Bobby Fischer, the great pride of American chess and a poster child for paranoia, died yesterday of kidney failure in Reykjavik, Iceland. He was 64.
Fischer was a Cold War hero, and an international celebrity, when he became the world chess champion in 1972 by beating Boris Spassky and ending the Soviet domination of chess. He was the only American player in my lifetime to be a household name. I was in high school in 1972, and I watched his match with Spassky on public television along with millions of others. I remember two girls I knew who were glued to the televised coverage day after day, even though they didn’t know how a bishop or knight moved. They were fascinated by two grown men huddled over little figurines for hours in a grand cerebral battle.
Fischer’s moody behavior added high drama. He complained about the playing conditions—the presence of TV cameras, the height of his chair, noise from the audience—and for awhile it wasn’t clear that he was going to play at all. Henry Kissinger had to get involved and urge him to show up at the chessboard and fight on behalf of his country.
Fischer was once asked in a television interview what his interests were besides chess. “What else is there?” he innocently replied. And yet he dropped out of chess and the public eye soon after beating Spassky. He lost the world title in 1975 when he refused to defend it in a match. He joined a fundamentalist religious sect in California and had various run-ins with the law. Fischer, whose mother was Jewish, believed there was a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to destroy him. He reportedly had the fillings in his teeth removed because he feared that they were antennas receiving radio messages beamed by his enemies. The chess world waited for him to return, or at least to publish his favorite games, but all they got was a candycane-colored booklet called I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse, an incoherent diatribe about his brief incarceration after being mistakenly arrested for a bank robber.
In 1992, Fischer was back in the spotlight, playing a $3-million rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia, in violation of the State Department’s ban on American’s conducting commerce there. The games showed little of his earlier brilliance. Fat and slovenly, Fischer himself was also unrecognizable. The Cold War hero now spat on a letter from the State Department that protested his play and he uttered a bunch of obscenities. Again he vanished, only to emerge occasionally as a call-in guest on talk radio venting about Jews. He praised 9/11 because of the number of Jews who were killed in the World Trade Center.
In July 2004, Fischer was arrested by Japanese immigration agents in Tokyo’s Narita airport on the grounds of being illegally in the country with a revoked U.S. passport. Washington pressed for his extradition but Fischer was one move ahead of the American authorities and persuaded the Icelandic parliament, which fondly remembered the attention he brought to Reykjavik in 1972, to grant him Icelandic citizenship and a passport. After nine months in a Japanese detention center, Fischer boarded a plane to Reykjavik with his new fiancée, the head of the Japanese Chess Association, and went into hiding yet again.