Bobby Fischer checks out

Fri Jan 18, 2008

Chess champ Fischer dies

REYKJAVIK (Reuters) - Bobby Fischer, the eccentric genius who became America’s only world chess champion by humbling the Soviet Union’s best but who spent his last years as a fugitive from U.S. authorities, has died at 64.

A spokesman for Fischer said he died after an unspecified illness at midday on Thursday in Reykjavik, the site of his 1972 victory over Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War.

Once feted as a national hero and seen by some as the greatest chess talent ever, the Chicago-born former child prodigy seemed unable to resist perplexing his public with angry gestures, decade-long sulks and outrageous opinions.

Having won the world title, he gave it away again to the Soviet champion Anatoly Karpov three years later by refusing to defend it.

After years of obscurity, he defied U.S. sanctions to play and beat Spassky again in former Yugoslavia during the Balkan wars.

Of Jewish ancestry himself, he claimed to be the victim of a Jewish conspiracy.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks he said he wanted to see the United States wiped out. He spent months in a Japanese jail cell, and his last years as a wild-haired, shambling recluse after Iceland gave him refuge.

Fischer’s triumph over Spassky ended the dominance of the seemingly invincible Soviet chess system. From the late 1920s to 1972, Soviets had held the world title for all but two years.

Fischer’s style of play was often hyper-aggressive. Unlike many grandmasters, he always strived to win each game rather than settle for a draw – even when he was playing with the black pieces, which are at a disadvantage as white moves first.

He acquired a reputation for relying on pure mathematical logic, calculating as many positions as humanly possible, rather than on intuition.


Spassky, who now lives in Paris, had little to say on Friday about his one-time nemesis. Asked by Reuters for his reaction to the news, he said: “It’s bad luck for you. Bobby Fischer is dead,” then hung up.

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov hailed Fischer as a pioneer of chess. “We have lost a great individual,” Kasparov told reporters in Moscow.

“He was always alone … . but while alone he demonstrated that a human being is capable of reaching new heights.”

Reigning champion Viswanathan Anand called Fischer the ultimate romantic: “He fought the whole system,” he said. “He was someone who could not deal with being a world champion.”

Karpov called him a “a chess giant and a unique personality”.

But he said Fischer had avoided challenging him. “I don’t want to say he was afraid, but he must have been vaguely sensing he could lose. And this thought gnawed him.”

The events that had led the American to spend his final years in the city of his 1972 triumph were typically bizarre.

By the 1990s, he was said to be living under assumed names in cheap hotels in Pasadena on the outskirts of Los Angeles, surviving on occasional royalties from his books.

After victory in the Yugoslav game, which earned him $3 million, he spent years globetrotting, a wanted man in the United States. He resurfaced in public to praise the September 11 attacks in an interview with a Philippine radio station.

In 2004, he was detained in Japan for trying to travel on a revoked U.S. passport. After eight months in detention, during which the United States sought to have him deported, Iceland granted him citizenship in March 2005.

Debate has always raged in chess circles about who was the greatest, but Fischer himself was in no doubt. He once said: “It’s nice to be modest, but it would be stupid if I did not tell the truth. It is Fischer.”


Fischer told interviewers his favorite moment was when opponents began to feel they would lose. “I like to see 'em squirm,” he once said.

He was U.S. junior champion at 13 and U.S. Open champion at 14, retaining the title whenever he chose to defend it.

He became an international grandmaster at 15, gaining the rating at his first international tournament in Yugoslavia. He once defeated 21 grandmasters in succession – no other U.S. player had beaten more than seven in a row.

As Fischer’s fame grew, he became more unpredictable. He walked out of tournaments because of what he considered to be bad lighting or bad air conditioning.

In the mid-1960s, he opted out of two world championship qualifying series because he thought the tournament system favored the Russians. In 1967, when officials would not meet his demands for better conditions, Fischer angrily withdrew from international competition “for a period of introspection”.

He took his collection of chess books to California, where he later said he had “plotted my revenge if I ever came back”.

When the rules were changed in 1972 to include an eight-player eliminator to find the challenger to world champion Spassky, Fischer had the chance to prove he was as good as he always said he was.

A friend of the chess master told Reuters Fischer had been taken to hospital in October last year. Not trusting doctors, he returned home and was looked after by friends until his death.

Einar Einarsson, president of a group that fought to bring Fischer to Iceland from Japan, said Fischer had liked living in Iceland but at times felt trapped because he could not travel.

One commentator said there was one constant through his life – his “running battle with the rest of the human race”.

(Additional reporting from Paris, Moscow and Amsterdam bureaus, and Oskar von Bahr in Stockholm; editing by Andrew Roche)

As a former chess competitor, I’d already seen this, but thought I’d add one thing:

In “Mortal Games,” (1993) by Fred Waitzkin, Garry Kasparov was quoted as saying that Bobby Fischer was the greatest Chess Player of all time. In more recent years, Kasparov’s view of Fischer dropped off somewhat. There has been suggestion (not from Kasparov that I’m aware of) from elite GMs in the last 10 years that Vishy Anand is the most naturally gifted player yet to have lived.

