Sunday, February 13, 2011

Brady Biography Paints Nuanced Portrait of Enigmatic Chess Champion Bobby Fischer

The Bobby Fischer story began with an American boy's passionate obsession for chess and climaxed with his remarkable 1972 triumph over the Soviet chess machine at the height of the Cold War. Instead of enjoying a long reign at the top, Fischer fled into a self-imposed exile from tournament play punctuated by a brief return to public view for a controversial 1992 20th anniversary rematch with his 1972 opponent Boris Spassky. Fischer won that match, received a $3.5 million purse in violation of a United States trade embargo with the former Yugoslavia and spent his remaining days on the run from U.S. authorities. After much controversy--including nine months of incarceration in a Japanese jail--Fischer's story concluded with a quiet denouement in Iceland, the site of his 1972 victory.

Although Fischer (1943-2008) has been world famous since the 1950s, much of his adult life has been shrouded in mystery and he has been subjected to a great deal of armchair psychoanalysis/random speculation. When Fischer was a rising chess star, Dr. Frank Brady wrote Profile of a Prodigy, a book that stood for many years as the definitive biography of the young Fischer. In his new book Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall--From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness, Dr. Brady both adds depth to his earlier depiction of Fischer the prodigy and also provides the most compelling and complete treatment to date of what Dr. Brady calls Fischer's "wilderness years"--the second half of Fischer's life, largely spent in seclusion after his 1972 defeat of World Champion Boris Spassky in what has been justifiably called "The Match of the Century."

Dr. Brady's account is well sourced: he had access to a previously unknown autobiographical essay that Fischer wrote as a teenager, numerous personal letters to/by Fischer and a host of other materials located in various historical archives. Dr. Brady served as an arbiter (tournament director), a U.S. Chess Federation official (founding editor of Chess Life magazine) and a chess journalist during Fischer's prime years and in those capacities he frequently had personal interactions with Fischer.

In his "Author's Note," Dr. Brady explains that Endgame is his attempt to answer a question he has been asked hundreds of times: "What was Bobby Fischer really like?" Dr. Brady adds, "For this book, I obtained access to portions of the KGB and FBI files on Bobby and his mother; the files not only provided me with insights but also with specific information that corrects previously published versions of Bobby's life (including my own)." One of Dr. Brady's most appealing traits as a writer/researcher is the obvious value that he places on truth over speculation and/or sensationalism. A fascinating aspect of Dr. Brady's new book is that he found much evidence to correct the long-held belief that Fischer became estranged from his mother Regina at a very early age; Dr. Brady refutes the notion that Fischer went decades without speaking to his mother and notes that when Fischer became financially strapped Regina arranged for her Social Security checks to be sent to him. Fischer supposedly made an off-hand remark in a 1962 interview with Ralph Ginzburg that he had to "get rid of her" because he did not get along with his mother but while it is true that for a while the high school dropout lived in an apartment alone (Regina went on a peace march and then relocated to England after getting married) it is not true that their relationship suffered a permanent rift. In fact, Fischer angrily denied making that specific statement about his mother and asserted that Ginzburg misquoted him several times. Dr. Brady writes, "Previous to this, Bobby had already been wary of journalists. The Ginzburg article, though, sent him into a permanent fury and created a distrust of reporters that lasted the rest of his life" (p. 139). As a 14 year old, Fischer pleaded with a New York Times writer, "Ask me something usual, instead of trying to make me look unusual." The media's attempts to make Fischer seem strange--"an idiot savant, with the emphasis on the first word rather than the second" as Dr. Brady puts it (p. 71)--and Fischer's sensitivity about how he was portrayed undoubtedly had a powerful effect on many of his later attitudes and actions.

Fischer's IQ was reportedly in excess of 180 but he proved to be a bored, disinterested and restless student. Fischer attended six different schools by the time he reached fourth grade, including a one day stint at a private school for gifted children. The best academic match for him during his early days proved to be Brooklyn Community Woodward, an institution that emphasized the value of each student studying individually according to his own inclinations as opposed to dryly memorizing facts and dates. Fischer's primary role at the school was to teach the other students how to play chess. One teacher later recalled, "He easily beat everybody, including the chess-playing members of the faculty. No matter what he played, whether it was baseball in the yard, or tennis, he had to come out ahead of everybody. If he'd been born next to a swimming pool he would have been a swimming champion. It just happened to be chess." Fischer attended Brooklyn Community Woodward for four years, until it was time to go to high school, and he enjoyed the relative freedom he experienced there.

