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The self-destructive chess champion

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The late Bobby Fischer, perhaps the most brilliant champion in the annals of chess, was a deeply troubled soul brimming with contradictory impulses. He was secretive, yet candid, cruel, yet kind, naïve, yet well informed and serious, yet outrageous. But after all the adjectives were stripped away, he was a larger-than-life, self-destructive personality.

This is the confounding man whom Frank Brady profiles in his finely balanced biography, End Game: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (Crown Publishers).

Brady knows his subject like few other writers, having met Fischer when he was a child prodigy and having followed his career from day one. He uses his expertise, along with Fischer family archives and Fischer’s own e-mails, to burrow deeply into this maddening personality.

Born in Chicago in 1943, Fischer was raised by his single mother, Regina, who was homeless when she gave birth to her son and held a series of menial jobs, from stenographer to welder, before becoming a physician. Hans Gerhard Fischer, a Jewish German biophysicist to whom she was briefly married, is listed as his father on Fischer’s birth certificate. But Brady speculates that Paul Nemenyi, a Jewish Hungarian physicist, may have been his biological father.

Fischer’s older sibling, Joan, introduced him to the game when she bought him a plastic chess set for $1 in 1949. A shy, latchkey child whose mother was often away from home and who required diversions to stave off loneliness, he quickly took to chess and was a gifted player from the outset.

Although he was an erratic student, he was highly intelligent, having scored 180 on his IQ test. Fischer’s brilliance in chess endeared him to a succession of mentors, including a teacher who treated him like a son and neo-Nazi who picked up his tournament entry fees.

By the age of 13, he was one of the strongest young players in the United States, having captured the U.S. junior championship and beaten a grandmaster. By 14, he had defeated Bent Larsen, one of the game’s greats, and become the youngest ever international grandmaster. At 19, he held Mikhail Botvinnik, the world champion, to a draw. While still a teenager, Fischer achieved what no else had ever accomplished. He won 19 straight games against the world’s strongest players.

Brady describes Fischer’s style as “lucid, crystal-clear, economical, concrete and rational.”

Chess obsessed Fischer, so much so that he apparently liked it more than sex. And the more fame he achieved, the more unpleasant he was, says Brady.

Arrogant and regal, he severed a relationship when a person disagreed with him, and showed disrespect toward weak players.

In 1972, Fischer was ready to challenge Boris Spassky, the world champion from the Soviet Union, for the title. He would be the first non-Russian in three decades to contest it.

The Fischer-Spassky match, which unfolded in Iceland, was regarded as a geopolitical drama, an extension of the Cold War, by the media in the United States and the Soviet Union. Fischer, an anti-communist, agreed with the appraisal. “I now feel a sense of mission to win the championship,” he said.

After 20 games, Fischer was in the lead by a three-game margin. All he needed in the remaining four games was one victory or two draws. Spassky, realizing he was doomed, resigned by telephone, and Fischer was crowned the new champion.

When he was offered a $5 million purse to defend his title against Soviet challenger Anatoly Karpov, he set down 132 conditions. Exasperated by his unreasonable demands, the World Chess Federation stripped Fischer of his title.

By then, Fischer – who had never been circumcised, but had attended a Jewish kindergarten in Brooklyn – was a self-hating Jew, an antisemite.

Brady suggests that his antisemitism may have been rooted in his distaste for his mother’s Jewish friends, his antagonism toward officials of the American Chess Foundation, most of whom were Jewish, and his friendship with a neo-Nazi mentor.

According to Brady, Fischer was psychologically ready for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious Russian tract, when he spotted a copy in a Los Angeles used bookstore. “I carefully studied the Protocols,” Fischer said. “I think anyone who casually dismisses them as a forgery… is either kidding themselves, is ignorant of them or else may be a hypocrite!”

With a certitude bordering on foolishness, Fischer claimed that communism was basically “a mask for Judaism.”

Although he denied being anti-Jewish, Fischer, sadly and pathetically, was a raving antisemite. On a broadcast in Budapest in 1999, he declared, “As Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, the Jews are not the victims, they are the victimizers!”

Due to his antisemitic comments, he was convinced that either the Mossad or an Israeli nationalist might assassinate him.

One of Fischer’s friends, a Jewish chess player, said that he used the word “Jew” as a general pejorative.

After Fischer was stripped of his title, he withdrew into himself, although he continued to study the game. In what Brady describes as his “wilderness years,” Fischer lived in Los Angeles’ skid row, taking rooms in flophouses. Looking physically dishevelled, like a down-and-outer, he developed a paunch and rarely had his hair or beard cut professionally.

During this period, he rejected a request by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for an interview, demanding $5,000 just to discuss the notion.

Emerging from retirement in 1992, he agreed to play Spassky in Serbia for a $5 million purse, knowing Serbia had been subject to U.S. sanctions. He won the match, collecting $3.6 million in prize money, but the United States issued an indictment for his arrest.

Fearing imprisonment, he became an exile, living in Serbia, Hungary, Switzerland, Japan and the Philippines. In 2004, he was arrested in Tokyo and spent the next nine months in a prison cell.

After renouncing his U.S. citizenship, Fischer asked for asylum in Iceland. Out of a sense of obligation, Iceland granted him citizenship in 2005. Iceland was grateful that Fischer had agreed to play for the chess championship in Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital.

Fischer soon grew tired of Iceland, grumbling about the country and its people. Fischer’s disillusionment with Iceland was so fixed that he came to refer to it as a “God-forsaken country.”

He died of a kidney ailment at 64 in the winter of 2008, refusing dialysis. Some believed his refusal was a form of suicide.

“Like the number of squares on a chessboard – an irony that nevertheless cannot be pressed too far – he was 64,” writes Brady in a final dig.

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