Robert James Fischer 1943-2008
Robert James "Bobby" Fischer was born in Chicago, Illinois USA 9th March 1943 died in Reykjavic, Iceland 17th January 2008 at the age of 64 of kidney problems. He achieved international fame and notoriety at the height of cold war on the way to becoming World Chess Champion in 1972.
Bobby Fischer learned his chess in Brooklyn New York at the age of 6. His progress at first was not spectacular but by the age of 13 he, in his own words "got good". He became US Junior Champion in 1956 and defended it the following year. Increasingly good results allowed him entry to the 1958 Championships. In a shock result he won the first of his eight US Championship titles (every time he entered) with 10.5/13, becoming in January 1958, at the age of 14, the youngest US champion and with it he became an International Master (the youngest at the time).
Its only possible to go through some of the key moments of Fischer's career, especially as its so well known.
Fischer qualified for the 1958 World Championship Interzonal in Portorož, Slovenia, his first international tournament. Just as in his first US Championships Fischer was not expected to do very well in the Interzonal but his idea of targetting the weaker players and drawing with the stronger came off and Fischer edged out David Bronstein amongst others to qualify for the Candidates and become the youngest Grandmaster in history to that time at the age of 15.
|Portoroz Interzonal, viii-ix 1958|
Fischer warmed up for the Candidates tournament in Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade 1959 with respectable finishes in some international tournaments. He fought extremely hard and became the top western finisher in a creditable 5th from 8.
|Candidates Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade Yugoslavia, ix-x 1959|
The Soviet players had revealed some of his weaknesses but its clear they already feared him. Already Fischer was a true star in the chess world and his play rapidly continued to improve.
Fischer tied with Boris Spassky in Mar-del-Plata 1960 losing their individual game. In Buenos Aires 1960 he had his only true failure as a professional finishing 13th from 20 with 8.5/19. In a harbinger of things to come the 1961 match between Fischer and Sammy Reshevsky was abandoned when Fischer walked out in a dispute over the playing schedule. Fischer finished in 2nd place in Bled in an international tournament but had the satisfaction of beating Mikhail Tal for the first time.
Fischer qualified for the Interzonal in 1962 in Stockholm and at 19 he won the event by a two and a half point margin and clearly thought he was on his way to taking the world title.
|Interzonal Stockholm, i-iii 1962|
The Candidates tournament in Curacao 1962 was to be the biggest disappointment of Fischer's career. He never really settled to the task, had fights with Benko over the use of the one US second there and there are even more strange stories in Brad Darrasch's "Bobby Fischer vs the Rest of the World" a book which annoyed Fischer greatly but in retrospect seemed to get closer to what it was like to be around him than Frank Brady's "Bobby Fischer Profile of a Prodigy" which generally presents a picture of Fischer that I would like to be true but probably never was.
|Candidates Curacao v-vi 1962|
Even though the result of 4th from 8 was in some ways an improvement Fischer didn't see things that way. He accused the Soviet players of throwing games against each other and playing hard against him. All this may have had some truth to it but he wasn't playing nearly well enough to be affected. However his upset led to him not playing an international event for three years outside of the Olympiad of the same year. It was around this time he joined the "Worldwide Church of God" a cult pretending to be a religion founded by Herbert Armstrong. It can't be said to have had a positive effect on Fischer.
He played very little in 1963 including missing out on the 1st Piatigorsky Cup in Santa Monica. In December 1963 over into January 1964 Fischer made a huge impact in the US with his 11/11 perfect score in the US Championships.
In 1965 Fischer returned to international chess by accepting an invitation to play in the Capablanca Memorial in Havana. Because of the Cuban Missile Crisis US - Cuban relations were at an all time low. He didn't receive permission to travel to Cuba. Instead he played by telegraph from the Frank Marshall Chess Club in New York. His games lasted much longer than everyone elses and his 3rd place finish was extremely creditable. It also paved the way for US participation in the Olympiad there in 1966. 1966 also saw Fischer finish 2nd half a point behind Spassky in the 2nd Piatigorsky Cup but only after a bad start where he was trying to find the perfect hotel room. It was only on the intervention of Spassky that he calmed down and just got on with playing.
