Bobby Fischer, 1943-2008


Chess master Bobby Fischer has died in Iceland, the country that adopted him in 2005 after he became a pariah in most of the western world. Reuters reaches Garry Kasparov for comment:

…Kasparov hailed Fischer as "the pioneer and the father of professional chess".

Kasparov said he had followed the 1972 clash of the U.S. and Soviet titans closely. "Fischer's chess was so fresh and so new and we all grew up under the strongest impression of Fischer's victories," he told Sky News television.

"From an ideological stance it was the fight of an individual against a totalitarian system. He had a lot of supporters even in the Soviet Union. No one viewed him as an American fighting Soviets, it was more a great man fighting the mighty machine," Kasparov said.

Fischer ended life, sadly, as a public freak, a deranged and bitter man overflowing with conspiracy theories, mostly about the Jews. Rene Chun's heartbreaking 2002 profile of Fischer included these ruminations about Kasparov.

Chess is nothing more than "mental masturbation." Not only is the game dead, it's fixed. Gary Kasparov, the world's top-rated player, is a "crook" and a former KGB spy who hasn't played a match in his life in which the outcome wasn't prearranged.

You can see a short documentary of Fischer's 1972 match against Boris Spassky here. Spassky's comment to Reuters is as short as anything I heard this week:

Asked by Reuters for his reaction, he replied: "It's bad luck for you. Bobby Fischer is dead," then hung up without further comment.

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  1. Hell of a chess player and a brilliant guy, but a world-class loon.

  2. I was just getting into competitive chess during Bobby’s peak. His decline was my first real world test on how to admire someone for their talent while being terrified of their personal demons.

  3. My father was a chess champion in the military and I grew up playing the game, although not very well. To a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s playing chess Fischer was this mysterous God you elders told you about seeing. The fact that he quit so young made him all that more awsome and unapproachable.

    In reality, I think Fischer was most certainly mentally ill. His behavior is just too bizare to account for any other way. I am not going to defend any of his political views or pretend they are anything but what they are; totally repugnant. But that said, I also wouldn’t have wanted to walk a mile in Fischer’s shoes. A true tortured genius.

  4. Fischer ended life, sadly, as a public freak, a deranged and bitter man overflowing with conspiracy theories, mostly about the Jews.

    Cue the newsletter connection in 3…2…

  5. Perhaps his death will give more people reason to notice Chess960. I just found out about it after looking it up…looks like an interesting variation he created. Before he’d died I’d never heard of it because I’d quit paying attention to him after all the anti-Semitic statements.

  6. close the borders. our precious Icelandicness will be Inuitized. Greenlandized. And FEREOIZED! MURRAY HEAD CANNOT SAVE US!!! Yes, the threat from Faroe Islanders is why we need to build a wall around….


  7. UCrawford,

    I too had stopped paying attention to Fischer and am embarassed to admit, I have never heard of Chess960. What a fascinating idea. One of the things I dislike about chess is the endless memorization of positions. I will have to try it.

  8. I was never a good chess player, but I enjoy the game (and am way out of practice). He was an extraordinarily brilliant player. His games are among the classics.

    His eccentricities are actually comparable to those of many of the great masters – Morphy, Capablanca, Alekine. (sp?) It was only in the Soviet era that the Grandmasters became bland chess robots.

  9. The stability of a mind is inversely proportional to its complexity.

  10. I use to be great chess player when I was stoned. Seriously. I could think tons of moves ahead and stay concentrated. I never lost (when stoned). Alcohol has the opposite effect.

  11. Epis —

    Funny, I was the shot-glass chess champion of my school. Sure, chess skills deteriorate under the influence of alcohol…just everyone else’s crumbled faster.

  12. Epis,

    I had a similiar experience. Chess is a really artistic game. It is not linear at all. People think it is but it is not. My theory is that being stoned allows you to stop thinking in a linear fashion, if I do this he will do that and such and start seeing the entire position.

