Unquestionably the most famous chess player in the history of the royal game, Bobby Fischer died last month at the age of 64 — the exact number of squares on the chessboard. His lively games will be remembered for as long as the game is played.
“Chess is life,” Fischer used to say. But, alas, after he became world champion, his life and his chess diverged. And while his games were beautiful, his life away from the chessboard was often ugly. The chess genius harbored a delusional side whose antisemitic and anti-American rants brought shame on not only the speaker but also the game.
Many of today’s players — from amateurs to grandmasters — call Fischer a factor in their decision to take up the game. His triumphs even inspired some outside the chess realm. Fischer was the first modern chess player to break down the wall of Soviet chess domination. During the Cold War, as the Iron Curtain divided Europe, he became a hero.
“A man without frontiers,” grandmaster Ljubomir Ljubojevic said of Fischer. “He didn’t divide the East and the West, he brought them together in their admiration for him.”
In the 1960s, as he headed toward his 1972 world championship, he demolished some of the best players in the game. His road to the top was brutal; he didn’t allow his opponents the mercy of even a single draw. Never before or since were such defeats handed to world-champion-caliber players.
In 1972, the world waited with bated breath as the young American meteor faced off against reigning world champion Boris Spassky. The drama made headlines around the globe. Though he already had a reputation for eccentricity, Fischer outdid himself. Because some of his conditions weren’t met, he didn’t arrive in Reykjavik, Iceland, for the showdown’s first game. Only after getting a phone call from then secretary of state Henry Kissinger was he persuaded to get on the plane. “This is one of the worst chess players in the world speaking to the best,” Kissinger allegedly said. “America wants you to go over there and beat the Russians.” Fischer lost the first point by forfeit, but two months later, America could celebrate its new champion.
The same year that Bobby became world champion, my elder sister, Susan, then 3 years old, found a chess set. Years later, Susan, my younger sister, Judit, and I led the Hungarian team to victory in the international chess Olympiad. Today, Judit is rated among the top 20 players in the world. When she became a grandmaster at age 15, she broke Fischer’s record as the youngest player to reach the mark. This was especially sweet, as Fischer’s opinion of a woman’s abilities was not terribly high. “They’re like beginners,” he once said. “They lose every single game against a man. There isn’t a woman player in the world I can’t give knight-odds to and still beat.”
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– GM Susan Polgar