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The curious life of Bobby Fischer

By R&H reader Mr Swellmons

Posted May 26, 2014
bobby fischer
Before the beard: Bobby Fischer as a youngster. (Check bottom for credit)

R&H reader Mr Swellmons of the West Midlands recounts the colourful story of Bobby Fischer, chess genius and fruitloop.

During those long, lucubracious demi-days here in drizzling England, amid the mourning hours between 11pm when the pubs die and 11am when they are born again, a man can get to thinking.

And, if certain conditions prevail, conditions that may be clinical, a man can get to thinking about what it is for a man to think.

At moments like these the best thing to do is to watch YouTube and try not to think at all, until such time as one can wander back into the pub, order a fine draught of ale and let the alcohol career its way across the beer/brain barrier like a drunken teenage car thief.

Sweet obliteration.

A pint of, please.

One man to whom this sage advice seems to have gone unproffered or unheeded was one-time world chess champion Bobby Fischer.

I'm going to tell you a little about him, oh reader, so that you may profit from his misfortune by learning from his mistakes.

Bobby Fischer was born and raised in Brooklyn in the 1950s.

His mother was a Jewish communist and peace activist.

His father?

Well, Bobby never really knew his father because he and Bobby's mother had split when Bobby was born.

At six years old Fischer taught himself chess and began studying voraciously.

He was focused, meticulous, obsessed with the game to the point of social isolation.

His mother took him to a psychiatrist after she worried about the fact that he would spend hour after hour playing chess against himself.

By the age of 15 he had become the US chess champion, completely off his own back.

Friends described him as a genius.

They also described him as aloof, conceited, arrogant and difficult to be around.

bobby in action
East German action: Bobby Fischer in Leipzig in 1960 yesterday. (Check bottom for credit)

In 1972, during the height of the Cold War, he was pitted against the reigning world chess champion – the Russian, Boris Spassky – in a match that became a front in the ongoing ideological battle between the communist East and the Western free world.

Fischer's behaviour in the weeks leading up to the bout became increasingly odd.

At first he refused to play in the host nation of Iceland, saying the country was too small and technologically ill equipped to handle an event as huge as his battle with Spassky.

Then he demanded that the prize money be doubled.

Finally, as the start of the game drew nearer, Fischer disappeared completely, sending the world's media and the governments of the two opposing countries into a panic as they tried desperately to locate him.

He finally resurfaced four days after the tournament had been due to begin, flew to Iceland and still entered the first game late, nearly half an hour after Spassky had made his first move.

The game was heading for a draw but Fischer then made a clumsy and amateurish error, allowing Spassky to win the first game of the scheduled 24.

Bobby then complained that the noise of the television cameras was ruining his concentration and demanded that the next game be played in a store cupboard at the rear of the hall, despite the fact that royalty, government ambassadors and the world media were all present to try and watch the game.

He lost the second game also.

After the third game, Spassky claimed the American government had irradiated his chair, causing him to feel nauseous.

Then things turned around and Fischer began to win, forcing Spassky to resign the title after 21 games.

Fischer not only became the world champion, but, owing to the prestige of the achievement over the Russians, he also became one of the most famous people in the world, appearing on chat shows, in magazines and TV advertisements.

Unable to handle the pressure, though, he became a recluse, living in hotel rooms which he claimed were bugged, absorbing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and 'discovering' an elite Jewish plot to rule the world.

He believed he was being sent mind-controlling signals through the fillings in his teeth and became a virulent antisemite, despite the fact that both his mother and father were Jewish.

He then disappeared for about 15 years and popped up again in 1990 to attend a rematch against his old rival Spassky in war-torn Yugoslavia – a country which had a trade embargo placed on it by the US and the UN.

Whilst attending a pre-match press conference, Fischer, now heavy set and bearded, produced a letter from the US government which told him that if he played the contest in Yugoslavia he would be committing a criminal offence and be arrested.

Fischer then spat on the letter, played Spassky and again won the tournament.

Exiled from America, Fischer moved to the Far East and little was heard from him until September 11, 2001.

On this day he called in to a Japanese radio station, laughing as the twin towers were dropping and telling the DJ that America was finally getting what was coming to it.

George W Bush demanded an intervention and Fischer was arrested and held in gaol in Tokyo until he was bailed out by the Icelandic bodyguard who had been employed to look after him during the world championship 30 years earlier.

The Icelandic government then offered Fischer citizenship and sanctuary, defying the will of America and Japan, and prepared to welcome him as a returning hero.

When Fischer touched down in Reykjavík to an ambassadorial reception, he emerged from the plane beneath a baseball cap and foot-long beard, ranting that the world championship in 1972 had been a set up job by the CIA and that he would tell everyone about it later.

After three years living in Iceland and isolating himself from everyone with his antisemitism and violently vocal tirades, he became ill and after refusing treatment died on January 17, 2008.

Most leading chess players consider him the greatest player that has ever lived.

bobby's grave
It comes to us all: Bobby Fischer's grave in Selfoss, Iceland. (Check bottom for credit)

Dear Bobby Fischer, I know you can't hear me, but dude, if only you'd learnt to chill.

They say you were mesmeric and could reduce grandmasters to a crumpled, sweating mess by instilling within them something commentators described as 'Fischer-fear.'

But as any seasoned boozehound can tell you – fight the fear, be the beer.

Ah beer, chariot ride to the golden glade of Pan...

Paregoric panacea...

Where was I?

Oh yes, Bobby Fischer.

Well, Bobby, if you'd have popped out for a beer or three with me I could have set you straight on a few things and hopefully we'd have had a right old craic.

But despite your obvious talent for chess you died a nutty old man beneath a beard of paranoia.

I wish there was a moral for this sad story but as I believe there are no moral facts whatsoever I will leave it up to you, oh reader, to make of it what you will.


The pub's open.

Wanna know more? Then why not watch the following vid, embedded here on the Rake & Herald from ChessLibrary's YouTube channel?

See also Under the Skin, posted 3/4/14.

Mr Swellmons
lives in the West Midlands. His hobbies include beer.

Picture credits

Top and thumb: Bobby Fischer by Collinskids1912.

Middle: Bobby Fischer in action in Leipzig in 1960 from the Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-76052-0335 / Kohls, Ulrich / CC-BY-SA.

Bottom: Bobby Fischer's grave in Selfoss, Iceland by Ted Cross.

For licensing information click the above links.

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