Sunday, February 24, 2013

Bobby Fischer Comes Home is a Beautiful Portrait of Genuine Friendship

The term "friend" has in many ways lost any real meaning now that it is possible to "friend" someone who you have never met and may barely even know. A true friend cherishes your positive qualities and loves you in spite of your negative traits; such a friend never stops trying to help you become a better person but does not abandon you if you have a setback in that quest. By his own admission, Bobby Fischer was a "difficult" person to befriend--but Grandmaster Helgi Olafsson made the effort to do so and he provided some measure of comfort to Fischer in the last stage of the great champion's life. Olafsson's book Bobby Fischer Comes Home: The Final Years in Iceland, a Saga of Friendship and Lost Illusion is a 143 page paean to the value of friendship, for without the intervention of Olafsson and the other members of the RJF Committee (the initials first stood for Robert J. Fischer but then took the double meaning "Rights, Justice, Freedom" after the group took up other causes as well) Fischer may have spent the last years of his life in prison.

In 1972, Reykjavik, Iceland was the site of Fischer's greatest triumph when he broke the Soviet monopoly on the World Chess Championship with a 12.5-8.5 victory over Boris Spassky; the margin would have been even more lopsided if Fischer had not lost the first game after making a speculative sacrifice in a drawish position and if Fischer had not forfeited the second game without showing up at all because of a dispute over playing conditions. Olafsson was a teenager when his homeland hosted that famous match and he saw several of the games in person; he recalls that a friend's father told him, "One day you might play Fischer or Petrosian [Spassky's predecessor as World Champion]!" Fischer never defended his title, retreating into a paranoia-fueled seclusion, but he emerged in 1992 to play a rematch against Spassky; unfortunately, the event was held in Sveti Stefan--violating a U.N. embargo against war-torn Yugoslavia--and the United States government issued a warrant for Fischer's arrest. Fischer lived as a fugitive for more than a decade until Japanese authorities detained him on July 13, 2004; the Japanese refused to either set him free or turn him over to U.S. authorities and the impasse lasted until Iceland--acting in response to the urgings of the RJF Committee--granted Fischer citizenship and agreed to give him asylum. Iceland received some criticism for helping Fischer, but--in an email reprinted in Bobby Fischer Comes Home--Olafsson explains why he acted on Fischer's behalf:

"There were many good reasons not to lend Bobby Fischer a helping hand whilst in Japan but given the strong possibility that the man was/is seriously ill was reason enough to try to help him. I will never regret that. Personally I make no distinction between, say, a schizo-paranoid, a person with cancer, a brain tumour or any other disease. Everyone should have some basic human rights. Jail was certainly not the correct place for Fischer."

Olafsson does not gloss over Fischer's well known--and quite despicable--anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism and paranoid rants against anyone who displeased him (a group that came to include just about anyone who ever came in contact with Fischer, including his closest family members and dearest friends). In his interactions with the deeply troubled genius, Olafsson alternated between gently challenging Fischer, patiently ignoring Fischer's outbursts until the storm passed and forcefully suggesting a change in topics--but he never abandoned Fischer and he tried to bring out the best in his friend. Olafsson sympathized with Fischer's justified outrage about his stored property being auctioned off but he did not feed Fischer's paranoid view that this action was part of some grand conspiracy. Sometimes, Olafsson just responded with silence when he knew that he could not offer any words of comfort; one such example happened after Fischer reacted to Olafsson humming by declaring, "I think I know your philosophy. It's like in the Monty Python song. Life's a bowl of s--- no matter what you make of it. Look on the bright side of life. Am I right?" Olafsson did not take the bait because he did not perceive that outburst as an insult or a challenge but rather as a symptom of a disease: "I believe that Bobby Fischer was suffering from depression. Taking medication or seeing a psychiatrist was never an option for him. He lay in bed for a good part of the day, a common sign of a depressive mood."