1967 saw wins in Skopje and Monte Carlo before he went to the Sousse Interzonal where he started with 7/9 playing his most impressive chess of his career so far. However he had a backlog of games due to his religious observances and withdrew when they couldn't be resolved. He played a couple of events in 1968 winning in Netanya and Vinkovci. 1969 was a blank year, he also missed the US Championships which were also a Zonal for the World Championships. It seemed like he wouldn't be able to win the World Title until 1975 at the earliest.
However the US Chess Federation and executive director Edmund Edmondson decided to step in and try and get him into the 1970-2 cycle. He had an immediate effect in that Fischer returned to chess with a vengeance in 1970 starting with a 3-1 win in his mini-match against Tigran Petrosian in the USSR vs the Rest of the World in Belgrade. He followed this with a win in the Herceg Novi blitz a type of chess the Soviets didn't rate him at. Then he won the Rovinj Zagreb tournament ahead of Hort, Smyslov and Korchnoi. He then won a tournament in Buenos Aires with 15/17 before attending the Siegen Olympiad where a decision as to whether Fischer could play in the Interzonal was to be taken. Fischer lost a famous game to Spassky but won the decision. He was in to the Palma de Mallorca Interzonal where with an 18.5/23 score three and a half points clear of the field.
|Interzonal Palma de Mallorca xi-xii 1970|
Thus Fischer was in the Candidates Matches series which attracted worldwide headlines as he beat Mark Taimanov 6-0, Bent Larsen 6-0 and then went 1-0 up against Tigran Petrosian in the final to make it 21 wins in a row a run starting with wins at the end of the Interzonal. Petrosian won the next game but after three draws lost four in a row and the match.
The match against Boris Spassky was at the height of the cold war and actually dominated the news. Fischer it seemed got cold feet and made demands over the venue and the prize fund. The venue was finally decided as Reykjavic and all seemed set. Then at the last minute Fischer refused to travel unless the prize fund was increased London financier Jim Slater added $125,000 to take the fund to a record $250,000. Fischer was still late, was defaulted game one, the default was reversed and then Fischer lost when grabbing a pawn he shouldn't have. Game two he did default when he claimed he could hear the cameras and that the audience was too close. Just when people thought the match was over there was a compromise, game three was in a table tennis room off the main venue with a close circuit camera. 2-0 down Fischer played the Modern Benoni as black and won a smashing game. Fischer was up and running and with wins in games 5,6, 8 and 10 had virtually secured the title. Spassky's only win came in game 11 but a win for Fischer in game 13 restored a lead that was never to be narrowed and the final score was 12.5 - 8.5. He had become the 11th World Chess Champion at the age of 29 and the possibilities seemed limitless.
An interesting postscript is that some of the games were filmed, maybe all of them, but certainly footage of games one and three (a video feed) exist and due to legal problems they've never seen the light of day. Perhaps it will be possible for them to be shown now.
In the aftermath he was a big celebrity promising to defend the title every year but the longer he spent not playing chess the harder it would be for him to live up to his achievements of the previous two years. He issued a series of demands including asking for the title to be defended with first to 10 wins. Negotiations for a 1975 match against Anatoly Karpov fell through and having not played for 3 years his chances would, in my view, have not been good. FIDE came to the opinion that Fischer wasn't going to play (and in retrospect they were almost certainly right on this point`) and so defaulted him and made his challenger Anatoly Karpov World Champion. Fischer disappeared apparently living on the streets or in reduced circumstances occasionally being seen distributing dubious pamphlets. He published a book in 1982 "I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!" about a 1981 arrest but otherwise had a low profile living with people in the US, Germany and elsewhere.
