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Bobby Fischer; World Champion Known as the 'Bad Boy of Chess'

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bobby Fischer, 64, an eccentric genius many considered the greatest chess player in the history of the game and who remains the only American of the modern era to win a world championship, died Jan. 17 at a hospital in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Mr. Fischer learned the game at 6, won his first U.S. championship at 14 and in 1958 became the youngest international grandmaster of chess. He was world champion at 29. By then, the name Bobby Fischer, like Babe Ruth in baseball or Albert Einstein in physics, was synonymous with brilliance nonpareil.

A spokesman for Mr. Fischer, Gardar Sverrisson, told the Associated Press that he died of kidney failure.

His 1972 world championship match against Russian master Boris Spassky in Reykjavik focused world attention on the quietly insular world of international chess and transformed it in the process. Mr. Fischer's epic victory made him not only a U.S. hero but also a reluctant pawn in the Cold War as the young American vanquished the Russian and brought home the nation's first world chess championship in more than a century.

Mr. Fischer's most formidable opponent was often himself. Troubled, temperamental and eccentric, he developed a reputation as "the bad boy of chess," and over the years, his petulance and outbursts of temper spiraled into paranoia, antisocial behavior and virulent anti-Semitism. Renouncing his U.S. citizenship in 2005, he settled in Iceland, site of his greatest triumph.

Frank Brady, chairman of the mass communications department at St. John's University and a chess master, recalled meeting the 10-year-old Mr. Fischer at New York tournaments. Brady, recognizing the young man's genius, wrote the first Fischer biography, "Profile of a Prodigy," in 1964.

"He was always arrogant and self-centered," Brady recalled, "but it was only after he won the world championship in '72, after he sort of reached the summit of his life's goal, that he went bad."

Robert James Fischer was born March 9, 1943, in Chicago. His father, a German-born biophysicist, and his mother, a Swiss-born schoolteacher and registered nurse, were divorced when he was 2, and his father left the United States. He was raised by his mother and his older sister, Joan Fischer. He started school in a small Arizona town and lived with his mother and sister in Los Angeles and Phoenix before the family settled in Brooklyn in 1948.

His sister bought him a cheap plastic chess set and taught him the rudiments of the game. In 1951, the 8-year-old took part in a chess exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library. Although he was quickly defeated by an international chess master, his playing impressed the president of the club, who offered to give him lessons.

Soon, he was regularly defeating adult players. By the time he was 12, he was a member of the Manhattan Chess Club and was winning matches against some of the best players in the United States.

At Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, he excelled in Spanish, math and the sciences but considered his teachers "all mental cases." He devoured chess books and magazines, including the Russian publication Shakhmaty.

In 1957, in Cleveland, the gangly kid from Brooklyn won the U.S. open championship in a field of 175 players, tying with U.S. champion Arthur B. Bisguier. The victory qualified him for the U.S. Chess Federation's championship tournament at the Manhattan Chess Club, where, on Jan. 7, 1958, the 14-year-old defeated Bisguier, thus becoming U.S. champion.

Mr. Fischer entered international competition in August and September 1958 at the interzonal competition held in Portoroz, Yugoslavia. He tied for fifth place, which qualified him to be named an international grandmaster, the youngest player ever to be awarded the distinction.

As a player, he was known for his boldness and unpredictability. He did not wait for his opponent to make mistakes but attacked relentlessly and rarely repeated gambits.

"He was a classicist," said Brady, who played speed chess against Mr. Fischer hundreds of times. "He didn't go into great fireworks and deep sacrifices. He was almost like Bach instead of Beethoven, plus he played every aspect of the game."

Brady also called him "probably the most booked-up player of the game," meaning that he was familiar with chess gambits and chess masters from the earliest days of the game.

In 1970, he won the unofficial world five-minute championship in Yugoslavia with 17 victories, 4 draws and 1 loss. After the tournament, he recalled from memory all of the more than 1,000 moves from his 22 games.

