He was a brilliant but controversial chess world champion responsible for a global boom in the game
Saturday January 19, 2008
Robert "Bobby" Fischer, who has died aged 64 of kidney failure after a long illness, was the best-known and most controversial player in the history of chess. His world championship victory over Boris Spassky at Reykjavik in 1972 captured public and media imagination with its image of a lone American eccentric defeating the massive resources of the Soviet state.
Fischer's achievement sparked a global chess boom, yet he defaulted his title without pushing a pawn, did not play a single competitive game for another 20 years, and alienated many of his admirers by his extreme and profanely expressed political views.
Although Fischer had swept aside all opponents in eliminators leading up to Reykjavik, Spassky had beaten him three times without reply in their previous games. The New Yorker failed to appear in Iceland for the opening ceremony, but the London financier Jim Slater saved the 24-game match by doubling the prize fund. When play began, Fischer made a terrible start. He lost the first game by a simple miscalculation and forfeited the second after a dispute over television cameras. The series seemed on the brink of collapse, but US supporters, including Henry Kissinger, urged him to continue as a patriotic duty, while the match referee Lothar Schmid persuaded Spassky to play the third game in a small room without spectators.
Fischer won it in style, and his first victory over Spassky unleashed his creative energy. In the next seven games he overwhelmed the Russian by inventive chess, helped by some elementary mistakes from the champion. By game 13, Fischer was 8-5 up and coasting, and the final score was 12.5-8.5. On his return home, New York gave him a civic reception, but Fischer complained that President Nixon had failed to invite him to the White House.
Fischer was born in Chicago and raised in Brooklyn. His Jewish mother Regina was a nurse, and his German father Hans-Gerhardt Fischer a physicist. The pair divorced when Fischer was two, and there is evidence that his biological father was actually a Hungarian, Paul Nemenyi, who Regina met while separated from her husband. Nemenyi, also a physicist, worked in Chicago in 1942 on the Manhattan project, developing the nuclear bomb.
When Fischer was six, his older sister Joan bought a chess set, and they learned to play from the enclosed instructions. The boy soon became obsessed with the game, though his improvement was steady and unspectacular until in 1955 he joined the Manhattan, the leading club in the US, and began regular visits to Jack Collins, an expert who possessed an extensive library which Fischer read avidly.
During the next two years he went from moderate amateur to US champion. Early adolescence is the most common age for such huge improvements, and Fischer's was honed by daily five-minute blitz sessions at the Manhattan and by Collins's Russian magazines and bulletins. In late 1956 he achieved world prominence when his queen sacrifice against Donald Byrne at New York was dubbed "the game of the century" by Chess Review. In chess circles, it remains the best-known of all his wins.
He continued to improve throughout 1957 at an extravagant rate. In August, he won the US Open at Cleveland, Ohio, thus qualifying for the 1957-58 US closed championship. There, scoring eight wins, five draws and no losses, he became the nation's youngest ever titleholder. From then on, except for Santa Monica in 1966, Fischer won every US tournament in which he competed. Most significant for his ambitions, the US closed was a qualifier for the 1958 world championship interzonal at Portoroz, Yugoslavia. He started the interzonal slowly but finished fifth to become the youngest ever world title candidate and grandmaster.
The 1959 candidates, also in Yugoslavia, included those who would challenge for the world crown in 1960. Fischer was fifth out of eight and the highest non-Soviet competitor, a unique achievement for a 16-year-old, but was crushed 4-0 by Mikhail Tal, who went on to beat Mikhail Botvinnik for the title.
In autumn 1960 Fischer led the US team to silver medals behind the USSR in the chess Olympiad at Leipzig, drawing his individual game with Tal. Handsome and more than 6ft tall, he was friendly, talkative, and took pride in his growing collection of suits. Claiming to be a palm-reader, he took Tal's hand and said: "I can see that the next world champion is going to be a young American." After Leipzig, he visited London and Savile Row, and agreed to take part in a consultation game on BBC radio's weekly half-hour chess programme. His fee was £50, which covered the cost of the suit.
Fischer's opponents were Jonathan Penrose, the British champion, and Peter Clarke. I was nominally the American's consultation partner, but the producer told me that my real job was to encourage the sometimes taciturn Fischer to verbalise his ideas. This proved unexpectedly easy since Fischer had the advantage throughout and explained eloquently the value of two bishops against knights. However, the opponents proved good defenders, and after a marathon eight-hour session, the studio recording time ran out with no decision. Despite Fischer's claims that the game was resignable, the producer ruled that the position should go for adjudication, and the former world champion Max Euwe declared it drawn.
The next day, after being fitted for his suit, Fischer visited my home. He had a prodigious appetite and ate most of the contents of my mother's well-stocked fridge. We played five-minute blitz at which, although I was then British lightning champion, he trounced me: "You're just a British weakie." Fischer's deep-set eyes, large hands and talon-like fingers had a charismatic, even hypnotic effect. He also had an excellent memory - but only for his own wins.
