Born in Chicago on March 9, 1943, Robert James Fischer was a child prodigy, competitively playing chess from the age of 8. Bobby Fischer popularized the game of chess, making it front-page news, and justifying a vast increase in the amount of money awarded to the winner of the World Championship. As the first American World Champion, he drew worldwide attention for his eccentric antics and his extraordinary skill. Fischer was so superior to his world-class opponents that he won the qualifying rounds of the world championship with unprecedented wipeout scores of 6-0, 6-0, and 6-0. Further, he was singlehandedly able to defeat the combined efforts of the entire, very powerful, Soviet chess establishment.
Fischer possessed a rare talent, combined with a volatile personality. His refusal to continue a match with chess master Reshevsky in 1961, turning away from the 1962 World Championship, and deserting an international tournament in Sussa in 1967, are only some of the examples of his hot temper.
Fischer began playing chess at the age of 6, with the help of his older sister. His playing style was highlighted by the precision of his thinking, sharpened to be almost mechanical. Considered by many to be the best player ever, Fischer became the youngest player to win the United States Junior Championship at age 13. At 14, he won the United States Open Championship for the first of eight times. At 15, he became an international grand master, the youngest person to hold the title. When asked if he had invented a new chess formula, Fischer’s usual answer was: “No, my secret lies in the mistakes made by my opponents. I was just successful at using them to my advantage.”
He became a Cold War hero in 1972 when he defeated Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union at a widely followed series of matches in Iceland to become the first officially recognized word chess champion born in the United States. The Fischer-Spassky match took on mythic dimensions as a clash between the world’s two superpowers.
He lost the title on April 3, 1975, however, when he forfeited his match against Anatoly Karpov because he disagreed with the terms set for the match by the International Chess Foundation. He had wanted those terms to include a clause that said if the two were in a 9-9 tie, they would be declared co-champions, and the prize money would be split evenly.
Fischer dropped out of competitive chess after this, spending time in Hungary and the Philippines, and emerging occasionally to make outspoken and often outrageous comments. He resurfaced for a dramatic rematch against Spassky in the former Yugoslavia in 1992, beating him 10-5 to win $3.35 million.
After that, the fiercely private Fischer disappeared, living in secret outside the United States. The U.S. government accused Fischer of violating U.N. sanctions against Yugoslavia and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, by playing in the 1992 rematch against Spassky, and placed an international “wanted” alert for his whereabouts and return.
While incognito, Fischer intermittently gave interviews with a radio station in the Philippines, often digressing into anti-Jewish rants and accusing American officials of hounding him. In radio interviews, he praised the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying America should be “wiped out,’” and described Jews as “thieving, lying bastards.’’ Fischer’s mother was Jewish. He also announced that he had abandoned chess in 1996 and launched a new version in Argentina, “Fischerandom,’’ or random chess, a computerized shuffler that randomly distributes chess pieces on the back row of the chess board at the start of each game.
After decades of evading the public eye and U.S. justice officials, former world champion Bobby Fischer was taken into custody by Japanese immigration after allegedly trying to leave the country with an invalid passport. Fischer was detained at Narita Airport outside Tokyo while trying to board a Japan Airlines flight for the Philippines on July 13, 2004. He was threatened with extradition. Fischer renounced his U.S. citizenship and spent nine months in custody before the dispute was resolved when Iceland - a chess-mad nation of 300,000 - granted him citizenship.
Fischer moved to Iceland in 2005 to avoid extradition to the United States, where he was wanted for playing in the 1992 chess match in the former Yugoslavia in violation of international sanctions. The sanctions were imposed on the former Yugoslavia for provoking warfare in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Fischer died of kidney failure on January 17, 2008, at the age of 64, in Reykjavik, Iceland after a long illness.
Sources: Talmadge, Eric. “Ex-Chess Champ Fischer Detained in Tokyo” The Associated Press, (July 16, 2004).
Jews in Sports.
“Former Chess Champion Dies, aged 64,” Jerusalem Post, (January 19, 2008).
Benyamin Cohen, “Forwarding the News,” Forward, (April 3, 2023).
Photo: Verhoeff, Bert / Anefo, CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.