Bobby Fischer: How the chess genius became persona non grata

Former world chess champion
Bobby Fischer was born 80 years ago: How the chess genius fell to persona non grata

Bobby Fischer at the 1972 World Chess Championship against Boris Spassky – the “Game of the Century”

© ZUMA Wire / Imago Images

Bobby Fischer is considered the best chess player of all time: His “Game of the Century” against Boris Spassky in 1972 is legendary. But then he became entangled in conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism and paranoia.

Bobby Fischer’s journey to the top of the chess world took more than a month and a half. The US chess player, born 80 years ago on March 9, 1943, is playing for the World Chess Championship with the defending champion Boris Spassky from the Soviet Union. A total of 21 games are needed to determine a winner, 52 days after the first game on August 31, 1972, Fischer is the new world champion. It’s a historic moment: all chess world champions had previously come from the Soviet Union.

In the middle of the Cold War, Fischer breaks through this phalanx – it’s more than a sporting success. Because between Fischer and Spasski it’s no longer just about chess, they play on behalf of the USA and the Soviet Union, for West and East, for capitalism and communism. The competition of the systems is carried out on the chess board. With his victory, Fischer achieves a prestigious victory for the West and is celebrated as a patriot. He’s standing on the summit – but from there it should be a steep descent. In the course of his life he gets tangled up in conspiracy theories and loses his homeland.

The “Game of the Century” makes Bobby Fischer a hero

Even before his legendary game against Spasski, the man from Chicago was known and feared for his eccentric manner. For a long time it was unclear whether this duel would even come about because Fischer refused to travel to the World Cup in Iceland. Among other things, he demands a higher prize money. The negotiations drag on, Fischer is stubborn and even misses the opening ceremony. Only Henry Kissinger, security advisor to US President Nixon, can convince him to give in. He appeals to Fischer’s patriotism – the chess genius should wrest the crown from the Soviets in the game of kings and save the honor of the United States. And there is also more prize money, a British millionaire has increased the amount.

The duel with Spasski is heralded as the “Game of the Century” and is followed around the world. No exaggeration, as the then organizer of the World Championship, Gudmundur Thorarinsson, notes decades later – quite the opposite: “It wasn’t the game of the century, it was the most important chess game of all time.” This ideologically charged game becomes a myth and Bobby Fischer a legend. Richard Nixon even invites him to the White House, even if the visit never happens.

Former world chess champion: Bobby Fischer was born 80 years ago: How the chess genius fell to persona non grata

A genius on the run

Because Fischer is becoming more and more phlegmatic. After his great triumph, he no longer played in tournaments and almost completely withdrew from the public – a career-ending 29 years old. When he is supposed to defend his world championship title in 1975, he makes demands that the world association cannot and does not want to meet this time. Fischer is stripped of his title, world champion is now a Russian again: Anatoly Karpov. The American, however, still considers himself the legitimate titleholder – after all, nobody has ever beaten him on the chessboard since then.

Just a sign that Fischer is increasingly living in his own world. He spent 20 years largely isolated, moving from city to city, going into self-imposed exile in Budapest. There are no public appearances – until he competes again against his former rival Boris Spassky in 1992 on the 20th anniversary of the “Game of the Century”. Fischer wins again and collects more than three million US dollars, but is targeted by the American investigative authorities. Because the revenge takes place during the Bosnian war in Yugoslavia, Fischer violates US sanctions regulations. An arrest warrant is issued against him in the USA, and the once celebrated chess grandmaster is now on the run.

conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism

He wanders around the world, homeless and apparently increasingly confused. Fischer is attracting more and more public attention with conspiracy theories and the worst anti-Semitic sayings. He speaks of a global Jewish conspiracy, develops crude theories about the attacks of September 11 in New York and wishes for a military dictatorship in the USA. He spent a few years in Japan and the Philippines before ending up in Japanese custody pending deportation.

Icelandic friends are doing everything they can to bring him back to the place of his greatest triumph. He even gets Icelandic citizenship – his American passport is no longer valid – and spends the last years of his life in Reykjavik. Bobby Fischer, 62 years old when he arrived in Iceland, is already a “broken man,” as his biographer Helgi Olafson puts it. He seems neglected, unkempt and paranoid. In January 2008, Fischer died of kidney disease at the age of 65. He never returned to the USA after 1992.

Sources: “sport show” / German wave / “New York Times” / “Guardians”

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