’

Fischer was born in Chicago in 1943 to a Jewish mother who was homeless at the time; she and the man listed as Bobby’s father on the birth certificate had separated several years previously. He discovered chess at the age of six. Although he was undeniably talented, it’s clear he owed his success as much to his competitive, obsessive nature as to innate genius. ‘No matter what he played,’ said a former teacher, ‘he had to come out ahead of everybody. If he’d been born next to a swimming pool he would have been a swimming champion.’ At the age of thirteen he beat Donald Byrne, then twenty-five and one of the strongest players in the country, with a startling queen sacrifice. From then on his rise was unstoppable. He became the youngest ever US champion at the age of fourteen (a record that still stands), and a grandmaster at fifteen. In 1972 he overcame his own intransigence about money and playing conditions to claim the world title, in a match against Boris Spassky in Iceland that brought chess to global notice for the first time. The match was of such significance, at the height of the Cold War, that Henry Kissinger telephoned Bobby to gee him on (‘This is the worst chess player in the world calling the best chess player in the world’, began Kissinger).

After 1972 he virtually retired from the game, refusing to defend his title in 1975 because his match conditions weren’t met. The intrusions of the press, now that he was a global celebrity, had become insufferable, and he withdrew from the public eye. He might also have feared assassination, although Brady finds no evidence for the much-repeated story that the reason Fischer had his fillings removed was so that the Soviets couldn’t send harmful radio signals to his brain.

He ceased being able to function normally among other people. He lived as a recluse in a tiny basement flat in Los Angeles for twenty years, becoming so dishevelled that he was arrested in 1981 by policemen who mistook him for a criminal. His greed became absurd: he wanted huge fees merely for discussing the possibility of an interview. At the same time, he rejected lucrative offers to play because he didn’t like to think that he was being exploited: ‘Nobody is going to make a nickel off of me!’ he said. He nourished his paranoia until it transformed into bilious anti-Semitism. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a favourite read. He was spotted some time in the late 1970s, bearded and scruffy, handing out anti-Semitic pamphlets in a car park.

‘Chess doesn’t drive people mad, it keeps mad people sane,’ remarked the British chess champion Bill Hartston, who is often cited with regard to Fischer. Yet it was not for a lack of chess that Bobby lost the plot. He continued to play out positions from the latest games by himself. Brady describes him hissing and screaming into the night – ‘Absurd!’, ‘It’s the knight!’, ‘Always the rook on that rank!’ – so loudly that his neighbours complained. He became interested in playing only Fischer Random, his own invention. In this, the main pieces would be assembled behind the line of pawns as usual, but in random formation: he wanted – reasonably enough – to increase the levels of natural skill in the game by diminishing the role of well rehearsed openings.

He didn’t play again competitively, however, until 1992, when $5 million was offered for a rematch against Spassky. He needed the money. The match was to take place in Yugoslavia, then under sanctions, and Fischer received a letter from the US government warning him that playing there for money would constitute a criminal offence. His response was to hold the letter up at a press conference before the match and spit on it.

Subsequently barred from returning to the US, he spent the rest of his life moving from country to country: Hungary, the Philippines, Japan, and finally Iceland. He retained a certain mystique. In early 2001 Nigel Short, the British grandmaster, played a number of three-minute blitz games online with an anonymous stranger who he was certain was Bobby Fischer. His opponent began each game with a series of absurd moves (eg moving all his pawns forward one square) but then pulled it back to crush Short every time. Fischer denied any involvement, but the story gained worldwide attention.

It was probably his comments about 9/11 that incited the US government to revoke his passport in 2003. He was arrested at a Japanese airport in July 2004 and spent nine months in prison before the Icelandic government decided to grant him citizenship and thus asylum. He settled in Reykjavik, spending his days in the corner of a bookshop, and died in 2008 from renal failure. ‘Nothing soothes as much as the human touch,’ he said to a friend while he lay in hospital.

Sometimes we are left wondering why anyone would remain a friend to this man at all. Many didn’t. He was often ungrateful to those who helped him out, including people in Iceland who campaigned on his behalf. Brady says that Fischer was ‘generous, yet parsimonious … cruel, yet kind’, yet evidence for the better of those qualities is rare. Brady frequently describes Bobby as charismatic, but it does not shine through in his portrait of him.

Brady’s style is avowedly novelistic (‘He pondered in the darkness, incredulous that a supposedly revoked passport had turned him into a prisoner’). It works. He is a superb storyteller, sweeping the reader along so assuredly that the fact he is taking minor liberties with atmosphere and detail is forgotten – appreciated, even. He makes the world of chess in the Sixties and Seventies accessible and interesting, although the lack of any printed positions, presumably for the sake of the narrative, is frustrating. I would have liked evidence of Fischer’s majesty on the board. Ultimately it was the only place he ever found any peace.

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