Sunday, February 13, 2011
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.
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
Thursday, February 10, 2011
"I was in the store the other day and I saw PEOPLE magazine, and it had the cover of the 50 most beautiful people in the world, or America, and there was a picture of Pat. It was kind of ironic because I really looked and said, What is beauty? Is beauty a pretty face, a nice smile, flowing hair, nice skin? Not to me, it's not. To me beauty is living life to higher standards, stronger morals and ethics and believing in them, whether people tell you you're right or wrong. Beauty is not wasting a day. Beauty is noticing life's little intricacies and taking time out of your busy day to really enjoy those little intricacies. Beauty is being real, being genuine, being pure with no facade—what you see is what you get. Beauty is expanding your mind, always seeking. I believe that to really honor Pat, we should all challenge ourselves. No more I'm going to do this or I'm going to do that. Do it. As Pat would say, probably, 'Get off your ass and do it.' Why, you ask, should we honor him this way? Because that's what Pat did his whole life."
Sunday, February 6, 2011
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
Dr. Brady's newest book, 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. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Brady about Endgame:
Friedman: “You interacted with Bobby Fischer from the 1950s through 1972 and played hundreds of chess games against him—I’m assuming those were mostly blitz games.”
Dr. Brady: “All blitz games. Often it was five minutes against five minutes but after he beat me two or three times doing that he would reduce the time to four minutes on his clock. After he beat me with that he would reduce it to three minutes and then after he beat me with that he would reduce it to two minutes; so he was playing with two minutes and I was playing with five minutes and I would say I won two games out of hundreds that we played. At that time I could not beat him at five-five or five-four or five-three.”
Friedman: “What was your playing strength at that time?”
Dr. Brady: “At that time, my playing strength was about 2000 I think—somewhere in that neighborhood” (Ed. Note: this is Expert level, which is above the 90th percentile of rated tournament players).
Friedman: “When was the first time you played him?”
Dr. Brady: “The first time we played he was already U.S. Champion. He was a Grandmaster and he was probably the strongest player in the country by the time I started playing him” (Fischer became the youngest U.S. chess champion—a record he still holds—in 1958 at the age of 14, an accomplishment that earned him the International Master title; months later as a 15 year old, Fischer qualified for the Candidates round in the World Championship cycle, becoming the youngest Grandmaster ever, a record that stood until 1991).
Friedman: “A lot of people have talked about the phenomenon of 'Fischer fear' and the reaction that he would inspire in his opponents. How would you describe ‘Fischer fear’ both from the perspective of playing blitz games against him and also—I know that you directed the U.S. Championship when he went 11-0 and you were present at other high level events—what are your observations and thoughts about ‘Fischer fear’ pertaining to his games against elite caliber opponents?”
Dr. Brady: “I don’t think that the terminology of ‘Fischer fear’ really could apply to him. I don’t see that people got frightened of him or nervous or excited about playing him. I guess if you were a very weak player and had the opportunity to play him you would be afraid but what it was is you started to play him and very early on—I mean, you’re hardly out of the opening—you begin to realize that your position is deteriorating. Also, you begin to realize that his position is strengthening and because he is the best player in the United States and one of the best players in the world you realize that even if your position is slightly superior—which I hardly ever experienced personally—he is going to find a way to beat you because he is so good. But you continue to play; I never heard anyone say, ‘Boy, I’m really scared to play him.’ When I directed the U.S. Championship when he won 11 straight I didn’t hear any of the players say, ‘Boy, I’m afraid to face Fischer,’ nor did I hear any international players say that in the tournaments that we were at together. But people realized that he was a great player and that they were going to lose, so to that extent I guess there may have been players who did not like to play him.”
Friedman: “I don’t think that the phrase was uttered or expressed by a player but I believe it was a journalist who coined that term with the idea that in some of Fischer’s games—particularly when he made his run to the World Championship and had that streak of 20 straight wins—it seemed like some of his opponents kind of crumbled; as well as Fischer was playing, there also seemed to be a reverse effect with some of his opponents playing below their previous standards. They seemed to be having an adverse reaction to playing him, perhaps because he was playing so well that this put psychological pressure on them just to stay in the game. Maybe the term is not precise or not 100% apt but I remember this passage about how some strong Grandmasters—even former World Champions like Petrosian—seemed to be playing below their standards or they would get to a critical point and just blunder. Even Spassky did this (in the World Championship match).”
Dr.Brady: “Taimanov blundered. Larsen also blundered, but Fischer often said that many of the players he beat said that they were ill or playing below their usual strength and that is the reason that they lost. I like to think—and I’m not trying to trumpet Fischer’s strength—that it was not a fear of Fischer but merely Fischer’s strength that overwhelmed them; at the time that he beat Larsen six straight Larsen was truly one of the great players in the world.”
