The HBO documentary “Bobby Fischer Against the World” premieres tonight, promising to trace “the life of the troubled chess genius from brilliant beginning to shocking endgame.”
Wait — hasn’t that been done before?
But veteran filmmaker Liz Garbus and late editor Karen Shmeer, who died in 2010, choose not to focus on Fischer’s years as child prodigy, his endgame technique, or the implications of having played to win for his country against the Russians during the cold war. (Read a story from our archives about Fischer’s rematch with Russian chess player Boris Spassky in 1992 below.)
Instead, viewers will be drawn into the disturbing world of Fischer’s genius and madness, and learn from interviews with those closest to him the painful price Fischer paid to achieve his legendary success.
In 1972, Fischer captured the World Championship from Boris Spassky of the USSR in a match watched around the world and seen as a Cold War clash. After that match, Fischer became a recluse until he emerged in 1992 for an unofficial rematch against Spassky. The below excerpt is from a story, co-written by Czech-American chess player Lubomir Kavalek and the Post’s music critic Joseph McLellan, that ran in the Post’s style section on Friday, June 11, 1992 entitled “Chess Checkmate!”:
Yesterday in Belgrade, Bobby Fischer won his $5 million match with Boris Spassky,one of the longest and most turbulent in the history of chess. It was a wild 27-move game that almost looked like a suicide by Spassky. With his victory in Game 30, Fischer takes two-thirds of the prize money, but perhaps equally satisfying to him will be the ripples he creates in international chess.
In a press conference after the final game, Spassky found an apt description for the match, played in a bit over two months to a final score of 10 to 5 with 15 draws. “It's still a miracle for me, this match,“ he said. “Very surrealistic, even now.”
Fischer's comments were something that Fischer's comments seldom are: conventional. “It was a very good match,” he said, “and Boris was a great opponent. I am happy to be back playing chess and maybe Boris and me will play again.”
Fischer now has no official status in international chess except the title of grandmaster, which cannot be lost once it is won and which he shares with more than 340 other players. Still, the 49-year-old American's legend; his return to active play for the first time since he took the championship from Spassky 20 years ago; the rumors about upcoming matches with various players; his scornful dismissal of the current champion, Gary Kasparov; and his refusal to recognize the rules, procedures or jurisdiction of the International Chess Federation make him a loose cannon.
Kavalek and McLellan asked questions about Fischer’s future, not knowing how troubled the last of his years would be:
Some questions are still unanswered: Will Fischer return to the United States, where he has been threatened with prosecution for breaking the sanctions against Yugoslavia, or will he stay in Eastern Europe, where he has been offered the use of a villa in a Yugoslav town near the Hungarian border? ... Have Fischer's intemperate talk and behavior during the match, and particularly around its beginning, tarnished his status as a chess legend? Anyone who follows chess has known since the 1960s that Fischer was brash, arrogant, demanding and sharp-tongued, but now, with the whole world watching, he has engaged publicly in anti-Semitic diatribes, spat on a letter from the U.S. government, denounced the United Nations and the American and international chess federations, and shown signs of paranoid delusions.
His play also has been rather uneven, and having been around in the flesh for a couple of months, he no longer seems quite so legendary. “He’s destroying his own legend, the greatest chess ever had,” [chess champion Gary] Kasparov has said.
In the years after that story was published, Fischer got his U.S. passport revoked, was threatened with deportation from Japan, and went on to make increasingly anti-American and anti-Semitic statements — even writing a letter to Osama bin Laden about how much they had in common. The media called him mentally deranged. In 2008, he died of degenerative renal failure.
And yet, contrary to Kasparov’s belief, Fischer’s legend lives on.
“Bobby Fischer Against the World” premieres on HBO at 9 p.m. EST tonight.