Mr. Fischer's truculence manifested itself early in his career. In July 1961, he began a scheduled 16-game match with Samuel Reshevsky. Reshevsky was an Orthodox Jew and would not play on the Sabbath, so the 12th game, which had been scheduled for a Saturday evening, was postponed until the next morning. Contending that he was not accustomed to playing in the morning, Mr. Fischer refused to appear, thus losing the game, and ultimately the entire match, by default.

Living in a small walk-up apartment in Brooklyn at the time, Mr. Fischer said he would like to enter the real estate business after winning the world championship.

That opportunity came in 1972, when Mr. Fischer and Spassky sat across from each other at a marble and mahogany chess table in tranquil, out-of-the-way Reykjavik. Larry Evans, a U.S. grandmaster, described Mr. Fischer at the time as "the most individualistic, intransigent, uncommunicative, uncooperative, solitary, self-contained and independent chess master of all time, the loneliest chess champion in the world. He is also the strongest player in the world. In fact, the strongest player who ever lived."

Constantly complaining about his chair, the lighting and the whirring noise of TV cameras, he defeated Spassky, breaking a 26-year Russian monopoly on the title. In a game long dominated by Europeans, Mr. Fischer became the first U.S. champion since Wilhelm Steinitz, a naturalized American from Bohemia, reigned from 1886 to 1894. Paul Morphy, a New Orleans prodigy and one of Mr. Fischer's heroes, was considered the unofficial world champion in 1858.

Mr. Fischer received a record purse of $250,000 at Reykjavik, thanks in part to his threatened walkouts and outspoken demands. He also transformed a genteel game into an international sport comparable to professional golf or tennis. Membership in the U.S. Chess Federation nearly tripled.

The match glowed with symbolic geopolitical overtones as well, even for those who knew little about chess. Fischer vs. Spassky, the lone American in a "High Noon" showdown with the product of the soulless Soviet machine, was the Cold War personified.

Reykjavik was the pinnacle of Mr. Fischer's career. From then on, his eccentricities overwhelmed his brilliance. In 1975, he lost his title by default, refusing to defend it against Anatoly Karpov after a dispute over match rules.

Moving to South Pasadena, Calif., shortly after the Spassky match, he became increasingly reclusive. For the next 17 years, Fischer sightings were rare and often bizarre. In 1981, he was arrested in Pasadena, by mistake, on suspicion of bank robbery, which prompted him to publish the pamphlet "I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse."

He gave $90,000 of his world championship winnings to the Pasadena-based Worldwide Church of God, a fundamentalist denomination whose founder, Herbert W. Armstrong, had predicted that Jesus would return to Earth in 1975 after a nuclear holocaust. When the year came and went without nuclear incident, Mr. Fischer left the church.

He reportedly had the fillings removed from his teeth to prevent the Soviets from transmitting secret messages.

In 1992, his infatuation with a 19-year-old Hungarian girl and a Yugoslavian financier's monetary blandishments lured him into a rematch in Yugoslavia with Spassky, his 1972 foe. He got $3.5 million in prize money -- and an indictment from the U.S. government for violating a United Nations embargo against the country.

He was no longer the slender, well-groomed young man the world had admired decades earlier. And he was angrier.

Although his mother and perhaps his father were Jewish, his anti-Semitism grew more virulent as he grew older. An admirer of "Mein Kampf," he began broadcasting radio rants, often from the Philippines, about Jews, communists, the criminality of the United States and the perfidy of the international chess establishment. Asked on Sept. 11, 2001, about the attacks on the World Trade Center, he said, "This is all wonderful news." In 2004, Mr. Fischer was arrested at the Tokyo airport, where he was accused of trying to leave Japan on a revoked passport. Japanese authorities considered deporting him to the United States but released him to Iceland after the country offered him citizenship. He lived in Reykjavik until his death.

Survivors include his longtime companion, Japanese grandmaster Miyoko Watai.

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