Boris Spassky

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Speaking of chess prodigies who declined young, Bobby Fischer, who was profiled in Life by Brad Darrach in 1971 prior to his Cold War showdown with champion Boris Spassky, was the subject of the same writer for sister publication People in 1974, two years after dispatching of his Soviet opponent and becoming one of the most famous people on Earth. Darrach wrote of Fischer as a man who’d shaken off the world’s embrace, who had briefly found God–one of them, anyhow–and had entered into an exile from the game. What the piece couldn’t have predicted is that he would never really play another meaningful match. The opening ofThe Secret Life of Bobby Fischer“:

Whatever happened to Bobby Fischer? Six weeks after winning the world chess championship on Sept. 1, 1972, he abruptly vanished without a trace into the brown haze of Greater Los Angeles. Rumors flew, but the truth was weirder than the rumors.

At the pinnacle of chess success, Bobby abandoned the game that had made him famous and took up residence in a closed California community of religious extremists. With rare exceptions, the world outside has not seen or heard of him for more than 16 months. Reporters who tried to track him down were turned back by the private police force that patrols the church property in Pasadena.

On the day he finished off his great Russian opponent, Boris Spassky, in Iceland, Bobby had realized the first of his three main ambitions. The second, he said, was ‘to make chess a major sport in the United States.’ The third was to be ‘the first chess millionaire.’ As history’s first purely intellectual superstar, Bobby was offered record deals, TV specials, book contracts, product endorsements. ‘He could make $10 million in the next two, three years,’ his lawyer said after Bobby’s victory at Reykjavik. And to promote chess, Bobby promised to put his title on the line ‘at least twice a year, maybe more.’ Millions of chess amateurs enthused at the prospect of a Fischer era of storm, stress and magnificent competition.

But it didn’t happen quite like that. After curtly declining New York Mayor Lindsay’s offer of a ticker-tape parade (“I don’t believe in hero worship”), Bobby made impulsive appearances on the Bob Hope and Johnny Carson shows—and then was swallowed up by the Worldwide Church of God, a fundamentalist sect founded in 1934 by a former adman named Herbert W. Armstrong. Well advertised on radio and television by Armstrong’s hellfire preaching—and more recently by the charm-drenched sermons of Garner Ted Armstrong, the founder’s son—the church now claims 85,000 members. They celebrate the sabbath on Saturday and observe the dietary laws of the Old Testament—no pork, no shellfish. Smoking, divorce and cheek-to-cheek dancing are forbidden. Necking is the worst kind of sin. Tithing is mandatory—the church’s annual income probably exceeds $50 million. Church leaders live palatially and gad about the world in three executive jets provided by the faithful. Recently, however, scandals and schisms have shaken the flock.

Bobby Fischer, the child of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father, first tuned in on the elder Armstrong while still in his late teens. Lonely and despairing after he muffed his chance to become world champion at 19—Bobby found strength in the church’s teachings and has adhered to them closely ever since. He turned to the church in the crisis he faced after Reykjavik. Verging on nervous exhaustion after his two-month battle with Spassky and the match organizers, Bobby decided that the last thing he wanted after his triumph was the world that lay at his feet. In the large and outwardly peaceful community that surrounds the Armstrong headquarters, he saw a safe setting where he could unsnarl his nerves and find the normal life that he had sacrificed to competition and monomania.

The church welcomed him. Though Bobby is not a full church member—he is listed as a ‘coworker’—he offered Armstrong a double tithe (20%) of his $156,250 winnings. ‘Ah, my boy, that’s just as God would have it!’ Armstrong replied, and passed the word that Bobby was to be given VIP treatment. A pleasant three-bedroom apartment in a church-owned development was made available. So were the gymnasium, squash courts and swimming pool of the church’s Ambassador College. Leaders of the Armstrong organization were told to make sure that Bobby had plenty of dinner invitations. “The word went out,” says a church member, “that Bobby should never be left alone, or allowed to feel neglected.”

To make doubly sure, the church assigned a friendly weightlifter in the phys. ed. department as Bobby’s personal recreation director. The two of them played paddle tennis almost every day, and Bobby worked out with weights to build up his arms and torso.

Not long after he arrived in Pasadena, the 31-year-old Bobby confessed to a high church official that he wanted to meet some girls. There is a rigid rule against dating between church members and nonmembers like Bobby, but the official allowed that in Bobby’s case the rule would be suspended. What sort of girls did he like? Bobby said that he liked “vivacious” girls with “big breasts.” A suitable girl was discovered and Bobby began to date her frequently, taking the weightlifter and his wife along as chaperones.•

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Before we realized that the machines were our common enemy, we fought amongst ourselves. Deep Blue would eventually make us all pale in comparison, but in 1972, it was Red vs. Red, White and Blue, in one of the most thrilling contests ever witnessed. In dethroning Russian chess champion Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer was his unorthodox self, playing like a supercomputer with its wires crossed. An excerpt from Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, via Delancey Place:

“The first game of a chess tournament is critical, since it sets the tone for the months to come. It is often a slow and quiet struggle, with the two play­ers preparing themselves for the war and trying to read each other’s strate­gies. This game was different. Fischer made a terrible move early on, perhaps the worst of his career, and when Spassky had him on the ropes, he seemed to give up. Yet Spassky knew that Fischer never gave up. Even when facing checkmate, he fought to the bitter end, wearing the opponent down. This time, though, he seemed resigned. Then suddenly he broke out a bold move that put the room in a buzz. The move shocked Spassky, but he recovered and managed to win the game. But no one could figure out what Fischer was up to. Had he lost deliberately? Or was he rattled? Unset­tled? Even, as some thought, insane?