Although Fischer set numerous age-related records--including youngest U.S. Chess Champion (14 years old) and youngest Grandmaster (15 years old, a mark that stood from 1958 until 1991)--he was a relatively late bloomer as prodigies go: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began composing music at the age of five, while Grandmaster Samuel Reshevsky performed simultaneous exhibitions against adult chess players starting at age eight; in contrast, as late as age 13 Fischer had a relatively modest chess rating of 1726 (as posted in the U.S. Chess Federation's May 20, 1956 official rating list)--Class "B," a very solid club level player, but well below Expert (2000) or Master (2200) status, let alone Grandmaster level (2500+ on the more prestigious FIDE rating chart). It is certainly impressive for a 13 year old to become a "B" player but it is far from unprecedented--and in today's era there have been many players who reached Grandmaster level by age 13 (though current ratings are perhaps inflated to some degree).

However, as Fischer famously put it, he quickly "just got good"; only a couple months after the publication of that 1726 rating, Fischer became the youngest U.S. Junior Champion (a record he still holds) and he soon followed up that triumph by tying for fourth-eighth place in the 1956 U.S. Open. In October 1956, Fischer stunned the chess world with the "Game of the Century," sacrificing his Queen to defeat Donald Byrne, one of the top players in the United States. By May 1957, Fischer had gained an astounding 500-plus rating points in just one year, becoming the youngest master in U.S. history (a mark later broken). At age 16, Fischer dropped out of Erasmus Hall High School and completely dedicated all of his efforts to becoming the best chess player in the world.

Although Fischer's abrupt disappearance from professional chess after 1972 is well known even to people who do not follow chess closely, Fischer's entire career was punctuated by sudden hiatuses followed by surprising returns to action. Fischer won the U.S. Championship a record eight times but after organizers rejected his request to change the format from a round robin to a double round robin he never played in the event again; ironically, while the 1968 U.S. Championship was in progress Fischer--who later became infamous for spouting anti-Semitic slurs--journeyed to Israel to participate in small international tournament. In the previous year, Fischer had a nearly insurmountable lead but withdrew from the Sousse Interzonal when organizers would not adjust the playing schedule to accommodate his religious beliefs (at the time Fischer was a member of the Worldwide Church of God and he therefore observed the Jewish Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown at Saturday).

Fischer very publicly stated his belief that the Soviet Union's top players were conspiring to prevent him from breaking that country's decades-long hold on the World Championship. Fischer's complaints reeked of paranoia and/or sour grapes--except for the fact that information later released from KGB files proved that Fischer's charges were true! As the saying goes, just because you are paranoid it does not mean that people aren't out to get you. Fischer's paranoia seems to be a complex amalgamation of legitimate grievances thrown together with bizarre conspiracy theories; in many instances, any reasonable person in possession of all of the facts would agree with Fischer that he had been wronged--but no reasonable person would make the leaps in "logic" (and I use that term extremely loosely) that Fischer did when he issued his sweeping accusations about vast conspiracies directed against him. The blunt question I have always asked myself about Fischer is this: How could someone who was clearly brilliant not only believe such nonsense but spout it with such vigor and conviction? The only answer I can come up with is that Fischer possessed a highly logical, though in some ways very rigid, mind; much as he sought to impose order on the chessboard with a clear and pure chess style focused on searching for the essential truth in a position, Fischer sought to discern order in the functioning of political, economic and societal systems--but the problem is that such systems are inherently disorderly and illogical. Rather than accept that much of what happens in the world is messy, nonsensical and even evil, Fischer tried to construct a framework to explain all of the bad things that happened to him (and others). I think that in many ways it is a struggle for a genius of Fischer's caliber to remain completely sane unless he has a very strong psychological character, because a high level genius is not only keenly aware of how flawed the world is but it is very difficult for such a person to just disregard this knowledge and focus on day to day living. In Fischer's case, his problem was exacerbated at times by the presence of hangers-on who sometimes goaded Fischer into saying controversial things; I think that it is very noteworthy that in his last years in Iceland when Fischer was finally granted a measure of the peace and solitude he had long sought we no longer heard reports of Fischer publicly spewing hate: without people constantly reminding him of how he had been wronged, Fischer no longer felt the need to construct a "rational" (to him) explanation for actions that had hurt him personally or professionally.