  13. What I found was that I had no trouble organizing multiple strategies and keeping all of them in my head, with fake offensives hiding the real ones, and so on. It was pretty amazing. I am not the most patient person, yet with the weed I became extremely relaxed and sort of predatory. It was neat.

  14. Someone made a pretty neat java applet which visually demonstrated the complexities of move pruning in chess. I think it was called thinking machine 4, IIRC. Pretty trippy.

  15. I’d rather play go.

  16. Wouldn’t it be nice if the ARI folks released Rand’s “An Open Letter to Boris Spassky” into the public domain today? It was one of her best short pieces.

    Wishful thinking, I know.

  17. I could never get really angry at Bobby Fischer’s antics. He was a sad, miserable genius who I envy not one bit.

    Rest in Peace, you poor man.

  18. The November 1992 Ron Paul Survival Report defends chess champion and Holocaust-denier Bobby Fischer, saying that “the brilliant Fischer, who has all the makings of an American hero, is very politically incorrect on Jewish questions, for which he will never be forgiven, even though he is a Jew. Thus we are not supposed to herald him as the world’s greatest chess player.”

    Therefore, Ron Paul is an anti-semite.

  19. That picture is heartbreaking in a way I can’t quite describe.

  20. Fischer, was a great example of the capacity of the human mind. After centuries of study and development chess was thought to be well understood.

    Bobby Fischer reinvented the game. His innovations fundamentally changed the paradigms of the game. For instance, before Fischer it was believed that at the master level black should always play for a draw. The advantage of white going first was thought to be too great to overcome for aggressive attack. Fischer not only attacked with the black, he saw so much deeper into the game that his play looked foolish and cavalier. That is until you tried to take advantage of what he offered you.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who, as a young player was first fascinated Fischer’s “game of the century”. 13 year old Bobby sacrificed rook and queen for the win against a grand master.

    I think what happened to Bobby is what happens to some people when they are alone at the top of their fields (Michael Jackson for instance). They are so superior at what they do, but grossly deficient in many other areas of development. But their status allows them to indulge whatever immature prejudice they have. It’s a downward spiral that makes them more isolated and more captive of their inner demons.

  21. I think there are two types of geniuses…the kind which are just like us but just moreso, and the Bobby Fischer kind, the kind whose genius is totally other, it is profound enough that it isolates them from society and those closest to them, unfortunately I think it sometimes leads to gross delusion.

  22. I’m half-convinced that Fischer was a stimulant addict. The symptoms seem to match: chessmaster specializing in a super-fast style of play, elevated to a sort of national champion during the Cold War, develops increasingly paranoid and deluded worldview, isolates himself, starts seriously looking like turd in a hat.

    Obviously we should hold a posthumous performance enhancing drugs tribunal!

  23. I frankly can’t imagine what it must have been like to have a mind like Fischer’s. If you are a chess geek and go back and look at his games there is like 10 times a game where you have a “how the fuck did he think of that” moments. He made some very smart people look astoundingly stupid.

  24. I too play much better on marijuana. The reason is obvious to me. I am much more focused.

    Chess to me is a game of concentration. Trying to visualize the pieces in new positions and then trying to analyze the strengths of those positions. And then you have to remember what you thought about the last position when you’ve finished looking into a new one.

    When I’m sober, I get impatient. If I forget what I thought about one line of reasoning, I get flustered. When I’m stoned, I’m in the moment, it’s naturally entertaining. I’m more likely to forget stuff, but it’s just as much fun thinking it out all over again. I can just sit and think and think having a blast inside my head while sitting slackjawed with my eyes all bloodshot and droopy.

  25. The Fischer/Spasky match reinvigorated my love for the game, but I could never see more than three moves ahead. I so wanted to be him.

    Thank God for unanswered prayers.