The first of his many disputes with organisers came in 1961, when the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky sponsored his match against Samuel Reshevsky, the top US grandmaster of the 1940s and early 1950s. There was mutual dislike between the players, and the games were bitterly fought until the score reached 5.5 each with five games left. Game 12 was rescheduled for a morning start because Piatigorsky had a concert that evening, but Fischer refused to appear. He was quoted as saying: "When he's losing, Reshevsky is like a cornered rat. How can you face that at breakfast?" Reshevsky was awarded the game and won the match by forfeit.
The next time I saw Fischer was at the 1962 Stockholm interzonal, which he won impressively with 17.5/22. The Soviet players were in awe, and he became the favourite among that summer's candidates on the Caribbean island of Curacao to decide a challenger to the ageing Botvinnik, who had regained the title from Tal. But Fischer began badly, while three Soviets, including Tigran Petrosian who won the event, arranged to draw among themselves in the hot climate and use their energies against the others. The pact leaked out, and Fischer brought it into the open with an article alleging "the Russians have fixed world chess".
He was still angry when the biennial team Olympiad opened in Varna, Bulgaria, in September 1962, where his game with Botvinnik in the US v USSR match was their only encounter. At first it went well for Fischer, and the game was adjourned overnight with his advantage. But Soviet analysts found a hidden trap which could save the champion, one also spotted by Fischer's teammate, the endgame specialist Pal Benko. According to the American captain, Fischer had refused to analyse with his teammate following an earlier argument which had ended in fisticuffs.
When play resumed, Fischer fell into the trap and the game was drawn. Fischer was in denial, tried to claim that Botvinnik was receiving advice during play, and left the board close to tears. Botvinnik told me: "Fischer has only spoken three words to me in his life. When we were introduced, he pointed to himself and said 'Fischer'. When we sat down to play here, we bumped heads and he said 'sorry'. At the end of the game, he said 'draw'."
Fischer then abandoned a direct quest for the world title for five years. He became involved with the Worldwide Church of God, a Californian sect, and this led to a further setback, despite impressive results. His performances up to the mid-1960s had included the occasional poor game or mediocre tournament, but from 1966 onwards he became almost invincible. He analysed openings such as the Ruy Lopez and poisoned pawn in depth, rarely got up from the board, refused draw offers, and squeezed out points from tiny endgame advantages. During this, his most fruitful creative period, he also wrote My 60 Memorable Games (1969), which proved an instant classic with its lucid insights and accurate analysis.
So it was no surprise in 1967 when Fischer began the Sousse interzonal in Tunisia with 8.5/10, but then a scheduling dispute with the organisers led to his withdrawal. As on other occasions, his rigid adherence to principle was continued to the point of self-destruction. A year later, he walked out of the US team at the start of the Lugano Olympiad after complaining about the light in the hall.
The US Chess Federation had watched events in Sousse and Lugano with dismay, so its chief executive Ed Edmondson arranged to act as manager during the next championship cycle. Starting with first place in the 1970 Palma interzonal, Fischer began an unprecedented surge which transformed him from world title contender to legend. His 6-0 win over Mark Taimanov in the 1971 candidates quarter-final at Vancouver caused panic in the Soviet chess establishment, who stripped the loser of his state stipend. Another 6-0 followed at Denver against Bent Larsen, the Dane who had been Fischer's rival as the leading western grandmaster. When Fischer won the opening round of his candidates final against Petrosian in Buenos Aires, his winning sequence had stretched to 21 games, still a record for top level chess. Petrosian won the next, but the final score, 6.5-2.5, was crushing.
The 1972 24-game world title match between Fischer and Spassky (who had won the crown from Petrosian in 1969) was originally intended to be split between Belgrade and Reykjavik, but the Yugoslav capital withdrew amid growing uncertainty over whether Fischer would play. Ostensibly, his reason was the low prize fund, $50,000 - he wanted a share of TV and spectator receipts - but there were also signs that, with his lifetime target so close, he was unsettled by the huge media interest and finding it hard to motivate himself. He was still in New York on the day of the opening ceremony, but the International Chess Federation (Fide) president Max Euwe postponed the start for two days, which was when Slater doubled the prize fund. Moscow pressed Spassky to claim a default but the Russian, who had struck up a friendship with Fischer years earlier, refused. It seemed he was right when Fischer lost game one by the simple blunder while the television camera dispute forfeited the second. At that stage, Spassky's lifetime score against his rival was 5-0, apart from draws.
From the next eight games, Fischer scored five wins and three draws, effectively deciding the match which limped on till game 21 and 12.5-8.5. Why such a huge swing? The months before the match had gone very differently for the two grandmasters. Spassky's preparation was casual, almost fatalistic. He preferred the tennis court to the chessboard, and his laziness shocked the rising star Anatoly Karpov, then his training partner. For his black games, Spassky worked almost exclusively on 1 e4 and king's side openings, but the American had a complete file of Spassky games provided by the British master Bob Wade, and made the crucial decision to use queen's side openings if his prime weapon, the Bc4 anti-Sicilian, was defused.