Dr. Brady's book is meant to appeal to an audience beyond chess aficionados, so it is perhaps understandable that his account of Fischer's ascent to the World Championship contains no detailed game analysis and glosses over some of the particulars regarding how players qualified for the World Championship cycle but there is one odd omission: since Fischer did not participate in the U.S. Championship (a Zonal tournament in the parlance of the day) he would not have been eligible for the 1970-72 World Championship cycle if Pal Benko had not graciously given up his spot after Fischer switched gears and expressed interest in competing in the Interzonal. Dr. Brady's account jumps straight to the 1970 Interzonal without mentioning how Benko's self-sacrifice helped Fischer. After Benko stepped aside, Fischer embarked on an unprecedented run of dominance--including 20 straight victories versus elite Grandmasters, punctuated by back to back 6-0 sweeps in Candidates matches--that culminated in his victory over Spassky.

Fischer's incessant demands nearly derailed the match with Spassky and Dr. Brady describes (p. 193) a crucial moment when "Fischer, in his underwear, sat in his hotel room, the door bolted and the telephone unplugged, a picture in stony resistance. His mind was made up: 'If I ask for one thing and they don't give it to me, I don't play.'" Spassky could easily have returned to the Soviet Union in a huff, forcing FIDE to forfeit Fischer, but Spassky felt great fondness for his over the board rival--he later said "My brother is dead" after Fischer passed away--and he defied Soviet authorities by staying in Iceland until the match organizers were able to placate Fischer. A similar story had a much different ending three years later when Anatoly Karpov, the Soviet Union's newest chess star, emerged as Fischer's challenger. Fischer had a long list of requirements and FIDE ultimately agreed to all but two. This was unacceptable to Fischer, who sent a short cable to FIDE President Max Euwe declaring, "FIDE has decided against my participation in the 1975 World Chess Championship. Therefore, I resign my FIDE World Chess Championship title." The sticking points for Fischer were that he wanted draws to not count, with victory going to the first player to win 10 games (in the event of a 9-9 tie, the players would split the prize money but the champion would retain the title). Chess fans, statisticians and others have debated about what is the best format for a World Championship match but it is important to note that for years the Soviet World Champion Botvinnik enjoyed a rematch clause that essentially enabled him to control the title from 1948-63 with only a couple brief interruptions; having to beat the World Champion two matches in a row to keep the title is surely more onerous than having to win 10 games in one match with draws not counting.

The proposed Fischer-Karpov match would have awarded $3.5 million to the winner and $1.5 million to the loser; Dr. Brady reports that it is the largest rejected purse in sports history. Fischer turned down many other potentially lucrative matches and/or endorsement opportunities in the next few years. Fischer tithed a significant portion of his 1972 winnings to the Worldwide Church of God and after he broke from the Church he subsisted on book royalties. His financial situation became increasingly precarious and eventually he was residing in flophouses while depending on his mother's Social Security checks for his basic needs. In 1981, Fischer spent a night in a Pasadena jail when police questioned him about a bank robbery and then arrested him for vagrancy after he could not provide proof of his identity or residence. Needless to say, the descent from World Champion to vagrant in less than a decade is not a pretty picture but Dr. Brady describes with sensitivity Fischer's desire for solitude and his fear that the KGB wanted to kill him for dethroning Spassky. There is no proof that the Soviets ever plotted to kill Fischer, though there is ample evidence that they engaged in psychological warfare against him when he was an active player and that their players colluded against him in World Championship qualifying play before the Candidates round was changed from a tournament to a series of matches to prevent such collusion.