  26. NoStar,
    I was a little young for Fischer/Spassky. But when I leaned about it later, it was so very cool. Bobby was so American – independent, self-taught, arrogant. And Boris was so much a product of the Soviet machine – conventional, disciplined. It was such a perfect cold war moment. Bobby’s play was so brilliant. Too bad he was also such a dick.

  27. “starts seriously looking like turd in a hat.”

    okay. hale, you’re ringing up wins left and right of late. most impressive.

    “Trying to visualize the pieces in new positions”

    oh my. mercy. so is the Noam chomsky blow up doll piece a queen, king, or bishop? the hobby horse, of course is the knight. ooh – heather is the queen. the two bishops are her two mommies. Noam is king. And Stevo and Crane are the rooks.

    H&R chess.

  28. If genius is seeing patterns other people can’t see and paranoia is seeing patterns that aren’t there…

    I suppose mental illness is the only excuse for antisemitism.

  29. Warren,
    It was a bit surreal with network coverage of a chess match with instant replays and color commentators.

    In my dormatory at the University of Washington, we had a chess board set up showing the current positions. We would take our best guesses at next moves and were seldom correct, but jubilant when we were.

    We put on our own tournement too. In the final, I played up to my opponent’s level and he played down to mine. No one was more surprised than me when I won the Mercer Hall Chess Tourney. I never beat that guy again.

  30. Sometimes people rise to the top of their profession because they’re loony enough that they become socially isolated and spend inordinate amounts of time on stuff like chess (or computer programming, or whatnot). (Obviously not always the case, as Kasparov demonstrates). Perhaps if Fischer had been more balanced he would have had a happier existence and never spent the time to rise to the top of the chess world.

    The problem with chess is that you have to be fairly evenly matched to have interesting games. If you’re a bit better or worse than someone, the better player tends to end up winning virtually 100% of the games. The last human opponent I had that could make it challenging for me was my physics teacher back in high school.

    I gave up chess when they invented computer chess programs that could soundly whup me 100% of the time.

  31. Ken Shultz,

    I suppose mental illness is the only excuse for antisemitism.

    There are sane people who are anti-Semites. I reckon, though, that there aren’t people both critical and sane who have a single-villain conspiracy theory that explains the entire world, and belief that the Holocaust never happened – mind you, not skepticism about historical claims regarding the Nazis’ race programs, but steadfast, emphatic belief that the whole story is just trumped up – is a pretty good indicator of such a mentality.

    The Jews are frequent targets of paranoia because they live among us but continue to maintain a distinct culture, which is a huge red flag for human beings and historically, a characteristic that gets groups into trouble with the dominant culture where they live. It’s not hard to understand, it’s just shitty and unfortunate.

  32. Asked by Reuters for his reaction, he replied: “It’s bad luck for you. Bobby Fischer is dead,” then hung up without further comment.

    AP reports it thus: Spassky, reached briefly at his home in France, said of his friend and rival: “I am very sorry, but Bobby Fischer is dead. Goodbye.”

  33. How Lew Rockwell reacts to the news:

    “Bobby Fischer, RIP
    Posted by Lew Rockwell at 09:12 AM
    The chess genius the US government tried to jail has died in his adopted homeland of Iceland. His crime? He played a chess match in Yugoslavia, which was then hated by the US for playing a Lincolnesque role against its secessionist states. Was Fischer thereby endorsing the Yugo Union? No, he was putting private life ahead of US orders, and good for him. Good also for Japan, which resisted extraditing him to a US cage, and for Iceland, which granted him asylum and citizenship.

    UPDATE from Richard Wall: “It is sad indeed to hear about Bobby Fischer. I think my 2004 article on him and of course Murray Rothbard’s piece on him, reproduced in The Irrepressible Rothbard, still hold up pretty well. Fischer has indeed died young, exactly like his predecessor Paul Morphy, as I hinted might happen.

    “USG, vindictive to the last, ‘still regarded him as a fugitive from justice,’ as the horrible BBC obituary states while repeating all the old slurs.””

