I learned to play chess at an early age, when it mattered in a strange way as a Cold War philosophical battleground. I studied it in books and played in tournaments, like many boys and girls did, inspired by both my father and Bobby Fischer, who beat the Soviets to the title and became a national hero in 1972. He died today at 64, after transforming himself into something else entirely:
But his reputation as a genius of chess soon was eclipsed by his idiosyncrasies.
Fischer was world champion until 1975, when he forfeited the title and withdrew from competition because conditions he demanded proved unacceptable to the International Chess Federation.
After that, he lived in secret outside the United States. He emerged in 1992 to confront Spassky again, in a highly publicized match in Yugoslavia. Fischer beat Spassky 10-5 to win $3.35 million. The U.S. government said Fischer’s playing the match violated U.N. sanctions against Yugoslavia, imposed for Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic’s role in fomenting war in the Balkans. …
Over the years, Fischer gave occasional interviews with a radio station in the Philippines, often digressing into anti-Semitic rants and accusing American officials of hounding him. He praised the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying America should be “wiped out,” and described Jews as “thieving, lying bastards.” His mother was Jewish.
Fischer demonstrated that monumental genius in one area usually gets accompanied by lunacy in others. No one knows what triggered his strange behavior in the mid-1970s that led him to essentially abandon the chess title and never attempt to reclaim it. His paranoia and anti-Semitism became more of his legacy than chess.
When he left the game, it lost most of its interest for the media, who moved on to other proxy fights in the US-Soviet standoff. The great media chess matches after that were tournaments that featured human grand masters against increasingly competent computers. Instead of celebrating the flexibility of the human mind, the media spotlight focused on the “intelligence” of the computers, making the games themselves secondary and the entire effort joyless affairs.
Fischer died a lonely, bitter, and utterly warped man. He died in the darkness of Icelandic winter as well as the darkness that enveloped his soul. He could have been so much more, and meant so much more — and in the end, wasted it all on hatred.