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Bobby Fischer, Cold War Chess Hero: His Rise And Eccentric Fall

Culture | June 28, 2019

Left: Bobby Fischer in an undated photo. Right: Fischer poses for a portrait in the photographer's home in 1971 in New York City, New York. Credits: IMDB; David Attie/Getty Images

There’s no sports story quite like the rise and fall of Bobby Fischer. This eccentric chess genius went from a national champion to having the weight of the United States on his shoulders, facing off against the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. He spent decades honing his craft in order to defeat Russian master Boris Spassky and that country's well-oiled chess dynasty in 1972. His World Championship win ended the 30-year reign of the USSR in the world of chess, but life wasn’t a bed of roses for Fischer afterward.

Following his win in ’72 Fischer became a recluse and dropped out of official play. When he popped up on the chess scene again in 1992 it was as a contestant and a fugitive. Fischer was strange, but in 1972 he was America’s Cold War hope. 

Bobby Fischer Was Introduced To Chess As A Child

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Born in Chicago, Illinois on March 9, 1943, to a single mother, Bobby Fischer was almost destined to be a genius. His mother was a whip-smart woman who worked as a nurse, and while the identity of his father is disputed, both of the men he’s believed to be related to are legitimate geniusesIt was initially believed that his father was Nobel Prize winner Hermann Joseph Muller, although it’s been surmised that his father was actually Paul Nemenyi, a Hungarian mathematician and physicist.

Neither of the men who were considered to be his father was around when he was born, leaving his mother to fend for herself. She was homeless at the time of Fischer’s birth and had to travel from job to job to support Fischer and his sister. 

To keep her children busy, Fischer’s mother introduced them to chess. Soon, his sister tired of the game but Fischer continued to play against himself. His mother worried that he was spending too much time alone and sought out like-minded people for the boy to play with. 

New York's Chess Clubs Turned Fischer Into A Different Kind Of Player

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Playing chess alone in a bedroom is one thing, playing against different people with different styles is an entirely different animal. When Fischer started playing at the Brooklyn Chess Club in the early 1950s he wasn’t the brilliant player who won championships, but he was strong and smart enough to learn from his mistakes.

In 1956 Fischer started playing at the Hawthorne Chess Club where he was mentored by John "Jack" W. Collins. Hawthorne was a place where children learned to play the game, but it’s where Fischer sharpened his skills and prepared to play on a national level. 

He Spent More Than A Decade Winning Championships Prior To Becoming World Champion

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Fischer was 14 years old when he won his first U.S. championship, the beginning of an eight-year run on top of the national rankings. Two years after his first win he dropped out of school and focused everything on chess.

Throughout the 1960s he continued to rack up championships as he retired and then returned to the world of chess, again and again, each time with varying degrees of success. After dropping out of official play in 1964 by turning down a spot on the US Olympic team, he waited two years to return to the game. When he took up the sport again it was at the Piatigorsky Cup in Santa Monica, California where he came in second to Boris Spassky. This was the last tournament game that Fischer would ever lose.  

Fischer’s Biggest Win Was A Sign Of America’s Cold War Dominance

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In 1970 and 1971, Fischer "dominated his contemporaries to an extent never seen before or since.” He was so lauded in the community that other talented chess players gave up their places in line for the World Championship after Fischer refused to take part in the US Interzonal game. 

Fischer traveled to the USSR where he took part in multiple tournaments, one of them a special USSR vs. The Rest of the World match, but his crowning achievement was the way he dispatched champions from around the world one after another on his way to the World Championship win.

By 1972 Fischer earned a Life magazine cover, and only had one player left to defeat, World Champion Boris Spassky. The match took place in Reykjavík from July to September 1972, during which time Fischer’s idiosyncrasies began attracting attention. He almost forfeited a game when he demanded that it be played in a back room away from television cameras, and he spent his downtime swimming at night in his hotel pool and playing endless games of tennis.

After a shaky start, Fischer won the match against Spassky 12½–8½ to become the 11th World Chess Champion. The win was seen as a Cold War triumph of America over the Russian Empire, which was strange even then because of the United States' lack of chess culture. Fischer's sister noted:

Bobby did all this in a country almost totally without a chess culture. It was as if an Eskimo had cleared a tennis court in the snow and gone on to win the world championship.

Fischer Ceded His World Champion Status In The Mid '70s

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In 1975, Fischer was set to defend his World Champion title against Anatoly Karpov, but when the FIDE (the World Chess Federation) failed to meet the standards of the mercurial genius he forfeited the game. He wanted to enact a specific set of rules that would crown a real champion - he didn’t want any draws and thought that the champion should have to win 10 games, a feat of stamina for a player of any level.

The FIDE didn’t want to put up with Fischer’s demands so they simply stripped him of his title and gave it to Karpov, a guy who played by the rules. There’s no way to know what would have happened in this tournament, but it probably would have been fascinating to see. 

From Chess Genius To Recluse

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After forfeiting his title as World Champion Fischer became a recluse. He quit competitive chess and did his best to get off the grid. He moved to the Los Angeles area sometime in the early ‘80s where he adopted extreme far-right beliefs while tithing much of his money to the Worldwide Church of God. Former colleague Ron Gross told the Sun Sentinel

He was afraid people were following him or trying to assassinate him. You'd have to drop him off someplace in the middle of the night or pick him up as he jumps out from a bush. But the hardest thing is listening to his proselytizing.

The next time Fischer appeared in the public eye it was in a 1992 unofficial rematch with Spassky. The contest was held in Yugoslavia, which was under a United Nations embargo at the time, which made Fischer in breach of federal law. The U.S. government issued a warrant for his arrest and Fischer went on the lam. 

Fischer Spent The Rest Of His Life In Exile

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The final years of Fischer’s life were strange, to say the least. The former chess grand champion was now relegated to the life of an international criminal. He spent time in the Philippines and other countries in Asia, but after Fischer denounced the United States in 2003, the country of his birth revoked his passport. A year later he was arrested at Tokyo airport and detained for eight months.

After that, Fischer lived his life as an émigré. In 2004, he was arrested in Japan and held for several months for using a passport that had been revoked by the US government. He married the president of the Japanese chess federation, Miyoko Water, and was eventually granted an Icelandic passport and citizenship by a special act of the Icelandic Althing, allowing him to live in Iceland until his death in 2008 at the age of 64. 

Modern Chess Players See Fischer’s Fire In Magnus Carlsen

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Even though he tarnished his own reputation, Fischer is still held up as arguably the greatest chess player of all time. Anyone who enters the world of chess on a national level has to be prepared for comparisons to the former genius.

Norwegian chess champion Magnus Carlsen became the world’s youngest grandmaster at the age of 13, and rather than attempt to shake off comparisons to Fischer he welcomes them, and he’s even said that he wishes he could have played the former grand champion. When asked which player in history he’d like to face Carlsen didn’t hesitate. He answered

Probably Bobby Fischer at his best. Because the precision and energy that he played with is just unmatched in the history of chess. So Bobby Fischer from 1970 to 1972.

Tags: Bobby Fischer | Chess | What Did He Do?...

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.