Bobby Fischer was a chess phenomenon who squandered his talent. But we should remember the talent
Without Bobby Fischer this column would not exist. The American’s one-man challenge to the Soviet domination of chess during the Cold War brought the game into the mainstream of public discourse — and I was one of the hundreds of thousands of youngsters who were then captivated by studying Fischer’s games, marvelling at their sublime combination of force and elegance.
Like music, painting and poetry, chess has an aesthetic appeal to the human mind, which, once discovered, is never lost. The ex-world chess champion, Mikhail Botvinnik, described chess as “an art which illustrates the beauty of logic”; but it is also a sporting contest. This combination of combat and intellect makes it even more of an addiction than art alone could induce.
Those of us who became hooked on chess as a result of Bobby Fischer’s exploits in the early 1970s have also retained a fascination for the Fischer legend: in particular, what made him the person he was, and why did he self-destruct at the height of his powers?
Naturally, these questions are of particular potency in the US. When he won the World Chess Championship by beating Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972, Bobby Fischer briefly became the most famous man in America, with more popular recognition than film stars and presidents-and then he just disappeared.
Now, two Americans have produced separate attempts to solve the mystery of Bobby Fischer. Frank Brady, who knew the chess genius well from the days when he was a child prodigy, has just published his third and most revelatory biography of Fischer: Endgame (Constable, £20); and the film-maker Liz Garbus has come up with Bobby Fischer Against The World, which is released in the UK on July 15.
As one would expect, a 388-page book contains vastly more information than could be packed into a one-and-a-half hour documentary. This is especially true in Fischer’s case, as he was notoriously camera-shy even before his later years of reclusive flight. So there are some eerily evocative glimpses of Fischer in Brady’s book which could never be captured by film. None more so than one of the passages in which Brady described Fischer’s hermit years in a cheap rented apartment in South Pasadena: the undefeated world champion “far into the night would play over the latest games by himself — from tournaments in places ranging from England to Latvia to Yugoslavia to Bulgaria — and he’d hiss and scream as he followed the moves. So loudly did he exclaim ‘Yes!’, ‘Absurd!’, or ‘Always the rook on that rank!’, that his pronouncements could be heard on the quiet lane where he lived. These outbursts startled the infrequent passers-by and sometimes produced complaints from neighbours.”
It was not only chess moves that Fischer would be shouting out, to his neighbours’ discomfiture. Although Jewish by birth, Fischer had become an obsessive anti-Semite and would spend many hours posting extracts from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and similarly toxic tracts underneath the wipers of cars in downtown Pasadena. Such extreme and compulsive Judaeophobia is itself a kind of mental condition bordering on paranoia; while Brady speculates as to the original trigger of the ex-world champion’s proselytising anti-Semitism, detailing various cases where Fischer had seen himself as the victim of financial deals by businessmen who happened to be Jews, it seems more likely that Fischer had an inherent paranoid tendency, and was therefore highly susceptible to a pseudo-political theory whereby the whole planet was being manipulated by a secret conspiracy.
Garbus’s compelling documentary captures the sheer nastiness of Fischer’s tirades in a way no book could accomplish; not just in replaying the radio recording in which he gloats over the 9/11 attacks as a just reprisal against “America and the Jews”, but also in footage of Fischer confronting a New York Times reporter in 1992, when he briefly returned to chess to play a rematch against a past-it Boris Spassky in war-torn Serbia. To an innocuous query by the reporter Jeremy Schaap, Fischer suddenly recalls that Schaap’s father had long ago written a piece saying that “[Bobby Fischer] does not have a sane bone in his body”, and denounces him as “a typical Jew snake”. At this point, Schaap, who had, along with the rest of the journalists present, already endured a stream of anti-Semitic ramblings from Fischer, devastatingly retorts: “Bobby, you’ve done nothing today to disprove anything my father said about you.”
Bizarre and offensive as Fischer eventually became, the truth is that he had always been brutally insensitive and supremely selfish as he worked his way to the chess pinnacle — and we chess addicts forgave him all that, as a tiny thing to set against the pleasure he gave us with the artistry of his games. What we couldn’t forgive was the fact that he stopped playing; that he became a monstrous waste of a unique talent.
It is in that context that this, the first game of his rematch against Spassky in 1992, should be seen. It was played 20 years and a day after the last time anyone had seen Fischer lift a chess piece; its flawless, flowing harmony reminded us of the genius he had desecrated and denied. 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Nb8 10.d4 Nbd7 11.Nbd2 Bb7 12.Bc2 Re8 13.Nf1 Bf8 14.Ng3 g6 15.Bg5 h6 16.Bd2 Bg7 17.a4 c5 18.d5 c4 19.b4 Nh7 20.Be3 h5 21.Qd2 Rf8 22.Ra3 Ndf6 23.Rea1 Qd7 24.R1a2 Rfc8 25.Qc1 Bf8 26.Qa1 Qe8 27.Nf1! (with the remarkable idea of manoeuvring the knight to a3, after exchanging all the major pieces on the a-file, and then winning Black’s b-pawn) Be7 28.N1d2 Kg7 29.Nb1 Nxe4! (a sacrifice to cut across Fischer’s awesomely methodical plan) 30.Bxe4 f5 31.Bc2 Bxd5 32.axb5 axb5 33.Ra7 Kf6 34.Nbd2 Rxa7 35.Rxa7 Ra8 36.g4!! (an inspired disruption of Black’s pawn mass) hxg4 37.hxg4 Rxa7 38.Qxa7 f4 39.Bxf4! (the true point of Fischer’s brilliant 36th move) exf4 40. Nh4! Bf7 41.Qd4+ Ke6 42.Nf5! Bf8 43.Qxf4 Kd7 44.Nd4 Qe1+ 45.Kg2 Bd5+ 46.Be4 Bxe4+ 47.Nxe4 Be7 48.Nxb5 Nf8 49.Nbxd6 Ne6 50.Qe5 and Spassky resigned.