Friedman: “Much has been written about mastery of a given subject being the result of 10,000 hours of what is called 'effortful study.'”
Dr. Brady: “Malcolm Gladwell.”
Friedman: “Yes, right. How much of Fischer’s success do you attribute to innate talent, to a gift that he had, and how much do you attribute to the legendary work ethic he had?”
Dr. Brady: “It’s hard to put a percentage on it but he had all of these things. He was probably the foremost student of the game and I don’t know if there is anyone even now who is close to him. He studied six, seven, eight hours a day. He played over many games, studied endings. I could not confirm this story but someone said that one time when Fischer was trying to figure out a particular Rook ending that he had trouble understanding he took a hotel room—I think in Manhattan--so that he would be away from everybody and nobody would know where he was and he spent an entire weekend just going over this Rook ending so that he could master it. A great deal of what Bobby Fischer was resulted from his study. He also was brilliant and had an astronomical IQ. He had a tremendous competitive spirit. He was always competing, not only in chess—though chess may have perhaps made him even more competitive—but also in conversations and in other sports: when he swam he always wanted to win the race, when he went up to Grossinger’s to play tennis only the tennis pro could beat him—he beat everybody else. Even in social situations, he often got into arguments and he wanted to win the argument; it didn’t matter what would happen to the relationship, he always wanted to win. I quote him in the book—and I think that this is a telling quote—that Bobby once said, ‘I am always on the attack.’ He wasn’t just talking about the chessboard. So he had a competitive spirit, great study habits and a passion for the game. All of those factors made him great.”
Friedman: “In excerpts of the book that I have seen and in previous interviews in which you discussed the book, you took a very measured tone. You didn’t sensationalize different aspects of Fischer’s life or try to make speculations about anything if you didn’t have hard facts to support any conclusions. I know that you have been involved in journalism as both a writer and as an educator for several decades. Do you think that journalistic standards have declined recently, that there is a tendency for people to just make speculations and say reckless things without any support? If you agree that this is the case, why do you think this has happened and what could be done to improve the situation?”
Dr. Brady: “Wow. That is more of an educational question than a chess question but certainly I think that standards have reduced in terms of sensationalizing content. It comes down to money: that’s what sells. Standard kinds of books that do not expose dirty linen don’t sell. So you see movies with gratuitous sex and violence scenes that don’t really need to be there—and I am not a prude by any means; I am not talking about a moral point of view but scenes that don’t need to be there from a narrative point of view. People are drawn into it. Natalie Portman, who has been nominated for Best Actress, was quoted as saying that no one—no young males—would have come to see Black Swan if there had not been a lesbian scene in the film. People are attracted to sensationalized content. I don’t know what to do about it but I can tell you that publishers and film directors and everybody else want that kind of content in their work.”
Friedman: “The commercial element has always been present but do you think that recently it has gotten worse?”
Dr. Brady: “Everybody is trying to make a buck and indeed it is very difficult to stay afloat in publishing; Barnes and Nobles bookstores are closing all over Manhattan. I guess that people aren’t reading, so the books that are going to emerge are the books that are sensationalized. I try not to do that, as you pointed out—and thank you for observing that. It would be easy to do it, but not morally or ethically correct.”
Friedman: “I have so much respect for what you have done. When the second edition of Profile of a Prodigy came out you had new information that contradicted some of the things you had previously written but you did not cover it up or say that you had it right the first time; you were trying to find the truth, not trying to present yourself as flawless and not trying to write something that would be scandalous just to sell more copies. One of the things that struck me from your recent Chess Life interview is that you mentioned that a lot of people—and you included yourself—got the relationship between Fischer and his mother wrong, that the relationship was actually more complex or deeper than had been previously reported. Why do you think that some of the earlier accounts were incorrect and how did you obtain a deeper understanding of what Fischer’s relationship with his mother had really been like?”
Dr. Brady: “I knew Regina Fischer. I spent time with both of them alone. She was sort of a slightly pushy woman but only for Bobby’s good. She would say ‘Bobby, I want you to do this now.’ It’s called being a stage mother. ‘Why don’t you do this or do that for your career?’ She was directing him in ways that mothers might do with kids in their early teens: ‘Why don’t you say hello to that person?’ But I didn’t spend all that much time with her, so I didn’t know the true nature of their relationship. What happened was a certain number of stories appeared—especially that Harper’s magazine story, I don’t know if you ever read it.”
Friedman: “Right, the one by Ralph Ginzburg.”