Olafsson describes a Fischer who was demanding, reclusive and self-centered but who was also capable of moments of kindness and tenderness. Fischer's default mode was one of wariness and distrust but when he felt comfortable in a situation he could be a charming and fun companion. Sadly, Fischer's friendship with Olafsson took the same course as most of the relationships in Fischer's life; Fischer blew up at Olafsson over a perceived slight and cut off contact with him. As you read Olafsson's heart-wrenching description of this episode you can feel the pain emanating from the pages. Far from being bitter, Olafsson expresses regret and sadness about how things turned out. A few months after that breach, Fischer died. He suffered a lot in his final days because he refused treatment, not trusting modern medical techniques. His physician, Dr. Eirikur Jonsson, recalls, "At no time did his character leave him...When Bobby Fischer was admitted to Landspitalinn in October of 2007 we realized that this individual intended to fight his disease all by himself. That day in January his fight came to the only possible conclusion. It could not have been any other way. What an incredible fighter. But for me and so many others his death was a very traumatic experience."

Near the end of the book, Olafsson writes, "I thought back to our last conversation, when he had said, 'Don't listen to my negativity, Helgi.' And I thought about his rants, the infamous interviews and his stubborn anti-Semitism. For me they were the expression of a desperate soul. Rather than talking about issues that were seemingly in his heart, I believed that they were expressing his own inner feelings. To me it always seemed that he was just expressing how bad he felt."

Olafsson offers a perceptive take on those notorious internet radio interviews: "Bobby would never acknowledge if he was going through a tough period. Most people who had gone through what he had been through in the nine months he spent in the Japanese detention centre would be in need of counseling. Sometimes he was very bitter, cynical and disillusioned. Nevertheless, after he settled in Iceland I never heard him repeat the wicked things he had said in the radio interviews during his stay in Hungary and Japan. It is a real tragedy how he disgraced himself time and again in those radio interviews.

I told him at our first meeting that such statements were unacceptable. About the 9/11 interview he later simply told me: 'I was tricked.' Bobby was not in a stable condition when Eugenio Torre and the journalists from the Filipino radio station phoned him after the attacks on the Twin Towers. They knew what to expect from him."

In contrast to the despicable, contemptible way that Torre and the others egged Fischer on and brought out the worst in him, Olafsson and other Icelanders attempted to bring out the best in Fischer. Fischer's last radio interview took place in 2006, hosted by Saga Radio's Sigurdur Tomasson; while not entirely free of his bigoted opinions (to put it mildly), this interview also featured Fischer calmly reminiscing about his days as a youngster in the vibrant New York chess scene and he offered his thoughts about various chess champions. Jose Raul Capablanca and Paul Morphy were Fischer's two favorites, while Fischer did not like Alexander Alekhine as much even though he respected Alekhine's strength. "Alekhine had a rather heavy style," Fischer said. "Capablanca was much more brilliant and talented, he had a real light touch...But the thing that was great about Capablanca was that he really spoke his mind, he said what he believed was true, he said what he felt." You don't have to be a psychologist to figure out that Fischer admired Capablanca so much because he considered him a kindred spirit both in terms of talent and outspokenness.

Fischer revolutionized chess with his opening innovations, his peerless endgame technique and his fierce will to win--and the increment-based chess clock that he patented has become standard fare in serious chess tournaments. He accomplished so much despite his serious mental health problems that one cannot help but wonder how much more he could have achieved if he had been able to stabilize his fragile mindset and volatile emotions. It must have taken an extraordinary act of concentrated will for Fischer to become World Chess Champion despite his illness; how many other great minds never become known to the world because their brilliance is trapped within a web of turbulent emotions and fears?


Metin said...

Hi David,

I wonder whether you agree with Bobby Fischer in that "Chess is a dead game and Fischer Random (Chess 960) is the game to be played". Also I wonder whether you are still playing chess (OTB or online). I know a guy with the nickname AJchess and he looks very similar to you in his photo.

Finally, what are your favorite openings with white and black pieces?


David Friedman said...


I do not believe that chess is dead.

I still play in OTB tournaments and I maintain an Expert rating (USCF). I do not play online and I have no idea who AJchess is.

I am an e4 player with White. What I play with Black depends on what my opponent does, the tournament situation, etc.