Chess plays an important role in the fiction of Lewis Carroll and Vladimir Nabokov, and in the film of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the characters play chess on a floating board while enveloped in the rising steam of a hot spring. Bobby Fischer (1943–2008) made the intellectual game — one in which there’s no element of chance and the player is entirely responsible for his own fate — popular throughout the world. But, as John Dryden wrote, “Great wits are sure to madness near allied”; and this chess prodigy and champion was mad indeed.
Fischer’s strange childhood provides one key to his character. He never knew his putative father, a German biophysicist who abandoned his family and moved to Chile. Fischer’s American mother studied medicine and had a daughter in Moscow in the mid-1930s, but was homeless in Chicago when he was born. A highly intelligent, devoted, and sacrificial mother, she worked at many low-level jobs to support her two children, became a nurse, and finally qualified as a doctor. Her unusual career aroused the attention of the FBI, and both she and Bobby remained under lifelong surveillance.
With an astonishing “highest genius” IQ of 180, Fischer couldn’t relate to other children or endure the regimen of a classroom. Obsessed with chess from the age of six, strange, lonely, and isolated, he dropped out of high school in Brooklyn, where Barbra Streisand was his classmate. Six feet two inches tall and a natural athlete, he went swimming and played tennis to keep in shape and increase his stamina. His graceful hand movements were like those of a classical pianist. He had no girlfriends, and after visiting a brothel at the age of 19, declared: “Chess is better.”
Fischer, the Mozart of chess, developed his prodigious ability by reading all the advanced chess books in Spanish, German, and Russian as well as in English, by studying with the best American masters, and by playing endlessly against the toughest competitors. When playing speed chess, opposing a dozen players simultaneously, and competing when blindfolded, he seemed invincible. His tactical ingenuity included bold mobility, rapid advancement of his pieces, and the capture of the center of the board. Fischer said that one of his most formidable adversaries, the Russian David Bronstein, could “play any kind of game, positional or tactical, and any kind of opening.” Frank Brady, who knew Fischer and watched many of his games, wrote that Fischer’s style, by contrast, was “lucid, crystal-clear, economical, concrete, rational.” His consistent style allowed his opponents to know in advance what kinds of openings he would play, but he was relentlessly aggressive and always attacked. Fischer’s achievements were spectacular. He was the youngest American chess master at 13, the youngest international grandmaster at 15, undefeated against the best players in the world at Bled and Stockholm when still in his teens, and, in Vancouver in 1971, the first in chess history to shut out a grandmaster.
In the strange, even tragic arc of his life, everything led up to and then descended from his famous match against the world champion, Boris Spassky, in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972. The professional Russian chess masters — trained, nourished, and supported by the state — had dominated world chess for more than three decades. The Russians, overrepresented in all the tournaments, would crowd around the table and discuss the play in progress. During overnight adjournments, as many as seven Russian grandmasters would analyze the game and prepare their compatriot for victory. Fischer had a fiery character, a handsome face, and a telegenic personality, and television emphasized the theatrical aspects of chess. But he responded poorly to the atmospherics of the match, even before he arrived there.
Fearing the unknown and craving absolute control, he declared himself acutely sensitive to the distracting noise, glaring lights, intrusive cameras, and people moving around on stage. (He would eventually complain even about the size and shape of the chess pieces and the height of the lavatory seat.) He kept delaying his arrival in Iceland until most of his demands were met, and was finally persuaded by a personal plea from Henry Kissinger (who described his intervention as “the worst chess player in the world calling the best chess player”).