Dr. Brady: “That story really made Bobby look terrible and it also negatively portrayed his relationship with his Mom. Bobby was perhaps guilty of braggadocio; even if he really said ‘I had to get rid of my Mom’ I don’t believe that this was the case. His mother indeed left to pursue other things—she went on this peace march and then she went back to medical school. In any event, I was under the impression that they had had many more contretemps than they actually did. As I pointed out in Chess Life, people do indeed argue with their parents—most of us did during our teen years—but that doesn’t mean we don’t love each other. Almost anything that Bobby said was going to be publicized and it could be distorted. People were always trying to make Bobby look unusual or crazy.
How did I find out the truth? It was through examination of his letters to his Mom covering a large period of years. She was a speed typist and she kept carbon copies of many of the letters that she sent to Bobby. You could just tell by the quality of the letters, the birthday cards, the Mother’s Day cards, the gifts that Bobby sent, the way that he wanted her to come back to the United States after she got her medical degree. He wanted a photograph of her when he was on his deathbed. Everything led up to the fact that they had a long term, loving relationship as mother and son—in fact, probably closer than almost anyone I know. So, I had to reinterpret that; I had to restate that.”
Friedman: “You mentioned in the Chess Life interview that for a period of time when he was destitute or did not have other forms of income he was surviving in part because she sent him her Social Security check.”
Dr. Brady: “That is another point. He knew that she loved him enough to do that. If they had a bad relationship then she wouldn’t have done it and he wouldn’t have asked for it. He did live on that for a number of years.”
Friedman: “Some accounts about Fischer’s personality and attitudes contend that he changed or got worse after he left chess in 1972 but I also remember a statement from GM Hartston who said—I am paraphrasing—that chess did not make Bobby Fischer crazy but rather it kept him sane. In other words, some people felt that chess provided balance for Fischer while other people felt that it contributed to whatever mental health problems he had. With all the research that you did and the new information that you found, do you think that Fischer showed some signs of mental disturbance when he was young or did something change when he got older? How do you think that aspect of his psychology evolved over the years?”
Dr. Brady: “Quite honestly, I never saw any aberration or even any deep neurosis when he was younger. He always marched to his own drummer. He could be obnoxious sometimes or aberrant in some ways but nothing that I would call in any way, shape or form mentally unbalanced. Then he won the World Championship in 1972 and from that point in time until his death he started reading and reading and reading. Yeah, he gave up chess but he was never really away from it. He continued studying. I don’t know if you knew that.”
Friedman: “I do.”
Dr. Brady: “In fact, thinking about his relationship with his Mom, when she was studying for her medical degree in Germany she could get Russian chess books for a very small amount of money so she was constantly sending him all of the Russian chess books.”
Friedman: “This was after 1972?”
Dr. Brady: “Yeah. In fact, he was getting so many of these packages of chess books and magazines that he finally had to write to her and say don’t send any more because it won’t fit in my apartment. So he never really gave up chess. That’s not what made him get more neurotic, I don’t think. He wanted to be alone. He was a J.D. Salinger/Greta Garbo kind of character and he enjoyed his own company more than that of others.”
Friedman: “Is it correct that when he was in his teens some of the other players—maybe even Reuben Fine (a strong Grandmaster who became a psychoanalyst)—suggested either to him or to chess organizers or to his mother that perhaps he should receive counseling or some kind of psychiatric treatment? Or is that a misnomer? I read that and I am wondering if you know if this is correct.”
Dr. Brady: “Alan Kaufman, who is a master level player and was a member of the Board of Governors at the Marshall Chess Club, may know the answer to that because he was a member of the Board of Governors for at least 40 years. I am going to see him at a book signing that I am doing in Queens on the 16th of February so I will ask him if he ever heard that because that supposedly happened at the Marshall. I don’t know; it’s an apocryphal story right now as far as I am concerned.”
Friedman: “I know that in between the 1972 and 1992 matches with Spassky, Fischer played three games against the Greenblatt chess computer. He had been in seclusion for several years and then all of a sudden he played these games that eventually surfaced in the press. Did your research shed any light on how this match came about?”
Dr. Brady: “I can’t suggest anything. Wasn’t Greenblatt from MIT?”
Friedman: “Yes, I believe so.”
Dr. Brady: “I went up to IBM in Westchester and snooped around and talked to P.R. people and so forth but I got nothing. Nobody remembered anything or knew anything about it, so the answer is I have no idea. I just could never find out about it.”