Either way, one of the most brilliant chess minds ever was finally checkmated for the last time.

good riddance.

He was some kind of enigmatic crazy genius, at least in the area of mind games.

And so much of the bitter Cold War era was fought out in shadow play.

He was a huge hero to the US when he knocked out the Russian world champion at that time. He was an iconic American, a role model for eccentricity but also for American ingenuity. He was the rest of the world’s favourite American for quite a while.

But it seems that in the absence of the game of chess to occupy his mind, he went a bit wacko.

You know he arrested and was sent to jail in Japan because the US put him on a “wanted” list, like he was some kind of terrorist for god’s sake, all because he agreed to play a rematch with Spassky in what was then known as Yugoslavia at a time when US citizens were ordered not to do any business with or in that troubled country. That’s a hell of a reason to hunt a guy down - for playing chess! No wonder he got twisted about the US.

But he got bent out of shape about a lot of other stuff too towards the end. He had some hate thing for Jews and turns out he was himself Jewish because both his parents were. I would say the last part of his life was sad and disturbing but to say good riddance is to ignore everything good that he ever achieved.

Odd guy to say the least but remember to take anything said about him AFTER defying the US embargo with a grain of salt. The US Gov’t takes a dim view of defiance and has ways to get even- some you could see.

My guess is that the rise of Magnus Carlsen has changed their views a bit. Remember, Carlsen has been brought up in the Norwegian school of “never take formal training until you are already a pro”. Most everyone else at that level has been properly schooled from a young age.

Death of a madman driven sane by chess

‘What made him a great player also made him an impossible human being’

Stephen Moss
Saturday January 19, 2008
The Guardian

So the king is dead, the game over. Bobby Fischer - perhaps the greatest player in the history of chess, certainly the most charismatic and controversial - has died of kidney failure in his adoptive home, Iceland.
But Fischer the chess genius died more than 30 years ago. He hadn’t played top-level chess since he sensationally beat Boris Spassky in their world championship match in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, in 1972. This was not just the highest profile chess event ever, but the only time the game has made primetime TV. Fischer was always headline news.

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Tragically, after 1972, Fischer became a recluse, rootless, increasingly deranged, popping up occasionally on unlikely radio stations (especially in the Philippines) to rail against the US and the Jews and - the final straw for his compatriots - to applaud the attacks of September 11. “This is all wonderful news,” he declared to a Philippines radio station. America had it coming, he argued, in the high-pitch Brooklyn accent he never lost despite three decades being blown around the world.
The former British chess champion Bill Hartston once said: “Chess doesn’t drive people mad, it keeps mad people sane.” Fischer embodied the truth of his remark. While he was playing chess as a teenage prodigy in Brooklyn, then as a twentysomething single-handedly taking on the might of the Soviet Union, he inhabited a world he understood; the 64 squares were his home, fulfilling and comforting; the rules were comprehensible, the goal easily understood. “Chess is better than sex,” he was once reported to have said.

When Fischer found refuge in Iceland in 2005 - he had been in prison in Japan awaiting extradition to the US - I went to Reykjavik to join the welcoming committee. The Icelanders still revered him; he, after all, had put them on the map.

The naivety, unworldliness and difficulty in coping with the world summed up Fischer. While he had chess and was feted as the west’s great hope of unlocking the Soviet stranglehold, he was OK - a young man in a sharp suit whose brilliance overwhelmed opponents. Without chess, once he had voluntarily abandoned the world title in 1975, he was anchorless and raged against a world, at times coming close to madness.


I witnessed this at first hand on that trip to Iceland. He gave a press conference to a small group of journalists. They were mostly polite Icelanders, asking the great man whether he liked herring, but the US sports channel ESPN had sent along a young journalist called Jeremy Schaap, whose father had been a friend of the up-and-coming Fischer in Brooklyn in the 1950s. When Schaap asked a question and mentioned his father, Fischer, a big, burly man with a buzz-saw voice, suddenly turned. “I hate to rap people personally, but his father many years ago befriended me, took me to see Knicks games, acted kind of like a father figure, and then later, like a typical Jewish snake, he had the most vicious things to say about me.”

The room froze, Fischer pressed on, his mania growing. Suddenly it was nothing but paranoia and the Jewish conspiracy. “It’s all on the internet,” he kept saying. “Why don’t you look it up?” The obsessionalism that had made him a great chess player made him an impossible human being.

