Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Dynasty: The brilliance of Bobby Fischer
Presented to the Club November 24, 2008 by David T. Noyes
I would like to dedicate this paper to Roger Linscott. When I became a member of this club 23 years ago, I was told he was a curmudgeon (perhaps, if one is a Pulitzer Prize winner, one is entitled to be a curmudgeon.) and that he once offered the comment that a certain paper was not worthy of the Monday Evening Club. I lived in mortal dread that he might say the same thing about one of my papers. Consequently, I tried my best to be sure he would not make such a comment about one of my efforts. So, Roger, here’s to you.
If one looks up the word Dynasty on Google, the first three “hits” refer to the television show of that name. It was a prime time soap opera that ran for nine years in the 1980’s, starring George Peppard, John Forsyth and Joan Collins with guest appearances by Gerald and Betty Ford as well as Henry Kissinger. (It’s interesting that we no longer start papers by using a dictionary definition, but rather by describing what is found on Google). As for dynasty regarding television, probably nothing competes with the 50 year reign of The Price is Right. But I’m sure to Dick Nunley’s relief, television is not the topic of this endeavor.
In the governmental realm, we could talk about the Chinese Ming Dynasty or the Egyptian Pharoah Dynasties. Or if we wanted to expand the definition to include a dimension of breadth along with length we could talk about Empire, as in: “the sun never sets on the British Empire.”
In the business world we might associate dynasty with monopoly (think Microsoft), or just hugeness of scale (think Exxon-Mobile). And as with government dynasties there have been some failures here as well (think U.S. Steel or Polaroid). With the rise of the Euro, we may also be nearing the end of the economic reign of the U.S. Dollar.
In the sports realm, we could discuss Al Oerter’s four consecutive Olympic gold medals in the Discuss throw. Or Bob Beamon’s shattering of the world record in the long jump by almost 2 feet at a time when records were broken in fractions of an inch—40 years later his jump is still the Olympic Record. Of course Boston Celtic fans will point to their 17 World Championships. But for pure longevity, the 133 year run of the New York Yacht Club’s hold on the America’s Cup, from 1852 to 1983, must surely be considered dynastic.
(OK, I’ve now given you permission to discuss politics, sports, business, the economy, or TV—so there should be plenty of option for the post paper comments!)
Bobby Fischer died a lonely exile’s death earlier this year at the age of 64, in Reykjavik, Iceland. He was that most perplexing of human characters—an enormous genius and a repellent man. He was an American enigma who, at the height of the Cold War, single handedly destroyed the Russian chess dynasty. Even today, 36 years after his historic victory, he remains the only American to have ever held the title of World Chess Champion.
Robert J. Fischer was born March 9, 1943 in Chicago. His parentage, like much of his life, was somewhat convoluted and mysterious. His mother Regina, though raised in St.
Louis, was born in Switzerland of Polish-Jewish parentage. After graduating from the University of Colorado, she moved to Germany and then to Moscow where she lived for five years studying medicine. She married a German biophysicist, Hans Gerhardt Fischer. They had a daughter Joan, five years Bobby’s senior. Bobby’s birth Certificate states that Hans is Bobby’s father. And the conventional history records that Regina and Hans separated when Bobby was two years old. As historians have delved into the Fischer history, however, they discovered that when the family came back to the United States in 1939, Hans was refused entry and ended up in Chile. Although Regina kept in contact with Hans,—they never saw each other again.
In 1942 Regina had an affair with a Hungarian-Jewish mathematician, Paul Nemenyi. Many years later, to Bobby’s complete surprise, it became generally understood that Nemenyi—who had secretly paid monthly child support to Regina, was Bobby’s biological father. Thus both of Bobby’s parents were, in fact, Jewish .
In the early post war period, Regina, a single parent, found herself doing a variety of jobs, in a variety of locations to make ends meet. She was a stenographer, a typist, and a shipyard welder in Portland Oregon. She taught elementary school in Los Angeles, and subsequently, in a small rural town in Arizona. By 1948 the family found itself moving to Brooklyn, New York so Regina could study for a master’s degree in nursing at NYU and start a career as a nurse. Of course New York was the chess capital of America. Was this a fateful move or would Bobby have become enamored of chess even if his family had stayed in Arizona?
Bobby and Joan apparently were very close. At ages 6 and 11 the two entertained themselves during the many hours that Regina was out of the house by playing a variety of board games--Monopoly, Parcheesi and finally chess. It is said that the two of them taught themselves how to play. Bobby recalled later “At first it was just a game like any other only a little more complicated”
Bobby soon became so engrossed in the game that Regina feared he was spending too much time alone. As Bobby’s obsession persisted, she took him to the Children’s Psychiatric Division of the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. Dr Harold Kline only told her there were a lot worse preoccupations.