Friedman: “My last question is the one issue with Fischer that makes a lot of people squeamish, it’s kind of uncomfortable, but I am interested in the insight that you can provide. Why did Fischer direct so much public antipathy toward Jews? There seemed to be a contradiction, because he had cordial relations later in his life with the Polgar sisters, at one stage with Larry Evans and with other players and people who were Jewish or of Jewish ancestry. Yet he made all of these statements that I don’t even want to repeat. He seemed to have some strange obsession with this issue; apparently you could have a normal conversation with him on any kind of subject but I think one of the Polgar sisters once said that as soon as that issue came up he would just rant and rant and rant and you could not direct him back to any other topic—and he would say these things even to the Polgars, who are Jewish. They would say, ‘Bobby, we’re Jewish’ and he would say, ‘You’re the exception.’”
Dr. Brady: “He used the word Jewish, by the way, as a pejorative for any bad person, even if that person was not Jewish.”
Friedman: “Right. How did that come about?”
Dr. Brady: “I can only speculate. He personally told me many years ago that when his Mom would have people over for dinner or just to visit for the evening in many cases they were Jewish intellectuals. He was a just a little kid and they would talk about philosophy and about Palestine and about educational issues and about politics. He hated that conversation, probably because he couldn’t contribute to it. So there was that kind of feeling that Jewish intellectuals have this kind of conversation and I can’t participate in it. He did say—not to me, but to someone else—‘I reserve the right to generalize.’ As we know, generalizations are wrong sometimes. So there is that aspect to it. The second aspect is almost all of the members of the Board of the American Chess Foundation were Jewish; they were backing (Fischer’s rival Sammy) Reshevsky, paying him $200 a month as a salary. When he (Reshevsky) was a young man, Julius Rosenwald paid for him to go to college; he was given plum exhibitions and entrance fees and appearance fees to play in tournaments. Bobby wasn’t getting any of that. So there is that aspect to it, too. It’s hard to say why he turned. I read a wonderful book by David Mamet called The Wicked Son. It is about self-hating Jews and why they become self-hating Jews and why they repudiate Judaism. Mamet says that it is because there are some people who cannot bear--for psychological, emotional and political reasons—to be in the minority as Jews are, especially in this country. So they want to identify with another group because they can’t be in the minority. If you’re Black there is nothing you can do, because you are Black. I hope that is not misinterpreted as a politically incorrect statement. So Bobby used the fact that he was not circumcised as ‘proof’ that he was not Jewish but it’s a shame. I hate it. I could not tolerate—people would ask what my relationship was with Bobby and I would say that I had not spoken with him in years but if I did speak with him the first question I would ask is, ‘Bobby, are you really and truly an anti-Semite? Are you really saying these things? Or is this some kind of an act?’ If indeed he would have said, ‘No, I hate Jews’ then I would have just walked away and never talked to him again.”
Friedman: “It seems like such a contradiction when you describe these intellectuals who used to visit his mother and you say that he could not follow or participate in the conversation; it almost sounds like you are describing an inferiority complex and yet we know that he had an extraordinarily high IQ and a fantastic memory so if he had some interest in the conversation then there is no reason—even though he was young—that he could not have picked up on it and followed it.”
Dr. Brady: “The problem was that almost up until the time he won the World Championship he was uneducated to some extent. He read some literature in high school and he could talk about certain things but generally he could not talk on a high level (about subjects other than chess) until later in his life; so, the intelligence had nothing to do with his education.”
Friedman: “Of course, those are two different things. It also seemed like, at least from some accounts I have read about when he stayed with the Polgar family, that the Polgars could play blitz with him or have pleasant conversations but if anything came up pertaining to Jews it was like his whole demeanor would change and you could not get him off of that subject. With some of his public statements going all the way back to the Ginzburg interview and the way that you said some people tried to make him look bad—which is not to excuse anything Fischer actually said—it seemed like some people would find the right buttons to push with Fischer, whether it was the mother issue or his later interviews on Philippine radio with those guys laughing in the background and egging Fischer on to say more things. It was almost like they would get him going and then he would rant and could not control himself--but I am not excusing anything he said.”
Dr. Brady: “That is a good interpretation and that’s a very astute observation. I also say in the book that it’s almost like—I’m not really serious about this statement—he had Tourette’s Syndrome and could not control himself from saying that anything having to do with Judaism must be bad but once that was over he could talk normally.”Further Reading:
Bobby Fischer's Mixed Legacy
Wilt and Bobby: Not a Random Encounter (short story about Wilt Chamberlain, Bobby Fischer and Dick Schaap)
Patent awarded to Bobby Fischer in 1989 for digital chess clock with incremental function (the kind of timing device that has become standard fare in chess tournaments around the world).
A Brief History of the Development of Fischer Random Chess