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An American Tragedy

Chessboard genius Bobby Fischer's remarkable rise and fall.

By From the May 2011 issue

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Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall -- From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness
By Frank Brady
(Crown, 402 pages, $25.99)

In the final act of Bobby Fischer's troubled, troublesome, and troubling life, one of the Nordic admirers who rescued him from a Japanese prison and brought him back to Iceland, the scene of his former triumph, compared him to Hamlet:

I could be bound in a nutshell
And count myself a king of infinite space
Were it not that I had bad dreams.

Fischer's genius -- and for once the word is appropriate -- was circumscribed by the 64 squares of the chessboard, but within that domain he really was a king. Yet his extraordinary feat of humbling the Soviet Union by his victory over Boris Spassky at Reykjavik was vitiated by the nightmarish paranoia that at first polluted and then unhinged his mind.

The present volume is really Frank Brady's third biography of Fischer. The first appeared nearly half a century ago, when the young Bobby was still barely more than a prodigy; the second, largely rewritten, edition took the story up to the zenith of his career when he became world chess champion. Rather than revise the old book yet again, Brady has rightly chosen to reexamine Fischer's life as a whole, with the fresh perspective afforded by his death three years ago. The result is an absorbing, comprehensive portrait of a tragic figure, at once emblematic of and antagonistic toward Western civilization.

The key to Bobby Fischer is a twofold paradox: he was born Jewish, but ended as a raging anti-Semite; and as a child of the Cold War, he was an all-American hero who ended as a fugitive from U.S. justice. Brady is good at evoking the background and fills in many gaps with new information. But even Brady -- who knew Fischer pretty well and has exhaustively interviewed those who knew him best -- cannot fully explain why he came to loathe the people and values that had enabled him to break free from the poverty of his itinerant childhood.

Born in Chicago in 1943, Fischer was brought up in Brooklyn by his mother, Regina -- a Communist fellow traveler who had spent time in Russia and was kept under surveillance by the FBI. The boy's paternity is unclear, but he never knew a father figure. Introduced to chess by his older sister, Joan, Bobby showed early signs of exceptional talent and was taken up by the largely Jewish New York chess fraternity. Although Regina was a secular leftist who neglected Jewish observances -- Bobby was never circumcised and it is likely that his mother begrudged the cost of a Bar Mitzvah -- the world in which Bobby emerged was a bookish one in which intellectual precocity was encouraged by patrons who saw chess as much more than a game -- a vocation, even. The absence of a spiritual and ritual core in Fischer's makeup was painfully felt, and predisposed him in adulthood to fall for a cult: the Worldwide Church of God, a bizarre mishmash of Judeo-Christian rites and beliefs. But his quest did not end there. The New York Jewish prince turned his back, first on Judaism, then on Christianity, and eventually embraced the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Holocaust denial, and malicious glee over 9/11. The prodigy had become a prodigal -- but he never returned to the father for forgiveness, because he had no father and no God.

Fischer found himself plunged into the Cold War early in his life: already at 15 he was holding his own with the Soviet chess elite, but his failure to break through immediately convinced him that the Russians were basically cheats. At his first international tournament, Fischer wrote: "I will teach those dirty Russians a lesson they won't forget for a long time." In fact, there is evidence that he was correct in his assumption that there was collusion and worse on the Soviet side, but this alone does not explain why Fischer took 15 years to storm the heights of chess. It was Fischer's own antics that held him back -- that, and the fact that his Russian rivals were backed by an incomparable chess machine.

Eventually, Fischer overcame all obstacles, mostly self-imposed, to take the title from the Soviets, having put on a spectacle that transfixed everyone from the White House to the Kremlin. That chess summer of 1972 still lives in the memories of millions. It marked a psychological turning point in the Cold War, after which the West never again needed to fear the intellectual superiority of the evil empire. For Fischer, however, victory over Spassky brought him face-to-face with the inner demons that his ascent had masked. Brady chronicles his gradual decline, from his refusal to defend his title to his arrest as a vagrant in Pasadena. Many of Fischer's lunacies were really fads taken to logical extremes: for example, his insistence on having all his fillings removed from his teeth, in case they contained poisonous minerals. But he was not clinically insane and, despite the increasingly vile conspiracy theories that possessed him, there was method in his madness.

IN 1992, AFTER 20 YEARS in obscurity, the Rip Van Winkle of the chess world resurfaced to play his old rival Boris Spassky. Though chess had moved on in the meantime and the two dinosaurs were dismissed as has-beens by the younger generation led by Garry Kasparov, Fischer could still produce good enough chess to win the match and the lion's share of the $5 million purse. Having relapsed into the poverty of his youth, Fischer was glad of the money (he had even got his hands on his mother's Social Security checks while she reveled in the latest socialist paradise of Nicaragua). Unfortunately, the match was sponsored by a corrupt Serbian banker and took place at the height of the bloody Bosnian war, thus breaking sanctions and handing a propaganda coup to the dictator Milosevic. This was the start of Fischer's dispute with the U.S. authorities, who pursued him for sanctions-busting and tax evasion until the day he died -- and beyond the grave.

Fischer spent the rest of his life as a peripatetic recluse, denouncing Jews and Americans while sponging from and insulting his friends and acquaintances. He lived in the Philippines, in Hungary, and in Japan, where he finally found happiness with a woman, Miyoko Watai. There, in 2004, the law finally caught up with him. He spent several months in jail fighting extradition to the U.S. before the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, voted to offer him citizenship, in recognition of his achievement in putting Iceland on the map. The Japanese deported him and there he spent the rest of his days, broken in health and spirit.

What did the prodigal prodigy leave behind? His chess, above all: from the "game of the century" that he played aged 13, with its sparkling tactical fireworks, to the consummate strategic masterpieces of his mature years. For as long as chess is played, Bobby Fischer's genius will be remembered and his story will be told. But he will also live on as a cautionary tale. Having fought the good fight against Communism, Fischer turned his aggression on his own kin -- above all on the New York Jewish culture that is one of the glories of America. There is a warning here for those who lend a fig leaf to the oldest hatred: anti-Semitism. We ignore at our peril the pathology that destroyed Fischer. 

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About the Author

Daniel Johnson is a writer in London.