Eventually Bobby came under the tutelage of Carmine Nigro, president of the Brooklyn chess club. On nights the club was closed, Bobby pressed his mother to take him to Washington Square Park where players ranged from the Wall Street Stockbrokers to the beer-drinking homeless. (If you have seen the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, you will recall such a scene.)
But Fischer was no instant prodigy. He spent many hours discussing strategy and outcomes with other noted chess masters. And avidly began the gigantic task of devouring the chess literature libraries of several mentors. It was not until 1954, at age eleven, that Bobby himself said he “just got good”. In July 1956 he won the Junior Chess Championship—the youngest to ever do so. A year later he won both the U.S. Junior championship for a second consecutive year and the U.S. Open Championship in Cleveland (on tie-breaking points). And a few months later, in January of 1958, he won the U.S. Championship title. He was three months shy of his fifteenth birthday. The chess world hummed with talk of Fischer. Was he an authentic genius? A reporter asked Bobby if he considered himself the best chess player in the U.S. He replied, “No, one tournament doesn’t mean that much.”
He was attracting headlines and becoming increasingly famous. He appeared on the television program “I’ve Got a Secret”. (His secret was that he was the U.S. Chess Champion.) He wrote a regular column on chess for “Boy’s Life” magazine. In one article he gave four tips on playing chess: 1, Concentrate; 2, Think ahead; 3, Learn from losing; 4, Study.
Back at Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School, several of his classmates addressed him as “Master, Master Fischer”. Barbara Streisand was a classmate. A fellow student reported that Fischer would take out his pocket chess set and play over some games during class. When he was caught he would put the set away and stare into space in silence. His Geometry teacher remembers him as both a poor student and as antisocial. A teacher from the counseling office said: “Bobby’s I.Q. was in the 180’s. But he had no interest in schoolwork.” Apparently the only reading he pursued other than his chess material was comic books. Shortly after the required minimum age of 16, he left high school.
The next decade and a half of Fischer’s career was a protracted bumpy meandering trail toward the destination he most cared about—a seat at the World Championship Table. To become a challenger three hurdles had to be surmounted. First came the regional tournament, called the Zonal. Because the United States is a zone unto itself, the top three finishers in the U.S. Championship tournament go on to the next level—an international tournament, called the Interzonal. Finally, the six highest scoring players in the Interzonal would square off in a tournament known as the Candidates. The winner of the Candidates would challenge the world champion in a one-on-one match for the title. This cycle would repeat itself roughly every three years.
As the 1958 U.S. champion, Bobby qualified for the Interzonal in Yugoslavia where he won 6 games, lost 2 and finished 5th. As a result, still only 15, he became the youngest international grandmaster in history.
By his late teenage years, Bobby was showing signs of the personality that would make him forever dreaded as well as respected. In this period government documents contain a report that “the State Department did not want him overseas as a representative of the U.S.” His relationship with his mother had deteriorated to the point that she moved out to live with a friend, leaving him alone. Visitors reportedly found him living amid chaos, clothes strewn on the floor, chess books and magazines everywhere. There were four bedrooms in the family homestead. He is said to have slept in a different bed each night—a chessboard beside each one. He was filled with a boastful confidence that he was the best chess player in the world—and told everyone so. He was completely consumed by the goal of winning the world championship. Fischer admitted that being so single minded was a problem “because you’re kind of out of touch with real life. I’ve thought of giving it up, off and on, but then I always consider: What else could I do?”
Fischer’s demands began to escalate. His attendance became conditional upon outrageously high appearance fees—event organizers understood the American added glamour and stimulated public interest—so they somehow found the money. Fischer always maintained that his ambition was to get rich. “I am only interested in chess and money.” Cash was about status and control. If he was offered 5 he wanted 10; if he was offered 20 he wanted 50. His incessant financial demands were not well received in Europe where emphasis on money was considered embarrassing or even vulgar.