  34. “It was a bit surreal with network coverage of a chess match with instant replays and color commentators”

    I am told they had to cut beer sales off after the 25th move.

  35. RIP. He was before my time, but I remember being hugely impressed when I went over the fifth game of his match against Spassky — I still use that game to give lessons on pawn structure and strategic play.

    Maybe it’s the fanboy in me, but I always attributed his gross public statements and anti-semitism to schizophrenia — if you read early interviews from his teenage years, it’s clear there was something a little wrong with him from the beginning.

  36. You see, to a few contributors to the Lew Rockwell Web site, Bobby was a strange individualist with un-PC views who was persecuted by the state:

    That is all.

  37. I’m in awe of those of you that can actually accomplish things while stoned. When stoned, I lose my ability to focus almost completely. It have ADD-ish tendencies to begin with though.

  38. That should be: “I have…”

  39. Phil,

    I have mad ADD. The thing is that being stoned slows my mind down and gets rid of the ADD. At some point i can get so stoned that I can’t do anything. But in mild doses being stoned seems to help my ADD and let me focus on one thing. I suspect Warren is probably the same way.

  40. At some point i can get so stoned that I can’t do anything.

    That would be the everyman position. It comes somewhere after the I really must eat that entire bag of Cheetos puffs position.

    Scratch that. I’ve never been so stoned that I couldn’t watch The Munsters.

  41. Scratch that. I’ve never been so stoned that I couldn’t watch The Munsters.”

    Or Star Trek.

  42. I remember being 8 years old, on vacation with my family in Holland. The matches were ALL over the TV. It may have been Wide World of Sports (!), or I may be misremembering, but it was everywhere in the media of the day. Further, everybody gathered around for the matches like it was the moon landing, or some such. Not a big chess player, but it tickled my fancy for politics, even at that age. RIP

  43. You know I found out recently that FDR, Churchill and Stalin were all Jews. So was Eisenhower. Sometimes there really are conspiracies.

  44. I suppose mental illness is the only excuse for antisemitism.

    Was it G.K. Chesterton who said that the mind of the madman was like a machine whose gears work perfectly but are missing teeth here and there? I couldn’t find the exact quote.

    A lot of Chesterton’s remarks on insanity from his book Orthodoxy seem very applicable to Mr. Fischer.

  45. “From an ideological stance it was the fight of an individual against a totalitarian system. He had a lot of supporters even in the Soviet Union. No one viewed him as an American fighting Soviets, it was more a great man fighting the mighty machine,” Kasparov said.

    On the other hand, Fischer was sufficiently obnoxious that a lot of Americans were rooting for Spassky.

  46. Fischer was about chess and surrogately about the Cold War (who’s better, us or them?) Fischer showed the beauty of the non-conventional which is why his obit appears here.

    Here’s to unconvention. Who cares what his other thinking was. Does that take away from his talent as a chessplayer?

    …and quiet flows the Don

  47. “Scratch that. I’ve never been so stoned that I couldn’t watch The Munsters.”

    Or Star Trek.

    I just watched four episodes of Next Generation BIOTCHES!!!!!! (including the one with MacDuff) and I’m drunk!

    Peace out!

  48. For some reason, I keep thinking of P.J. O’Rourke’s comment about how in Russia, “where chess is a spectator sport,” they’re boiling stones for soup…

  49. I feel like the government hounded him to his death. Nobody else was prosecuted for violating the sanctions against Yugoslavia. It was his public comments that did it. Offensive and mentally unbalanced as those may be (at least the reported versions), in America we don’t kill or jail people for their opinions, which is what, in effect, was done in this case. I would like to know if the government offered him some sort of plea bargain that would have allowed him to rejoin society. He was a great artist and, btw, Erasmus high school lunching partner of Barbara Streisand, who considered him ‘sexy’. Shame on our government.

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