In Endgame, Chess Life founding editor Frank Brady explores the brilliant, bizarre life of Bobby Fischer.
Bobby Fischer was the only chess champion the man in the street could name. Why did he captivate us?
He’s a rags-to-riches story. He was an impoverished Brooklyn high school dropout who seemed totally uncultured; how could he play such an intellectually demanding game? And he was David against the Soviet Union’s Goliath. Chess was the Soviet game; America’s game was baseball. He beat them at their game, and became a cold war hero.
He believed the Soviets were conspiring against him. Any truth to that?
Well, even paranoids have enemies. They did have a secret laboratory with psychologists and grandmasters studying Bobby. He thought they were plotting to assassinate him, but we can’t prove that.
Fischer threw epic tantrums at his 1972 championship match with Boris Spassky—over lighting, chess sets, orange juice, audience noise. Were his antics a ploy?
I don’t think so. Bobby looked upon chess as a great art. When he played, he was like Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall. He wanted silence, respect, proper lighting; he didn’t want people with candy wrappers in the audience.
In later years his behavior was grotesque and hateful. Although he was Jewish, he became a raving anti-Semite and called for mass killings of American Jews. What brought that on?
The New York chess community was highly Jewish during his early career, and he felt that he was not getting enough respect. So he made this illogical jump, “I don’t like Jews because the Jews control the money in chess, and I’m not getting any.” It was irrational. Then he stumbled upon The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the famous anti-Semitic tract, and bought it as nonfiction.
You knew Fischer in his salad days. What were your impressions?
I had dinners with him, and if there was a lull in the conversation he’d pull out his pocket chess set. He’d be eating and analyzing games. I saw him do it in the street as he was walking; he’d pull out his chess set and start moving the pieces. I liked him. I found him interesting and generous. When I was broke, he said, “Can I lend you some money?”—my brother didn’t even do that.
What do chess aficionados see in Fischer?
I played him many times; I call him the Mozart of chess. His chess was crystalline, perfect—not murky or hidden, like some players, where suddenly they spring a trap. You could see what he was doing, but you couldn’t resist it, it was so powerful.
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– GM Susan Polgar