Chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer has been detained in an airport jail for about two weeks, facing deportation from Japan to the United States. But after 12 years of dodging U.S. law enforcement since playing a 1992 match in Yugoslavia in defiance of international sanctions, Fischer, 61, has devised a strategy for his next move, a spokesman said Thursday.
Fischer, a U.S. citizen who has broadcast anti-American and anti-Jewish rants during his exile, might now seek German citizenship to avoid extradition to the United States for trial, his representatives in Tokyo said Thursday. Fischer's father was believed to have been born in Germany, and Fischer's mother was Jewish.
"He may have lost his queen . . . but this is not checkmate yet," said John Bosnitch, a Tokyo-based media representative now advising Fischer.
Though the probability of success is uncertain, authorities said Fischer's maneuvering could delay a final decision on his fate -- perhaps for months. It marks the latest twist in a saga as intricate as one of Fischer's own brain-twisting battles of wills -- this one designed to avoid a return trip to the United States.
It would undoubtedly be an unwelcome homecoming for the New York City boy who brought an unlikely pizazz to the bookish game of chess. A strategic genius and eccentric personality, he became a celebrated Cold War hero after besting Boris Spassky, the Soviet chess king, in a historic 1972 championship match in Reykjavik, Iceland. Noted for his bizarre behavior at matches and brief adherence to a religious cult, Fischer faded into moderate obscurity by the early 1980s.
He emerged from retirement for the fateful 1992 rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia. Fischer won, but U.S. officials said Fischer's $3 million prize money was earned in violation of U.S. and U.N. bans on doing business there.
He was charged in the United States in 1992 with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. He has been on the run ever since, avoiding a U.S. warrant while living off his earnings and the largess of his fans from Argentina to Switzerland. He also promoted a variation of chess that he designed, "Fischer Random Chess."
Often, Fischer would pop up in an exotic locale to condemn what he called the evils of "world Jewry" or rage against the "evil dictatorship" of the United States. On Sept. 11, 2001, he told a radio station in the Philippines that the attacks on New York and the Pentagon were "wonderful news. . . . I want to see the U.S. wiped out."
The chase for the champ ended in Japan, where Fischer was nabbed at Tokyo's Narita Airport on July 13 for traveling on an invalid passport. He had been darting in and out of the country since 2000, when he entered into talks with Seiko Watch Corp. to manufacture his design for a new chess clock, said Miyoko Watai, secretary general of the Japan Chess Club. The club provided him with an apartment when he was in Tokyo.
All sides acknowledge that the case against him is complicated. Fischer last entered Japan on a valid, 90-day visa in April, according to a copy of his passport available on his Web site and provided to reporters by his representatives in Tokyo. On Nov. 6, 2003, Fischer had gone to the U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, and was given additional pages to his passport.
A letter Fischer never received, according to his spokesman, and issued by the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines in December, advised him that his passport was being revoked. But it is unclear why U.S. authorities took so long to revoke his passport, given the outstanding warrant. A U.S. official, speaking on the condition he not be named, acknowledged that Fischer had been given the extra passport pages in Switzerland, but he said the act was contrary to U.S. law. He described Fischer's ability to use his U.S. passport for years as "a mystery."
Fischer's supporters allege that he is being sought in reprisal for his political beliefs and particularly for his comments in the Philippines about Sept. 11.
"This is unfair confinement," said Bosnitch, adding that Fischer considers himself a "political prisoner."
But Fischer may yet have a way out.
His match in Yugoslavia apparently did not violate Japanese law, officials said, so his alleged crime would not be covered by U.S.-Japanese extradition treaties. But Japan could deport Fischer to the United States anyway. The typical procedure in cases of revoked passports, authorities said, is to send people to their countries of citizenship.
The maximum penalty Fischer faces in the United States is a $250,000 fine and 10 years in prison. To avoid a homecoming, his representatives said Thursday, he is set to assert that he is actually German.
Fischer's paternity has for years been subject to speculation, but his Jewish mother is believed to have been married to Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist. Bosnitch said Fischer's father retained German citizenship at the time of his son's birth, meaning the chess champ could have the right to German citizenship and be deported to that nation instead.
"There is no reason why Bobby Fischer should not be considered a German citizen," Bosnitch said, adding that supporting documents were on their way to Japan from his family in Germany.
Peter Helm, a spokesman for the German Embassy in Tokyo, said: "We don't know if his father was a German at the time when Mr. Fischer was born. No official petition from Fischer has been received by the embassy." Helm said Fischer's inflammatory statements would not be a factor. "This is strictly a legal issue, irrespective of the ideology of Mr. Fischer." But the citizenship process, he said, "may take longer than the Japanese are willing to offer Mr. Fischer hospitality."
Fischer has refused to acknowledge the legal proceedings against him, rejecting insistent calls by Japanese authorities that he appoint a lawyer. Bosnitch, representing Fischer for free because the chess champ was his "childhood hero," said he has petitioned Japanese courts to argue on Fischer's behalf.
Through his representatives, Fischer claims to have been "viciously assaulted" when taken into custody by Japanese authorities while trying to board a flight to the Philippines -- where he is believed to have a daughter.
Japanese authorities acknowledge that Fischer was hooded and handcuffed -- but only because he violently resisted arrest. "He even bit one of our officers," said Itsuo Noto, public liaison officer for the Japanese Immigration Service at Narita Airport. "His claims of violence on our part are unjustified."
Fischer's appeal to avoid deportation was rejected this week, but he may prolong the process with a second appeal to the justice minister Friday. He apparently is not risking everything on the German strategy. Bosnitch said Fischer and his supporters here were still "exploring all options" with other nations potentially willing to host Fischer.
"This could be a long match," Bosnitch said.