Last night I watched the new HBO documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World. Riveting stuff. I was glued to my seat.
I don’t play much chess any more, but there was a period when I was playing 4-5 hours per day, 7 days a week. I continue to have a great fondness for the game. It’s a marvelous invention, not just a great exercise for the mind, but also an art form, a poetic capital-R romance.
When I was little, my parents’ dictionary had, inside the front cover, a bunch of newspaper clippings from the famous (now infamous) 1972 Fischer-Spassky World Championship match. My dad was a chess fan and had followed the tournament in the papers, playing out each game of the match at home. The first chess book I ever bought (secondhand, from a used book store) was Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess. So I’ve long been fascinated by the larger-than-life figure of Bobby Fischer.
I’m also quite interested in anecdotes of people who seem to straddle the line between genius and madness. It’s said so often that these things are two sides of the same coin that it might have become a cliché. And yet there are examples—fascinating, funny, heartbreaking examples—from all walks of life. And no small number of them come from the world of chess. But if we accept the tragic notion that genius and madness do on occasion come hand-in-hand, there’s no denying that Bobby Fischer is the epitome of that relationship.
Not being much of a chess player, I never truly appreciated how profound his raw talent had been. It comes across quite clearly in the documentary, though. He was a thundering talent who shook the foundations of the chess landscape. Some, if not all, of his achievements have, in the intervening years, been equalled or even bested. But he was a trailblazer. To this day people who know the world of chess inside and out rate him as one of the very very top players who ever lived. Some chess experts talk about Fischer in the same way musicians talk about Mozart.
He was also, not to put too fine a point on it, completely batshit crazy.
The documentary spends a lot of time on the 1972 match against Spassky in Iceland. I’d known a little bit about all the craziness and melodrama surrounding that championship battle thanks to the rock opera Chess, which was loosely inspired by some of those antics. (Yes, yes. I know: the guys from ABBA and Tim Rice. Go ahead and laugh. I don’t care. I still like it.) But I had no idea just how crazy the whole thing was. (If anything, the liner notes actually downplay the insanity. Which is kind of amazing.) Fischer clearly had a loose grip on sanity as far back as the months just prior to the match. The man was out of control. I can’t help but wonder if the pressure of playing that match, and then the subsequent pressure of being one of the most famous people in the world, didn’t push him over the edge from arrogant eccentricity to full-fledged paranoid psychosis.
He never played another tournament game. In 1975, when a new challenger to the World Championship came along, Fischer refused to play. The title went to Anatoly Karpov. It’s alleged in the documentary that had Fischer played the match he probably would have retained his title relatively easily. I think this must assume that Fischer continued to play and study chess seriously during those intervening years. Even then I don’t take the outcome for granted. I’m not knowledgable enough about chess to make such comparisons. But I do know that Fischer’s talent was supremely formidable.
It’s a very sad tale. He was truly a legend in his own lifetime. But he succumbed to a madness that drove him away from the rest of the world, and he spent most of the last 36 years of his life in complete obscurity. He had been one of the most famous people in the world. And then within a relatively few years he drove himself into utter obscurity. It’s tempting to wonder if the chess world would have benefitted from many more years of his contributions at the board if he’d had access to (and had partaken of) modern pharmaceutical therapies. But at the same time I wonder if taming that raging madness would have simultaneously blunted that razor-edged genius.
He spent long years as a hidden recluse, and during the 1980s he fell completely off the radar. Practically nobody knew what had become of him.
Fischer emerged from the wilderness for a publicity-stunt “rematch” with Spassky in 1992. I followed that match out of sheer fascination with Fischer. It was a farce, of course. Fischer always maintained that he was the true world champion even decades after he refused to defend his title to Karpov. By ’92, Spassky wasn’t even rated in the top 100 players in the world. But Fischer’s arrogance was always sort of entertaining, in a so-terrible-I-can’t-stop-watching kind of way. That arrogance included violating a United Nations embargo on travel to Yugoslavia. Fischer spent the rest of his life fleeing extradition to the United States.
In his later life, Fischer embraced some extremely ugly beliefs. He became rabidly antisemitic and went out of his way to applaud the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He had become a man without a country and without a home. He alienated almost everybody around him. He died in relative obscurity.
What a sad, fascinating figure he was.