This occurred as early as the drawn fourth game, so for game six Fischer switched to 1 c4, transposing to the queen's gambit and winning in style. The next few games were a debacle with Fischer in prime form while Spassky became so blunder-prone that the Soviet camp filed a bizarre protest, asking that Fischer's executive chair and the light fittings above the board be examined for hidden devices. X-rays and inspections revealed just a pair of dead flies.
When Fischer returned to New York in triumph, he donated almost one-third of his winnings to the Worldwide Church of God. A global chess boom began, but he turned down all offers, both to play and to make commercial endorsements. By early 1974, there were growing rumours that he would not defend his title. When Karpov became the official challenger, Fischer issued a list of 179 demands as a condition to play. Fide accepted almost all, but the sticking point was the champion's request for an unlimited series of games, with 10 games required for victory and Fischer retaining his title at 9-9. When this condition was not met, Fischer sent a telegram resigning his title.
The wording implied that he still regarded himself as the real champion, and when Karpov was awarded the crown by default in April 1975, many regarded the Russian as unproven. Karpov wanted a match, and so did the new Fide president Florencio Campomanes of the Philippines, who had $3m backing from his country's president, Ferdinand Marcos. A secret meeting was arranged in Tokyo where Fischer greeted Karpov with the words: "Why don't you leave the Soviet Union?" Despite this start, the negotiations continued on and off for several months, finally foundering when Fischer demanded that the match be for the "professional world championship"- a term Karpov knew would be unacceptable in the USSR, which still maintained the fiction that its grandmasters were amateurs.
Fischer was still only 32 in 1975, but, bar one brief interlude, his top class chess career was over, and for the rest of his life he became increasingly paranoid. The Worldwide Church of God had sucked in most of his earnings, and he broke with them bitterly in 1977. In a bizarre episode in 1981, he was arrested by police because his description fitted that of a bank robber and he refused to answer questions. A year later he published a pamphlet complaining at his treatment, entitled I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse. He remained virulently anti-Russian, and claimed that all the games of all four world title matches between Karpov and the new number one Garry Kasparov were prearranged. A rare constructive action came in 1988 when he patented a digital chess clock which added extra time per move, aiming for fewer blunders as the players tried to beat flagfall. Fischer's patent expired in 2001 but during the past decade, digital clocks have become normal in international events.
It was a great surprise in 1992 when a Fischer v Spassky rematch was announced. Both needed the money, and the terms were astonishingly generous - $3.3m for the winner and $1.6m for the loser. Spassky, who had quit Russia for France, was ranked 99th in the world, while Fischer had stopped serious chess study for a decade. The venue was Yugoslavia, then subject to UN sanctions, and the sponsor, Jedzimir Vasiljevic, was suspected of financing Belgrade's arms deals. At the opening press conference Fischer spat on a US government letter warning him of imprisonment and a fine if he played, and railed against the alleged game fixing by Kasparov and Karpov. After 30 games, Fischer won 10-5 with 15 draws.
With a warrant out for his arrest, Fischer could not return to California. He took up residence in Budapest and began to test his new idea of Fischerandom, a different starting array for each game. All his games were in private and none have surfaced.
In 1998 Fischer's personal mementoes from Reykjavik were offered for sale on the internet after the individual he had deputed to pay the storage bills allegedly failed to do so. He saw this as part of a US government and Jewish plot, and his reaction was a series of virulent and profane radio broadcasts in the Philippines, where in 2000 he married and had a daughter with a Filipino woman 35 years his junior. The broadcasts culminated on September 11 2001 when he called a radio station in Baguio and praised the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre.
Two years later, his passport was revoked and on July 13 2004 he was arrested at Tokyo airport, where he was told he would be deported to the US to face charges for violating the Trading with the Enemy Act. He spent most of the next nine months in a Japanese detention centre while lawyers argued his case, claiming that he was a German citizen through his father's birth. He was eventually granted citizenship by Iceland. He turned down fresh playing offers, including a possible Fischerandom match with Karpov, and became embroiled in a dispute with his bank which had administered his prize money from 1992.
Fischer will be ranked high among the greatest chess players of all time, despite his personality defects. Most experts place him the second or third best ever, behind Kasparov but probably ahead of Karpov. As Kasparov himself wrote in My Great Predecessors, Fischer's superiority over his contemporaries at his peak was greater than any other world champion's. He brought will to win, in-depth preparation, and exact calculation not only of detailed variations but of strategies and endgames to new heights. He challenged the orthodox opening shibboleths, but was still essentially a classical player who could display supreme and subtle understanding of how to exploit what seemed small advantages. A fighter who abhorred short draws, he was a maximalist who won tournaments by wide margins.
Though his period of absolute supremacy was comparatively brief, the Fischer of 1970-72 will always remain a legendary figure who will inspire future grandmasters. His wife and daughter survive him.