Playing conditions had to be up to Bobby’s rigorous standards. The lighting had to be just so. The crowd had to be kept far enough back to limit noise. Rounds had to be prearranged so as to accommodate his religious practice. Fischer had become involved in the Worldwide Church of God, though he never formally joined. Based in Pasadena California, this was a rapidly growing fundamentalist sect. Followers believed in bodily Baptismal immersion, strict interpretation of the Old Testament, Judaic dietary laws, and a Sabbath that starts on Friday at sundown and lasts until Saturday at sundown. During this period followers had virtually no contact with anyone and fasted. Bobby likely imposed his personal interpretation on the rules of the Church as he chose to ignore entirely the Church’s prohibition of “frivolous” board games. But he did refuse to play chess during his 24 hour Sabbbath.
In 1962 Fischer finished first in the Interzonal in Stockholm. He was the first non-Soviet to win an Interzonal. Thus he qualified for the Candidates tournament being held in Curacao, the Dutch West Indies later that year. He was considered one of the favorites. But he had a terrible start, and although he managed to claw his way back, he finished fourth. Commentators said Fischer was either off form or had not achieved full chess maturity. The would-be champion had another explanation, one that revealed his belief in his invincibility: Since he had not won, he must have been the victim of a conspiracy.
In a Sports Illustrated article, Bobby charged the Soviet players with collusion. All twelve games involving two Russian players ended as draws—many of them quickly. Bobby maintained that they had conspired to settle these games to conserve their intellectual and physical energies for matches against non Soviets—Fischer in particular. He concluded, “Russian control of chess has reached a point where there can be no honest competition for the World Championship.” Grandmaster Victor Korchnoi—then a Soviet—indicated that the allegation was true. However, other analysts have said that it was absurd to accuse the Soviets of cheating. Of course they had agreed to draws—they were ahead in the tournament and Fischer’s complaint was “sour grapes”. Fischer stated he would not compete for the 1966 world championship unless the rules were changed to prevent collusion. The International Chess Federation in a brave attempt to remedy Fischer’s complaint voted to radically reform the format from a round robin schedule to a series of knockout/single elimination matches. They also ruled for the first time since 1866, that for the world championship match itself, draws would not count. The title would go to the first person to win six games, no matter how many games that might take. Previously the champion had to accumulate 12 points to retain his crown, while the challenger had to win 12 1/2. One point for a win, ½ point for a draw. It was, therefore, technically possible for the reigning champion to make the tactical defensive decision to play for a draw in all the games and thereby win the championship without actually beating his challenger in a single game. It would not be the last time Bobby would get his way.
In December 1963 Bobby defended his U.S. Championship for the fifth time. Against 11 of the highest ranking players in the country, he won every game. It was an awesome historic performance. To win a national tournament is one thing, to win it six years in a row in another, but to win it without losing or even drawing a game was unprecedented. He had shown himself to be in a different league. Fellow grandmasters when asked to describe the trait that set Fischer apart, talked about his “will to win”. However Bobby responded: “I know people who have all the will in the world but can’t play good chess. You must have talent”. The Chess world was anxiously anticipating the Amsterdam Interzonal tournament of 1964. But Bobby was still raging against the “soviet swindlers” and refused to play. This meant it would be another three years before he might have a chance to realize his goal of being officially recognized as the best chess player in the world. Thus his fury turned in on himself and caused the rejection of what he wanted most. He did not play competitive chess for a year and a half. Despite pleas from many quarters, Bobby said: “I like to do what I want to do and not what other people want or expect me to do. This is what life is all about, I think”. At the age of 21, he had staged his first retirement.
Hate was among Fischer’s mechanisms for dealing with the world beyond the board. This hate could spring from the most trivial personal slight or from a worldview most would find bizarre. Once formed it was unshakable, he had no concept of forgiveness. After the Curacao tournament, his wariness and dislike of the Soviet Union slowly descended into a state of delusion. He said his aim for the world championship match was to teach the Soviets “a little humility”. Soviet players were not only “cheats” who were unfairly privileged by the support they received from the state, but they were out to get him personally. He felt the need to be vigilant, lest they try to poison his food and he worried about flying in case the Soviets had tampered with the engine.
Bobby also held anti-Semitic views—and was not shy about expressing them. He admired Adolph Hitler. Of course he himself was Jewish—but he firmly rejected that label. Once he discovered that he had been included in a list of famous Jews in the Encyclopedia Judaica, he wrote to the editor to declare how distressed this mistake had made him and to demand that it not be repeated. He was not and never had been Jewish, he said.
Of course, Bobby turned 21 in 1964, during the height of the Vietnam War. His status was 1-A. There had been some talk of his attending college, perhaps just to obtain the deferment. But his experience with school was so distasteful that he decided not to apply. Eventually he took his physical exam and was rejected for reasons that have never been made public.