Fischer returned to public view in 1992 when a shady figure named Jezdimir Vasiljevic offered to sponsor a Fischer-Spassky match for $5 million. Vasiljevic had a simple method for dealing with the mercurial Fischer's numerous demands: he complied with everything Fischer asked, including providing $500,000 to Fischer before the match began. Spassky, guaranteed at least $1.5 million even if he lost the match, was hardly in any mood to complain--by that time he barely cracked the top 100 in the world rankings and had no other way to obtain such a payday. Fischer insisted that draws not count, with victory going to the first player to win 10 games, and he also insisted that they use the digital chess clock he invented to eliminate the time scrambles that Fischer felt ruined the artistry of the game; Fischer's clock added an increment after each move and has now become standard tournament fare.

The only problem about the match was Vasiljevic's chosen venue: Sveti Stefan, an island just off the coast of war-torn Yugoslavia, a country that had been slapped with a trade embargo by the United States. The U.S. Treasury Department sent Fischer a letter commanding him to not participate in the match--and Fischer famously read the letter aloud at a press conference before spitting on it and throwing it in the trash. Fischer won the match and banked $3.5 million but he spent the rest of his life as a fugitive from the U.S. government. Dr. Brady writes that Fischer "identified with the character played by Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, that he sometimes felt as though he lived in a Kafkaesque world where he--Bobby--like Truman, was the only honest person in the world and everyone else was an actor" (p. 270). Fischer had not paid U.S. taxes since 1977, when his lawsuit regarding the book Bobby Fischer vs. the Rest of the World was thrown out of court; Fischer felt that the court system was corrupt and therefore he refused to subsidize the government that ran the court system.

Fischer believed that every setback he faced was the result of a vast conspiracy against him and his fury really boiled over after a mistake led to many of his prized possessions being auctioned off. Fischer exclaimed that his "whole life" had been robbed from him; in addition to the sentimental value of the items in question, it has been estimated that just the original scoresheets from Fischer's exhibition tour of South America were likely worth more than $100,000. Dr. Brady explains what happened: after Fischer left California in 1992 for the Spassky match, he arranged for all of his property to be consolidated in a room at a public storage facility and he annually sent $5,000 to attorney Robert Ellsworth to pay the storage fees (and handle some other matters). Somehow, Ellsworth neglected to pay a $480 fee to the storage facility, so the owners of that facility contractually had the right to dispose of the contents of the storage room. When Ellsworth realized his mistake he spent $8,000 to buy back some of Fischer's property but after he shipped 12 boxes to Fischer (who then lived in Hungary) a heartbroken Fischer asked "Where's the rest?" Fischer said that there had been more than 100 boxes in the storage room. Fischer was understandably outraged and he did numerous radio interviews "expounding on his theory that he was a victim of a conspiracy that involved a Jewish cabal, the U.S. government, the Russians, Robert Ellsworth and the Bekins Storage company" (p. 273). The interviews did not receive much initial attention but got a much wider audience once they made it on to the internet. Fischer sank to an all-time low with a 12 minute diatribe that he delivered in the wake of the 9/11 attacks; his deplorable comments were widely disseminated on the internet and they inspired the U.S. government to renew its interest in arresting Fischer for his 1992 embargo violations.

Fischer had been able to travel freely with a U.S. passport even after 1992 but when he ventured to Tokyo in 2004 officials detained him and said that his passport was not valid. Fischer languished in jail for nine months as U.S. and Japanese authorities wrangled about what to do with him. Meanwhile, Fischer's supporters appealed to Iceland--site of Fischer's greatest triumph--to offer him citizenship and asylum. Dr. Brady quotes (p. 291) a letter sent by the Icelandic Chess Federation to U.S. President George W. Bush:

"The Icelandic Chess Federation is, of course, aware of the obscene anti-Semitic and anti-American remarks that Bobby Fischer has made over the last year on different occasions. The Federation is appalled by these remarks, as any civilized body would be, and sees them as signs of a deranged and devastated psyche. In 1992, in Yugoslavia, however, Bobby Fischer's only crime was to play chess again, after years of isolation. The Icelandic Chess Federation urges the President of the United States to pardon Bobby Fischer and let him go free."

A "deranged and devastated psyche"--what a poignantly apt description of Fischer's inner torments!

