Chess Genius Bobby Fischer: A Life of Checks Without Balance

The chess world is mourning the loss of reclusive chess master Bobby Fischer. Fischer died in a hospital in Iceland yesterday at age 64. Video by AP
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bobby Fischer, checkmated by death Thursday in Iceland at the age of 64, was one of those towering and eternally fascinating geniuses that you would never want to be, not for a moment. He did one thing magnificently, perhaps better than anybody who has ever lived. The rest was chaos.

He learned to play chess when he was 6 years old; within a decade, he would dominate the game. "I give 98 percent of my mental energy to chess," he said, and he lived up to his words. "If you were out to dinner with Bobby in the '60s, he wouldn't be able to follow the conversation," Don Schultz, a fellow player and early friend, recalled in 2002. "He would have his little pocket set out and he'd play chess at the table. He had a one-dimensional outlook on life."

Genius is sometimes the capacity to cut the rest of the world away and concentrate on that single dimension. Think of pianist Glenn Gould, living alone in the Canadian north, communicating with the world by telephone, sleeping by day, working by night. Or J.D. Salinger, who has, we are reliably informed, completed several new books since he stopped publishing in 1965, typing all day in a secluded house in New England but refusing to publish, considering it a "terrible invasion" of his privacy.

The story of Fischer's rise to fame is a familiar one. In brief, he won the U.S. Chess Championship each and every time he entered the fray, starting at the age of 14, and in the summer of 1972, he became the first (and, to date, the only) American chess champion of the world when he defeated the Russian Boris Spassky in an extended series of games in Reykjavik.

It was seen as one of the great psychological victories of the Cold War -- the lone, quirky American up against the Soviet empire, which placed enormous stock in its chess champions and had 35 grandmasters standing by to advise Spassky -- and it attracted world attention. Never before or since has the game been so fashionable; membership in the U.S. Chess Federation doubled in a single year, and Fischer became a celebrity.

But Fischer fit poorly into any traditional pantheon of American heroes. He had already broken publicly with his mother. "She keeps in my hair and I don't like people in my hair, you know, so I had to get rid of her," he explained casually. Although both of his parents were Jewish, he had been an anti-Semite for years. ("There are too many Jews in chess," he told Harper's Magazine in 1962. "They seem to have taken away the class of the game.")

And his statements on the joys he found in chess were, to put it mildly, unsporting. "I like the moment when I break a man's ego," he said.

Rene Chun, writing in the Atlantic, summed up the last years of Bobby Fischer with sad acuity:

"He is a victim of his own mind -- and of the inordinate attention that the world has given it. Fischer's paranoia, rage and hubris have been enough to transform him into an enemy of the state; they have been enough to sabotage a brilliant career and turn a confident, charismatic figure into a dithering recluse; and, sadly, they have been enough to make us forget that when Bobby Fischer played chess, it was absolutely riveting theater."

Or, as Walter Shipman, an international master and chess historian, recalled of his matches with Fischer, "It began to feel as though you were playing against chess itself."

What are we to make of this lost man, so extraordinary and so flawed? Fischer joins a roster of strange, gifted and profoundly isolated geniuses -- the inventor and entrepreneur Howard Hughes, the financier Hetty Green, the violinist Jascha Heifetz -- who were scarcely human at all on any emotional level, who were celebrated throughout their lives when they might have been helped.

Of course, there is no evidence that Fischer saw his life this way. The game was all that mattered.

Once, when asked by a reporter how he spent his time between matches, he shrugged. "There's really nothing for me to do," he said. "Maybe I'll study some chess books."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company