Fischer was just about broke in 1992 and it was classically for him in a Yugoslavia that was tearing itself apart in civil war with many new countries appearing that he returned. There was sponsorship from a bank (Yugoskandic) that subsequently went bankrupt (Fischer earned and got paid at least $3m) and the match took place on the island of Sveti Stefan and then in Belgrade in Yugoslavia. His opponent was, as 20 years before, Boris Spassky. Fischer was warned by a fax from the US state department against playing the match because of US sanctions against Yugoslavia. The US government didn't seriously follow this up until much later. Fischer publically spat on the fax in a press conference and the match was on. The match was played first to 10 wins as he had always wanted and played with an electronic clock he had patented in 1988 which allowed increments to be added every time a move was made. As this kind of time limit became standard it was name after him even though others including David Bronstein had similar ideas. The first game was a logical Ruy Lopez which reminded people of his better days, game 9 was a win in an Exchange Ruy Lopez straight out of old preparation and Game 11 was a highly entertaining sacrificial win but neither Spassky nor Fischer were what they had been and some modern players were very critical of the over all quality. Fischer took the match +10 -5 =15. This match was covered on the fledgling internet and it was the first time I'd ever heard of such a thing. Its highly likely that I'd be doing something else without this match and its coverage.
Fischer then stayed in Hungary for a time both on his own, and with modern players such as Judit Polgar and Peter Leko. In 1996 he pitched up in Buenos Aires with the idea of Fischer Random Chess. Apparently he was a bit disturbed how much chess theory had come along since 1972 and realised he couldn't catch up.
Then for a while he disappeared again but in 1999 he started ringing radio stations, spouting all kind of anti-Jewish, anti-American and anti-modern chess thoughts most famously he was being interviewed live when the September 11th 2001 twin towers attack occurred he said "This is all wonderful news. What goes around comes around even for the United States". All his broadcasts are a stressful listen but if you're up for it they're online at: http://www.fischer.jp/
In 2003 Fischer's passport was revoked silently by the US for the breaking of the trade sanctions with Yugoslavia in 1992 (and most probably his 9/11 comments), in 2004 he was arrested at at Narita International Airport and detained until March 2005 when Iceland granted him a passport. The US were serious about getting him back to the states and tried everything in its power to get it done but in the end Japan decided to allow him to travel to Iceland.
See a late interview with Fischer at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/video/2008/jan/18/bobby.fischer
With so many problems worldwide the US spending so much time and trouble to get him back did seem a little pathetic on their part and any trial wouldn't have reflected well on anyone. Fischer travelled to and lived in Iceland until his death on 17th January 2007. Four months ago he went into hospital for treatment of long standing kidney problems but after a couple of months he was sent home to die as there was nothing more the doctors could do.
Fischer's greatness was the clarity, precision and beauty of his chess games, the battling uncompromising nature he took to every tournament and match he ever played and the sheer drama of his chess career. His personal demands and the way he raised the profile of chess led to improved conditions for a whole generation that followed him. He took on the Soviet Chess Machine virtually alone and won, at least over the board. It probably cost him everything else in his life. When I was younger he was my absolute hero.
His contributions to chess included his deep opening preparation (he completely changed the standard), certain endgames and in general his clear style popularised the game.
But you cannot ignore the dark side of Fischer. His obsession with Jewish conspiracies in spite of both his parents being Jewish (his real father was recently revealed as being physicist Paul Nemenyi rather than Hans Gerhardt Fischer who was his sister's father), his hatred of the United States, in spite of being a proud representative of them for many years, his contempt for modern chess (Kasparov - Karpov matches being fixed move by move), his contempt for chess (lets change the rules) and finally his contempt for his own play by not competing since winning the title apart from the brief 1992 comeback are all black marks against his name. He couldn't organise his own life and his list of hates so close to home perhaps signify a deep self loathing. Many of the petty things he railed against are met day by day by people who work in the real world. He doesn't pay to keep things in storage they get sold off. The Swiss don't want his bank account anymore but he refuses to have the money transferred. Its hard not to see the problems with the US as being at least in part self inflicted. He was charasmatic and some of the press conferences in Yugoslavia were quite funny but he drove most of his friends away and most of all damaged himself and his own interests all the time. His life since 1972 was very sad and long endgame almost certainly due to untreated mental illness.
Above all Fischer left us with his games and in particular the book (composed with the help of Larry Evans) "My 60 Memorable Games". This is perhaps his greatest gift to the game and for which he should really be remembered and I will certainly try and hold on to that.
You can't pick a small number of Fischer games but I have to so I choose two I have a fondness for. The first is against a Mongolian player who is famous for losing this game. Its just a really nice example of how he beat weaker players, with simplicity and directness.