Ultimately, Fischer received Icelandic citizenship and Japan released him from jail. Fischer spent his remaining years in Iceland, away from the spotlight and free to spend his days alone in a bookstore or library reading books on a wide variety of subjects. However, that happy ending was not really so happy: Fischer eventually turned against even the very people who had helped obtain his freedom. Dr. Brady explains, "Bobby had been using different forms of fallacious logic to accuse and attack whole classes of people, such as the Jews. Now he used his spurious logic against benevolent Icelanders. His illogical syllogism went something like this:

Saemi cheated and betrayed me.
Saemi is an Icelander.
Therefore all Icelanders are cheaters and betrayers" (p. 313).

Saemi Palsson had been Fischer's bodyguard during the 1972 match and he played a role in helping Fischer to become an Icelandic citizen but Fischer broke ties with Palsson because Fischer felt that Palsson was trying to make money off of Fischer's name by cooperating with a producer who was making a movie about Fischer.

Dr. Brady concludes, "Those who directly experienced his thanklessness were saddened but stoic. 'Well, that's Bobby,' one Icelander observed. 'We have to take him as he is.' It was as if he were a changeling, a troubled child not so secretly adopted by the Icelanders, but with love and understanding" (p. 314).

In 2007, Fischer became quite ill but he resisted getting medical treatment due to his lifelong distrust of doctors. By the time he went to the hospital, Fischer was told that he had less than three months to live unless he received dialysis. Fischer refused and he also declined to receive any pain medication. Fischer's friend Pal Benko later told Dr. Brady that he believed this was a despondent Fischer's way of committing suicide slowly; Fischer had come to view Iceland as a "prison" but he feared that if he left the country he would be arrested and sent to the United States to stand trial.

Fischer got his wish to have a simple funeral ceremony without any media presence but even in death he still could not completely rest in peace: a dispute about the disposition of his estate resulted in him being disinterred so that a DNA sample could be taken to ascertain whether or not he had fathered a child in the Philippines. The paternity test results were negative but it still has not been determined who will inherit what remains of Fischer's 1992 winnings.

Dr. Brady's rendering of Fischer's life is sympathetic but balanced, a story of a genius' great triumphs and heartrending suffering.

Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall--From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (hardcover, 416 pages), is available in stores now and can also be ordered directly from the publisher.

Further Reading:

Interview With Dr. Frank Brady, Author of Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall--From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness

Bobby Fischer's Mixed Legacy


DanielSong39 said...

Tragic story of one of history's greatest talents.

One often wonders why he couldn't just keep his mouth shut, keep his act clean and just let his chess speak for itself. He was a true legend and it was sad to see him self-destruct time and time again.

It was incredible to see him still play at a grand-master level in 1992, after 20 years away from tournament play. It would've been the comeback of comebacks and I would've loved to see him play in a few more tournaments.

But I think the chess world was truly fortunate to be graced with his genius. Kasparov did a fine job of carrying his mantle and Magnus Carlsen may do the same.

Ilhan said...

David, both the review and the interview are splendid. Thank you.

If I might make a suggestion, could you please change the interface of 20secondtimeout so that not only the link but also the last entry of this blog is seen on there? Often, I forget about BEST and only look for new content on 20second. Thank you again.

From some of what you used as epigraphs etc. in your work on 20second, I am guessing you are a fan of, at least, classic / golden age hip hop. I really wonder what you could do on that topic as a journalist and analyst.

David Friedman said...


There is a link to BEST near the top of the right hand sidebar on the main page of 20 Second Timeout, so interested readers can easily check to see if there is new content at BEST. I am not sure how to change the template so that a link to the newest BEST post automatically appears at 20 Second Timeout.

I do have an interest in classic hip hop, a poetic and musical art form that has been used brilliantly by many talented artists.

Ilhan said...

If you want to try it:

Under 'Design' tab (next to 'Settings' tab), choose 'Configure Blog List'. Check 'Title of Most Recent Item'.

It would make my life easier and have, I suspect, a positive effect on BEST's traffic.

David Friedman said...


Although I am using the new blogger template here at BEST I am still using classic blogger (or whatever it is officially called) over at 20 Second Timeout, so there is not a "design" tab in the 20 Second Timeout blogger template. I figured that by placing the link to BEST near the top of the righthand sidebar I made it easy for any 20 Second Timeout readers who are interested in other sports to check out what is new at BEST.