Bobby Fischer by David Robson
Since Bobby Fischer’s death in 2008 journalists have come to describe his life as a tragedy; a fall from the very top of the chess world to relative obscurity. At rock bottom, Fischer was convinced he could become a musical genius and was accused both of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. Inspiring documentaries and songs, Fischer’s tumble from the top of the chess world is a story that not only warns of the dangerous effect that excessive amounts of fame and exposure to the public can have on a mind that is not suited to social interaction, but also highlights the detrimental effect that chess has on some of its players.
Fischer is your definition of a chess child prodigy. From the age of 6 he lived and breathed chess; he said himself he took chess ‘seriously’ from the age of 7 onwards. He skipped school to play chess, and ate whilst playing chess. One of his peers remarks in a video interview how he could run through an entire game example within seconds in his head, so he would be merely skimming chess magazines when he read them. At 14 he was already the U.S. champion of chess. At 15 he became the youngest international grandmaster in history, and by 29 he was world chess champion. Video footage of Bobby during his teenage years is intriguing and suggests although he may have been a prodigy, he had odd social behaviour. His gaze is detached and otherworldly. His eyes glaze over and his focus is far from the interview at hand; his mannerisms and social interaction is awkward as though the whole process of conversing is alien to him. Fischer’s parenting was not as conventional as other people’s either. Fischer’s mother during his teenage years seems largely absent; she was a well-educated political activist who had a 900 page CIA file on herself and during interviews she appears to shy away from questions about her famous son. The impression this gives is not a positive one and you can’t help but think that Fischer’s odd childhood will have had some effect on his later life.
Before I continue with Fischer’s case it must be said that it isn’t that uncommon for chess players to suddenly have a mental breakdown. G.K. Chesterton summarized that “Poets do not go mad, but chess players do”. Carlos Torres-Repetto was world champion in 1925; following a defeat by Edward Lasker soon after he was found naked on a bus and had to be hospitalized. Abika Rubinstein was a strong contender on the early twentieth century chess stage; he stopped playing in 1932 developing a severe case of anthropophobia. He became so insane that when the Nazi’s came for him due to his Jewish heritage, they merely left him. Alexander Alekhine was also considered one of the best players in the world by the age of 22 in 1914. He became a Nazi sympathizer, writing reams of anti-Semitic literature only later to deny that he wrote it. With the help of the bottle he became insane and was admitted into a mental hospital in 1943. Lastly is the case of William Steinitz. Considered the father of modern chess, Steinitz couldn’t escape chess’s inexorable drag into insanity. He was forced to live in a mental hospital in Moscow for 40 days in 1897 and died penniless at the Manhattan State Hospital in 1900. Evidently, there must be some characteristic in chess that causes its devoted players to experience a breakdown.
In contrast with these other examples Fischer didn’t suddenly endure a mental breakdown. He had always been eccentric in this chess world; for example his world championship match in 1972 was riddled with controversy. On the first game of their twenty-four-game gauntlet Fisher showed up late, with many critics citing it as ‘mind game tactics’. Following the first match Fischer refused to
continue until a number of demands were granted as he felt he ‘could not play the tournament comfortably’. After much arguing and negotiating, the match was moved into a gym where it could only be viewed by the public on CCTV; hardly the venue for a grandiose world championship chess match. However, Fischer’s skill and tact should not be pushed into the background by these controversies; during game six Fischer defeated his opponent Boris Spassky with such skill that the crowd and Spassky himself stood up and applauded him.
From this point on Fischer’s life appeared to follow a downward spiral. Becoming extremely private and recluse, Fischer’s life following the world championship is difficult to learn about; by 1999 journalists would spend days in the bathing houses of Budapest just to have the opportunity to see the celebrity recluse. However, from 2000 onwards he suddenly became more active, and slowly more intolerable. He described the September 11 attacks as “wonderful news” on Filipino radio, and continued to deliver insane rants filled with anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. Later video footage of his life is somewhat disturbing; he grows a huge hermit-like white beard and he talks of one day being a world-famous musician, despite no musical background, and talks endlessly of conspiracy theories; governments plotting against their citizens and indoctrinating them. Even his closest friends in these videos appear awkward as if the man they once knew had been suddenly and irrevocably replaced.
Dr Kári Stefánsson said of Fischer that “his genius and his illness were joined at the hip”, and it could not be more true; Fischer had a registered IQ of 180, and he was perhaps one of the most defining chess players of all time. Now, Fischer ‘s true legacy is that genius, and perhaps chess, are linked to serious mental psychosis and breakdown; hardly the legacy that a world championship chess player should have.