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

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
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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.

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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.

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