Fischer’s next chance at his coveted prize came at the Interzonal held in Sousse, Tunesia in 1967. The tournament was beset by problems. Fischer complained the chandelier lighting was too glaring. At one point a photographer walked onto the stage while Bobby was playing—an obvious distraction. The officials told him nothing could be done as this man was the official photographer of the match. Although Fischer’s match ended in a draw, commentator’s analysis agreed the distraction caused deterioration in Bobby’s play. Fischer had won 6 of a possible seven points, and appeared to be unstoppable. But, he was scheduled to play the next 6 games in a row without a break day. No other player had a similar schedule. He had tried to communicate this problem with the tournament officials but they spoke only French. Bobby put his request in writing and it was denied. Why the request was denied or how the officials might otherwise have accommodated Fischer was not indicated. Because his needs were being totally ignored, Bobby withdrew from the tournament. Once again, his inability to deal with adverse rulings, or his interpretation that these rulings came in the form of a personal attack, prevented him from proceeding to the final qualifying round for the championship. “There is no obstacle to prevent Fischer from wending his way to the world’s championship…except Fischer himself” said one of his colleagues.
Bobby again disappeared from the world of chess for another 2 years. He refused to compete in the U.S. Championship because he said the field was not large enough. As the next opportunity to participate in the matches leading to the world championship approached in 1970, once again, his boycott meant he would not be able to achieve his lifelong goal. However, the leaders of the U.S. chess federation knew full well that the best hope of ultimately bringing an end to the dominant control the Russians had on the World Championship lay in Bobby Fischer. First they prevailed upon the International Chess Federation to be allowed to substitute Bobby for one of the three Americans who had earned the right to go to the Interzonal match by finishing in the top three of the U.S. Championship. Then they enticed Bobby by offering a guaranteed honorarium of $19,000—an unheard amount of money at that time. This was in addition to whatever prize money he might win, and his expenses would be paid for in the most luxurious hotels of his choosing.
And so began in 1970, the most miraculous year in the history of chess.
The Interzonal was held in Palma de Majorca. There were 24 competitors that analysts felt was the strongest field ever assembled. The top six would advance to the knockout stage—the Candidate match. Bobby won the tournament by the huge margin of 3 ½ points winning the last seven games in a row.
Now 27, he appeared as quite an imposing figure across the chessboard at 6ft., 2in. While other players might stretch their legs or move away from the table, Bobby would remain seated hunched forward over the board or leaning back with his long legs straight under the table, but always with his eyes boring deep into the squares, pieces and patterns. In no high-level sport does a player need to be tougher psychologically than in chess. In most sports nervousness dissipates in the flow of the action; in chess there are dangerously long pauses of time for second guessing. Most professional games last several hours. A match against the same opponent can go on for several weeks. A whole hour can pass waiting for an opponent to make a move, while the inevitable question nags constantly: Has a weakness been found? Yet Fischer has said: “I don’t believe in psychology—I believe in good moves.”
The beauty of Fischer’s style lies in his immense knowledge, his ability to calculate without error, his dependable memory, thoroughly rehearsed positions, and constant control. James Joyce Ulysses says: “A man of genius makes NO mistakes. His errors are purposeful, and are the portals to discovery.”
Bobby drew the Russian Mark Taimanov in the quarter finals of the Candidate matches. Taimanov thought Fischer was “too deeply convinced of his own genius”. However, Fischer won six straight games to dispatch his opponent. It is difficult to explain to non chess players the magnitude of such a shutout. A much more typical result between well matched players might be six wins to four with nine draws. Bobby had just beaten a world-class grandmaster by six games to none without a single draw. Analysts claimed his performance may have been the best ever recorded in a single competition.
His next opponent was the Dane Bent Larson. Once again Fischer won in six straight games.
Fischer’s final opponent on the quest to the Championship round was the previous world champion, Russian Tigan Petrosian. Their previous matches had yielded three victories apiece and 12 draws. Petrosian was known as the maestro of the draw. He shunned complexity, taking preemptive defensive measures whenever possible. When Bobby won the first game he had completed 20 consecutive grandmaster victories, without a loss or draw—a feat never accomplished before or since. Although he lost the next game, he ultimately prevailed by the impressive score of 6 1/2 points to 2 ½. Bobby had earned the chance to play Boris Spassky for the right to be formally acknowledged as what he knew himself to be--the best chess player in the world. Like Mohammed Ali, he had been telling everyone he was the greatest—now he would have to prove it. His compelling story was front page news. He had become a national hero.
