“All I want to do, ever,” Fischer once said, “is play chess.” One might think that there was no room in Fischer’s life for anything else. Yet few know that religion sometimes took precedence over chess for Fischer. In a match with Tigran Petrosian, he absolutely refused to play Saturdays, the Sabbath, at the risk of forfeiting games and the match as well. Wait a bit. The Sabbath? To those who know Fischer as a vicious anti-Semite, this is strange. Yes, Fischer used to keep the Jewish seventh-day Sabbath. He belonged to a religious group called the Worldwide Church of God, which worshipped on the Sabbath. This is more than a passing interest to me. You see, I also used to be a member of that church. I understand what Fischer went through in the days of his involvement with the WCG, and his sense of betrayal and disappointment with what we had both believed to be God’s “one and only true Church”.
Fischer’s involvement with the WCG began in the early 60’s, when in the midst of some personal problems, he was seeking solace in the preaching of radio ministers. Tweaking the dials one day, he chanced upon a preacher whose commanding and emphatic voice carried authority and conviction. That preacher was Herbert W. Armstrong, and the program was The World Tomorrow. Armstrong founded his radio ministry specifically to proclaim the coming “end-time” and the advent of the Kingdom of God. Fischer, like myself and thousands of others, were impressed by Armstrong’s seeming grasp of Bible prophecy, for which he claimed he had the “master key” to properly understand: the supposed identification of the American and British peoples as descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes of ancient Israel. Using this “master key”, Armstrong wove a unique prophetic scenario – the rise of a fascist United States of Europe which God will use to invade and enslave a morally-bankrupt USA and Britain. The whole thing was bullshit, but such is the power of religious mesmerism that we bought it. Fischer, whose keen analytical abilities at the chessboard made him the Boy Wonder of the chess world, fell for it. “I do not believe in psychology. I believe in good moves,” Bobby once remarked. Yet sometimes, using psychology is a good move, on the chessboard and in daily life. Fischer had no inkling of what a master mind manipulator Armstrong was.
Bobby was hooked. He began to listen regularly to Herbert and his son Garner Ted. He subscribed to their free magazine The Plain Truth, which spewed more of the same rubbish he was hearing on radio. Soon, he was making contributions to “God’s Work”. Then he began tithing. Herbert taught that failure to “pay” God a tenth of one’s income was “stealing” from the Almighty. Little did we know to what use “God’s tenth” was actually being put. Fischer gave away the whole tenth of the prize money he won in a 1963 tournament. Bobby began to keep the Sabbath as well as the Jewish festivals, which Herbert taught was still valid for Christians. I remember being shown a photo of Bobby with Filipino Church members when he came to the Philippines to keep the Feast of Tabernacles in Baguio City. Baguio would be a favorite with Bobby, and in his days as a fugitive from the US government, he lived for a short while there with GM Eugene Torre and his family.
Fischer wrested the world chess crown from Boris Spassky in 1972. He gave Armstrong $61,200 of the total pot. As a celebrity, Fischer was personally drawn close to the Armstrongs. Herbert was a vain, pompous, egotistical old man who always wanted to be seen in the company of the rich and royal. Bobby came to live in the homes of WCG ministers in Pasadena, where the church had its headquarters. But all this time, the misdeeds and corruption at headquarters were trickling down to the membership. Garner Ted’s sexual shenanigans were breaking out into the open. Herbert himself told Bobby of Ted’s dalliance with a stewardess serving on the family jet. Bobby was beginning to see the masks fall off. He pointedly told a minister that he found Garner Ted “obnoxious”. Thinking people were also questioning many of the church’s doctrines like its proscription against going to doctors. Most embarrassing to Herbert was the utter failure of his “prophecies”. He had predicted that the church would flee to a “place of safety” (like the People’s Temple’s exodus to Guyana) in 1972, the supposed start of the “Great Tribulation”. That was the last straw for Bobby. He waited for Armstrong to apologize for the many failed predictions. The old charlatan was adamant. He could not be wrong.
“ I gave my money for this?” Fischer could only say. Meanwhile, he had not raised his own standard of living, despite the money he earned. His mother was living in a small apartment in England which did not even have a bathroom. Bobby realized that he had gotten his priorities upside down, while the Armstrongs lived in luxury, flying in their jet to hobnob with leaders and dictators. ‘Once I quit tithing, my mind began to clear up,” he said. Bobby realized what a huckster Armstrong was.
Fortunately, Bobby Fischer was a thinking man. Thousands of other WCG members were dumb sheep who were afraid to question Herbert. The WCG has since split off into numerous sects in the wake of doctrinal changes perpetrated by Armstrong’s successor. The dumb sheep remain oblivious to the con game called religion.