On January 17, chess legend Robert “Bobby” James Fischer passed away at his apartment in Reykjavík. Bobby’s life was full of controversy, mystery and, at times, outright insanity. His life was fascinating in its strangeness the way a car crash is fascinating; something compels you to look when you know you really should not. His last three years in Iceland went by relatively free of controversy though. It wasn’t until after his death that the last media spectacle surrounding Bobby Fischer started, and continues to this day. We’ll dive into that strange story in part II, but for now let’s take a look at his life prior to his arrival in Iceland in 2005.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, March 9, 1943, Fisher soon became known as a chess prodigy, winning the United States Junior Chess Championship in July 1956. In January 1958 he became the youngest US Chess Champion at the age of 14, a record that still stands. That earned him a title as an International Master, the youngest at the time to reach that goal. His life revolved entirely around chess; at one time he was quoted saying that “chess was better than sex.” He won the US Championship tournament a total of eight times. In international competitions he voiced concerns regarding what he thought was foul play on behalf of the Soviet chess masters, stating that the Soviets fixed their intra-games to end in draws, effectively shutting him out from becoming world champion.
The Match of the Century
In the qualifying games preceding the 1972 International Championship, Fischer won 20 consecutive games and earned the right to challenge the current Champion, Boris Spassky. Fischer was known for his stubborn demands regarding tournament conditions, and his requests before the 1972 tournament in Reykjavik almost put the match off. Bobby demanded much higher prize money than had previously been awarded. The Icelandic government coughed up US$125,000 but Bobby wanted more. Finally an English financier doubled the amount, bringing it to US$250,000 and the stage was set for what would later be known The Match of the Century.
But the circus was just starting. Bobby made various new demands, wanting to ban TV cameras from the venue and demanding a cut of the spectator’s fee. He failed to show up for the opening ceremony and only flew to Iceland after a phone call from Henry Kissinger, taking a time out from running the Vietnam war, who allegedly told Fischer to crush those Soviets for freedom-loving people everywhere.
Fischer lost the first game and continued to make demands on the organisers, refusing to show up for the second game, forfeiting it to Spassky. For the third game Spassky agreed to play away from the TV cameras and Fischer won. At one time the Soviets believed Spassky was being poisoned by Fischer and specimens were sent for testing to KGB labs. Fischer made further strange demands, wanting the size of the chess board changed, the chairs; he wanted to change just about everything that could be changed. It has been argued that all this was a part of a psychological war Fischer was waging against his opponent, while others believe that this was a manifestation of his own mental problems. Finally, after 21 games, some great chess and many strange antics, Fischer was crowned the 11th world champion; the first and only American to hold that title.
The match caught the world’s attention. It became a symbol for the cold war, the only sporting event where the two superpowers fought it out. It elevated interest in chess everywhere; the rise of UK chess players in the 1980s has been attributed to the match. The whole world followed the championship, divided into factions. Fischer was a tall, handsome genius who rarely studied the game after they played, opting instead to go bowling at Iceland’s only bowling alley at the time, in the US military base in Keflavík. Spassky was the epitome of the Soviet chess-machine; a bear-like man who meticulously studied each move with his assistants.
In 1975 Fischer was scheduled to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov. He had played no official tournament games after his title win. He made numerous demands (reported to be around 190) before the championship, but this time they were not met, resulting in Fischer resigning his World Championship. In his letter to FIDE (the International Chess Federation) he specifically noted that he was resigning his FIDE title, not losing it. He would never acknowledge another World Champion, regarding himself the one and only until the very end.
Recluse Fischer played no competitive public chess until 1992 when he agreed to play Spassky in Yugoslavia with US$3.5 million in prize money. Fischer spent the years in between in obscurity, becoming the chess world’s equivalent of J. D. Salinger. In 1981 he was arrested in Pasadena, California, on suspicion of bank robbery. He was released two days later and the charges were dropped. He published a pamphlet titled “I was tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!” which became a surprise best seller in chess circles. Otherwise he stayed out of the public limelight.
When he surfaced for the 1992 match against Spassky, dubbed “the rematch of the 20th century”, it was clear that Fischer’s ideas about the world had been altered. He ranted on about a Jewish conspiracy against him and at a press conference he spat on a ‘cease and desist order’ from the US government, forbidding him to play the tournament since Yugoslavia was under a United Nations embargo at the time. Fischer won the match, 10 to 5, but most agreed that his playing wasn’t at the same level as when he beat Spassky twenty years earlier. The US government issued an arrest warrant for Fischer for breaking the embargo. He never returned to the United States.
He spent the next years in recluse, travelling between countries such as Hungary, Philippines, and Japan. He regularly phoned various radio stations around the world, mostly in the Philippines, ranting and raving about the Jewish conspiracy, the rotten American society and the evils of President Bush. Hours after the attacks on the twin towers in 2001, Bobby phoned a Philippine radio station, declaring: “This is all wonderful news,” and then raved on about the evils of the US government. He also regularly declared traditional chess to be dead and tried to promote a new version he had invented, named Fischer’s Random Chess.
Up until that point the United States had not pursued Fischer with much vigour, but that was about to change. His US passport was revoked and in 2004 he was placed in detention in Japan for travelling without a valid passport and his deportation to the US was scheduled. “A Committee to free Bobby Fischer” was set up by a Canadian lawyer, which caught the attention of a few Icelanders, most of whom were active in the Icelandic chess scene at around the time of the 1972 match, who lobbied the Icelandic authorities to grant Bobby Fischer political asylum. When it became clear that such a gesture would not be enough to stop his deportation to the United States, the Icelandic congress granted him citizenship by passing a special law, a unique event in the history of the country. He arrived in Reykjavik an Icelandic citizen on March 24th 2005.