But what of the Soviet domination of the sport. Along with the 1917 revolution, came the idea of the game as a socialist sport. Chess improved discipline; it taught patience, composure, and determination. It enhanced concentration, endurance and willpower. It sharpened and focused the mind. By 1938 several five-year plans had been achieved. Hundreds of experts began to receive stipends from the state. Major newspapers carried regular chess columns. The results were spectacular. In 1923 there were 1,000 registered chess players. By 1929 the number had risen to 150,000. By 1951—1 million, and by the mid 1960s—three million. The Soviets began their dominance by winning the world championship in 1937. Not only did they retain the championship for the next 35 years, but during this time the challenger for the crown was also a Russian—thereby guaranteeing that the championship remain in Soviet hands! This came to be seen as tangible proof that the communist system worked—something reliable that wouldn’t let the state down.
Similarly, you may recall how proud the Soviets were of Valerie Borzov in the 1972 Olympics. A white man winning a black man’s race—the 100 meter dash--for the title of World’s Fastest Man--a race that a Russian had never previously won. He had also been a product of the same state sponsored sports system. Again, proof positive for the Communist propaganda machine, that the Soviet Union’s socialist philosophy was far ahead of the West.
And so it was within this framework of Capitalism vs. Communism that negotiations to select a venue for the Fischer--Spassky match began. Earning the spot at the championship table was one thing, but getting there proved to be quite a challenge due to Fischer’s constant companion—controversy! According to International Chess Federation regulations, both the challenger’s and champion’s country had the right to host half the games. But Fischer was having none of that. “I won’t play in Russia, period—they would do everything to distract me.” So Fischer submitted a list of places he would play: Belgrade, Sarajevo, Buenos Aires, and Montreal. Spassky submitted Reykjavik, Amsterdam, Dortmund and Paris in that order. Ironically the Soviet first choice was a capitalist country and the American first choice was Communist. Fischer, as might be predicted, ultimately agreed to Reykjavik because that city offered the most prize money--$125,000—the equivalent of fifty cents for every man woman and child in Iceland! It is interesting to note that when Spassky beat Tigran Petrosian in Moscow for the title just three years earlier, the prize was s meager $1,400.
Of course, this was just the beginning of the controversy. Spassky belonged to a very elite club of players who actually had a winning record against Fischer. He had never lost to Bobby winning 4 and drawing 2 games. It has been surmised that, despite all of Bobby’s boastfulness, perhaps now that he was faced with the actual opportunity to prove himself, he realized he might fail. He raised objections to the amount of the prize money even though he had signed off on an agreement. He was scared away from his departing plane at JFK by the media crowd and thus did not make the flight in time for the official opening ceremony. He was threatened with disqualification—but perhaps he persisted with these antics because he considered that outcome preferable to losing?
Enter the US government. NATO ally Iceland stood to lose half a million dollars if the match did not occur. Thus an entreaty came to Secretary of State William Rogers from the prime minister of Iceland. Henry Kissinger made the call to Fischer and opened the conversation with these words: “This is the worst player in the world calling the best player in the world.” Apparently it worked—Fischer flew to Reykjavik the next day. Of course it probably didn’t hurt that a British millionaire, James Slater, offered to double the prize money to $250,000 if the match proceeded.
When Fischer visited the hall where the match was to be played, not much was to his liking. The $1,200 custom built mahogany table should have its legs shortened, the green and white marble chessboard was too shiny, the front rows of seats had to be removed, the camera towers had to be pushed back so far that filming would be nearly impossible, the lighting needed to be brighter. Icelandic officials noted that the only thing Fischer didn’t complain about was the air. However, they made the fateful error of trying to compromise on the camera position behind Fischer’s back.
On July 11th, precisely at 5 pm, the scheduled starting time, Spassky, playing with the white pieces made his first move. Fischer was not there—another of his by now infamous antics? No. Due to heavy traffic Fischer arrived 6 minutes late. He shook hands with Spassky, studied the board for 95 seconds and made his first move toward the championship.
As the time for adjournment approached at the five hour mark, the game appeared to be a draw. However, Fischer made what appeared to be an amateur’s mistake. Spassky, who had trained himself to not to betray emotion, appeared startled. Those pundits analyzing the match were equally dumbfounded. The match resumed the following day. Thirty-five minutes into the game, Fischer leaned back in his swivel chair and caught sight of the movie camera. He rabidly took off from the stage, calling the chief arbiter, Lother Schmid, a liar for saying the cameras had been removed when clearly they had not. If they were not removed immediately, Bobby would leave the match. Crushed by the force of Fischer’s vehemence, the arbiter complied, and the cameras vanished. When the dust finally settled, and play resumed, Bobby’s error from the previous day resulted in his losing the first game.