Fischer was born in Chicago in 1943 - how appropriate that the master of the 64 squares should die at 64 - to a German father and a mother of Jewish extraction. His parents divorced while he was an infant and his mother, an immensely strong-willed woman and the person who bought him his first chessboard, moved to Brooklyn. The young Bobby buried himself in the game he first learned at six. By 13 he became the youngest player to win the US junior championship. A year later, he was US chess champion, and by the age of 15 he was the youngest person ever to hold the title of grandmaster.

He climbed steadily up the world chess ladder in the 1960s. In 1967 however he dropped out of a tournament halfway through after an argument with the organiser and played little chess for the next two years. He was already exhibiting signs of the paranoia and reclusiveness that would engulf him.

In 1970 he roared back, becoming the number one player in the first ever official Fide ratings and winning 20 games in a row against the best grandmasters in the world. It would be unthinkable today, when three-quarters of grandmaster games end in draws. It shows the supremacy Fischer had established and his sheer will to win. Easy draws were spurned; opponents were ground into the dust. To beat the Soviet machine, he had turned himself into a machine.

Fischer played before the age of the computer. Grandmasters now use computer programs in their opening theory and to analyse games. Fischer had to work it out for himself, plot his own path. Nonetheless, his games have a computer-like clarity: he played deeply logical moves that make sense to the novice, yet overwhelmed his grandmaster opponents. His chess had a glorious certainty that he could never find in life.

It was the 1972 match in Reykjavik that sealed Fischer’s fame. Initially, he didn’t want to play, complaining about everything - the hall, the board, the chairs, the chess pieces, the audience, the cameras, the noise. The match was so important to the US that Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state, phoned Fischer to beg him to play. US honour was at stake against the commies, who had held the chess world title since the second world war. Fischer eventually agreed to play.

He lost the first game to the suave Spassky, who many thought would defeat the eccentric and volatile Fischer, and forfeited the second. Surely, most people thought, it was all over. He only agreed to play the third game if it was away from the gaze of the audience. It was played behind a curtain in a small room at the side of the sports hall in which the event was being held. Fischer triumphed brilliantly, the first game he had ever won against Spassky. He dominated the next few games, establishing a healthy lead, but he seemed to freeze as the finishing post loomed, and Spassky came back. But Fischer held on to win 12.5 to 8.5.

It should have been the beginning of a wonderful reign. In fact, it was the end. Fischer didn’t play in any of the great tournaments after 1972; promoters wanted him to play exhibitions, but he demanded exorbitant fees and they never took place; he even refused numerous lucrative offers to endorse products saying he couldn’t because he didn’t use them.


Then, due to defend his world title against the new Soviet hero, Anatoly Karpov, in 1975, he made even more outrageous demands, wanting an open-ended match in which the winner would have to have won 10 games with draws not counting - a match that potentially could have taken months or even years to complete. Fide tried to accommodate him but negotiations broke down and Fischer forfeited his crown.

Gudmundur Thorarinsson, the organiser of the 1972 match, has a theory. “Fischer was scared of losing,” he told me. “Chess and the world title meant so much to him that he couldn’t bear the prospect of being beaten.” He had come close to perfection, to finding that objective truth, and feared a falling off, a loss of certainty. Chess players rarely get better after their 20s; perhaps he realised the peak had been climbed.

After 1972, Fischer’s wanderings became ever more self-defeating. He moved to the west coast and a spell with a Californian religious cult ensued. The US sued him for unpaid taxes and impounded some of his belongings.

He returned to the board in 1992 to play an exhibition match against his old foe, Spassky, in Yugoslavia. This at the height of the civil war in the Balkans. The US added sanctions-busting to tax evasion. The first game in that 1992 match was reckoned a brilliant one - Fischer, after a 20-year absence, could clearly still play. But, thereafter, he and Spassky played mediocre chess (by grandmaster standards, of course): like two old, flabby boxers trading blows, this was strictly for money (the purse was reputed to amount to $5m).

After this match, he became persona non grata in the US and never returned. He spent much of the 1990s in Budapest, a shambling, bushy-bearded figure spotted from time to time at public baths. He was said to be besotted with a 17-year-old Hungarian chess player; she eventually married someone else.

Then came 2001, when Fischer noisily sided with al-Qaida and the charge sheet was complete. Tax evasion may have been the official reason the US wanted its prodigal son back, but revenge was the true motive. The home-grown monster had to be tamed. He was held in prison in Japan, which claimed his passport was invalid, and there was a strong chance he would have to return to the US to face trial. But Iceland intervened with an offer of instant citizenship and he fled to safety in March 2005, receiving something close to a state welcome.

He was to end his life among friends, worshippers even, but he remained a recluse and wouldn’t touch a chessboard. He had invented his own form of chess, Fischerandom, in which, at the beginning of the game, the pieces are randomly distributed. Conventional chess, he said, was played out - killed by computers and over-analysis. Psychologically, he had to believe that chess died with him, the last, undefeated champion. In a way, perhaps it did.

Great write-up!