A couple of months ago I reviewed the new book Bobby Fischer Goes to War for the Spectator. The book is about Fischer’s chaotic but ultimately triumphant 1972 world championship match against Soviet titleholder Boris Spassky. Its title, however, might well apply to Fischer’s life since 1972. For thirty-odd years, the greatest chessplayer who ever lived has been at war with an array of forces imagined and real, ranging from publishers to churches to California cops to the U.S. government.
On Tuesday, Fischer was arrested in Tokyo’s Narita Airport after trying to leave Japan on an American passport that had been cancelled in December 2003. This action was, one must say, thoroughly typical. In 1992, Fischer willfully violated United Nations sanctions against Yugoslavia by playing (and winning) a match in the Montenegrin resort of Sveti Stefan against Spassky. Since then he has been a fugitive from American law.
But what kind of fugitive makes frequent trips between foreign countries when he knows he could be subject to arrest at any moment? Didn’t Fischer know that Japan has perhaps the most stringent foreign residency controls in the developed world, not to mention a mutually binding extradition treaty with the U.S.?
The carelessness is typical, and is just one of the many symptoms of the abominably poor adaptation to reality that Fischer has displayed since well before 1972. With comically predictable timing, he has already advanced the claim of torture that every student of Fischerian history knew was coming. On his website — which is just as obsessive, foul, and disorganized as you might expect — he claims to have been “viciously attacked brutalized seriously injured and very nearly killed” by the authorities.
If the Japanese did handle Fischer so roughly, it is curious that — within hours of his arrest — he should have been given World Wide Web access in order to broadcast details of the abuse to the world.
But information about Fischer’s whereabouts has been available for a long time to even the most casual follower of chess. If the United States had been serious about keeping tabs on the ex-champ to account for his 1992 felony, they had a good opportunity to start doing so in 1997, when he successfully applied in person for an American passport at the U.S. Embassy in Bern. Switzerland was not then a U.N. member, so Fischer could not have been detained on the American arrest warrant. But for six years he traveled around the world without impediment on that passport. If there was indeed a “hunt” for Fischer, it wasn’t very careful or vigorous.
Even without a valid passport, he was entitled to return to the United
States to face the federal charges against him, but this obviously wasn’t his intention last week. Fischer writes of himself in the third person, “Bobby Fischer does not wish to return to the Jew-controlled USA where he faces a kangaroo court and 10 years in Federal prison and a likely early demise or worse on trumped political charges. Nor does he wish to remain in a hostile brutal and corrupt U.S.-controlled Japan.”
Probably he meant to make his way back to Manila, where he makes occasional radio appearances full of bilious, Tourettic anti-Semitism. He is rumored to have a child there, and his Filipino friends include Eugenio Torre, the dean of chess in that country.
Fischer may never see the Philippines again. The dangling question is why his passport was suddenly revoked last year after he was allowed to swan about the world with it for so long. The U.S. State Department hasn’t said yet whether it will make a request to have Fischer extradited, but it’s hard to see why it would have withdrawn the passport if it didn’t mean to try him. He is seeking an “immediate offer of political asylum from a friendly third country,” but he’d have to get there first.
THE SENTIMENT IN THE chess world is in favor of having Fischer brought home for trial, in the expectation that he will finally be treated for his mental illness. It’s hard to know how realistic this is. Fischer is lucid: Although he entertains conspiratorial delusions, it seems improbable that he would meet the legal requirements for an exculpatory finding of insanity.
But it is also hard to imagine him cooperating with his own defense. That he will sooner or later try to fire any lawyer assigned to him, or hired by him, is a safe bet. It will be interesting to see how a judge reacts to the inevitable badgering, hectoring, and vituperation Fischer can be expected to display in court.
The sad truth is that at 61, Fischer is right to question his own ability to survive a long stretch in prison. Most people with impairments like his don’t live so long in the first place, and they certainly don’t do well in jail. You can call him schizophrenic, or “bipolar,” or whatever you like. Clearly some description of the sort is valid, whether or not these are illnesses or mere personality types.
Ten years is merely the maximum American penalty for his violation of
U.N. sanctions, and a good defense lawyer would emphasize the absurdity of imprisoning a man for having aided and abetted a long-defeated regime in a country that, technically, no longer exists. Playing chess, after all, isn’t quite the same thing as smuggling yellowcake.
Spassky returned to Russia right after the Yugoslav match and was punished only with temporary travel restrictions. But Fischer has arguably committed at least one additional felony under U.S. law by attempting to travel with an invalid American passport.
THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT WOULD probably not help its reputation abroad by treating Fischer more harshly than Russia treated Spassky. His name is known wherever chess is played, and he would be regarded widely as a political prisoner. And, indeed, there would be at least an ounce of truth in the description.
I don’t have much sympathy for Fischer, though it is worth remembering that there is no record of him having harmed anyone but himself. It is unfortunate that he remains the face of American chess thirty years after he refused to defend the world championship. His reappearance in the headlines will only make matters worse, and ensure that he remains the favorite topic of conversation amongst chessplayers.
Like some haggard ghost, he haunts even the World Chess Federation lists: In theory he still holds a 2780 Elo rating, branded with an “i” for “inactive.” If his active status were revived he’d be, technically, rated ten points higher than the present world champion, Vladimir Kramnik.
We presume, when we regard a mentally “sick” man, that there must be really a decent person underneath all the maladjustment, delusions, and torment. Some chess fans seem to expect that coercive psychological treatment will reveal a “real” Fischer no one has ever seen — a Fischer who plays great chess for art’s sake, without quarreling or cosseting. The best one can really hope for is that the ugly legal process will be gotten over with as quickly as possible, and he will be allowed to resume his sordid life of angry solitude somewhere — out of sight, but for lovers of chess, never quite out of mind.