Enter the movie company which had paid big money for the exclusive rights to film the match and demands the access it was promised in their contract. Behind the walls a space is discovered in which the cameras could be hidden, but still see the board. Has the problem been finessed? No. Fischer learns that the cameras are still there and refuses to come to the hall for the second game.
The game is scheduled to begin at 5 pm. The Chief Arbiter, Schmid presses the clock on the dot. Rule 5 states, “If a player does not appear within one hour of the start of a game, he loses that game by forfeit.” The road between the hall and Fischer’s hotel is cleared. All the traffic lights are held at green. A police car stands at the ready to bring him. Behind the scenes, pleas to the movie company to remove the cameras for just this one game pending further discussion, are successful. At 5:30 pm with Fischer’s clock still ticking, the cameras are removed. Fischer now demands that his clock be restarted. Schmid refuses. He has the reigning world champion to consider; Spassky has now been waiting for 40 minutes. Despite further pleas to restart the game, Schmid refuses and goes onstage at 6pm to announce that Spassky has been awarded the game. He now holds the virtually insurmountable lead of two games to zero. Fischer appeals the decision to the match committee which finds no reason to reverse Schmid’s decision.
After much cajoling from friends and another call from Henry Kissinger, Fischer agrees to play game three of the match. But only if it is played in a separate, private room behind the stage and without cameras. Spassky, who later said he felt no honor in winning by default, wanted the challenge to continue and agreed. Bobby, playing brilliantly, beat the Russian for the first time.
Now it was Spassky’s turn to complain. The back room air conditioning and the ambient traffic sounds were too noisy. The venue was now moved back to the auditorium, and there would be no filming, despite the threat of legal action from the movie company.
Game four was a draw. Bobby won game five to pull even at 2 ½ points apiece. By game 13 Bobby led by a score of 8 to 5. Spassky asked for and received a medical postponement of game 14. When the match resumed, Bobby maintained his 3 point lead as the next 7 games were draws. On August 31, the 21st game of the match, Spassky came to recognize that his position was without hope and resigned. Bobby had won the match by a score of 12 1/2 to 8 1/2. He was the new World Chess Champion.
The next day at the closing ceremony, Fischer made no speech of thanks, no graceful comment on the hard work that had gone into the long contest, no tribute to his defeated opponent. Taking his prize, he immediately tore open the envelope and closely scrutinized the contents checking the figure. Satisfied, he returned to his seat.
Of course, he returned to a hero’s welcome, He received the key to the city from New York mayor John Lindsay. The world was his for the asking: He was young, handsome, wealthy, and women adored him. But later he said to a reporter, “The creeps are beginning to gather.” By creeps he was referring to the press, lawyers, and agents—everyone he thought was out to take advantage of him.
He played no matches as World Champion. Three years later as the time for negotiations for defending his title against a new challenger—Anatoly Karpov—began, Fischer was again making outrageous demands of the International Chess Federation. He ultimately resigned his title because he felt that his conditions did not receive the respect they deserved. This time money was not the issue. Manila offered the staggering prize of $5 Million dollars, said to be the second largest purse in sporting history, just below the Muhammad Ali—George Forman “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire.
Why he stopped playing tournaments, and how his life unraveled so pathetically, doesn’t seem to follow the usual celebrity gone bad scenario. He was not brought down by drugs or alcohol, by sex scandals or profligate spending. Instead, he became a victim of his own mind—paranoia, rage and arrogance. In many ways Bobby’s story resembles that of the mentally unstable Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash, Jr., the mathematician who inspired the book and Oscar winning movie “A Beautiful Mind”—only without the happy ending.
Bobby would go on to sacrifice nearly everything that makes life worth living: family friends, faith, country, a decent regard for other people, and finally, reason itself. Fischer’s life exemplifies F. Scott Fitzgerald’s proposition that “there are no second acts in American Lives.” Achieving his only goal destroyed Bobby’s reason for existence. Without that goal, he seemed to lose his already weak hold on reality. With nothing more to prove, fear of defeat won out over his desire to compete. But the manner in which Bobby charged his way to Reykjavik, his complete and utter dominance of the best of the best from an international field—all this was, indeed, unprecedented. Consequently, Bobby Fischer is likely to continue to be lionized as the best chess player of all time.
Photo from the German Federal Archive via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons license.