After his defeat in the first game, Fischer complained all the more loudly about the room, the cameras, and everything else. He also failed to show up on time for the second game. This time the organizers had had enough: He was given a forfeit. Now he was down two games to none, a position from which no one had ever come back to win a chess champi­onship. Fischer was clearly unhinged. Yet in the third game, as all those who witnessed it remember, he had a ferocious look in his eye, a look that clearly bothered Spassky. And despite the hole he had dug for himself, he seemed supremely confident. He did make what appeared to be another blunder, as he had in the first game — but his cocky air made Spassky smell a trap. Yet despite the Russian’s suspicions, he could not figure out the trap, and before he knew it Fischer had checkmated him. In fact Fischer’s un­orthodox tactics had completely unnerved his opponent. At the end of the game, Fischer leaped up and rushed out, yelling to his confederates as he smashed a fist into his palm, ‘I’m crushing him with brute force!’

In the next games Fischer pulled moves that no one had seen from him before, moves that were not his style.”

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I’m of two minds about Stephen L. Carter’s arguments in his new Bloomberg essay, “How Bobby Fischer (Briefly) Changed America.” Carter recalls the Fischer-Spassky chess matches of 1972, which became a national sensation, as the last time Americans were interested in complex ideas. There are by far more U.S. citizens right now than ever before who are interested in and capable of complicated thinking, though there are probably many more focused on the basic function of tools rather than challenging content they can deliver. The piece’s opening:

“This summer marks the anniversary of an extraordinary moment in U.S. history: the 1972 match in which the American genius Bobby Fischer defeated the Soviet wizard Boris Spassky for the chess championship of the world.

The battle probably should have been just one more headline in an eventful three months that saw the Watergate burglary, the expulsion of the Soviet military from Egypt and the humiliating dismissal of vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton from the Democratic ticket. Somehow the story of Fischer and Spassky and their epic match, which ended 40 years ago this month, captured our attention in a way that no struggle of intellect has since.

The two best players in the world were playing 24 games in Iceland, and everyone paid attention. Strangers who had never picked up a chess piece discussed the match on subway trains. Newspapers put out special editions announcing the results of the games, and vendors hawked them from the corners, shouting out the name of the winner. Book publishers were signing up chess writers by the dozens.

Chess is a very hard game, and what is most remarkable about that summer is that people wanted to play anyway. They wanted their minds stretched, and were willing to work for that reward. The brief period of Fischer’s ascendancy — he quit chess three years later — was perhaps the last era in our nation’s history when this could be said.”


Mike Wallace’s excellent profile of Fischer in 1972, just prior to the showdown with Spassky. Lewis Cohen, the 12-year-old prodigy who loses a game of speed chess to Fischer, may be this guy.

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Video about the press conference to promote the 1992 rematch between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, which was played for money, not glory. Fischer was far gone at this point, a sad spectacle overflowing with demons.

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The Cold War gave genuine reason to be paranoid, though Bobby Fischer didn’t need any help. During his world-stopping chess series with champion Boris Spassky in 1972, the challenger showed up late, protested camera positions, etc. And his mental problems only increased with age. It’s a shame that two of the great American heroes of the 20th century–Fischer and Charles Lindbergh–ended up so damaged, so disgraced. They each had the world and let it spin from their grasp.

From coverage of the torturous, tremendous event in the July 24, 1972 Sports Illustrated: “Once after a visit to Caracas, Bobby Fischer remarked on how the dictator of Venezuela had chickened out. ‘He won’t go any place unless he has about six cars in front of him and six cars behind,” said the chess star, ‘because he’s afraid of being assassinated.’

‘Well, he nearly was,’ a companion explained. ‘His car was blown up and some people were killed.’

‘Yeah,’ said Fischer, ‘but he wasn’t in it. And ever since he’s been chicken. What kind of dictator is that?’

A similar question piqued watchers of Fischer himself last week—including the champion, Boris Spassky, who must have felt as though, like Alice, he had fallen down a rabbit’s hole. The American challenger for the world chess title had as usual been throwing his weight around dictatorially in Reykjavik, Iceland, site of his match with Spassky. But Fischer had also lost two straight games—the first one by an utterly out-of-character blunder and the second one by forfeit when he refused to leave his hotel room. What kind of chess genius was that?

A doomed one, suggested Icelandic Grandmaster Fridrik Olafsson right after Thursday’s forfeit. Fischer’s whole life is based on the assumption that he is the most compelling figure in chess. He had confidently predicted that this match would make his preeminence official. But his resistance to the playing conditions—he had demanded the removal of all movie cameras covering the match, saying they disturbed him even if he could not see or hear them—might well have cost him any chance at the title. If his intransigence should scuttle this $300,000 showdown, predicted Olafsson, “it would not be forgotten for a long time. And by then I’m afraid Bobby will be destroyed.” It conjured up thoughts of Paul Morphy, the 19th century American chess genius, who quit playing seriously at age 22 on obscure grounds of injured pride.

The comparison with Morphy underestimates Fischer’s redoubtable conception of himself. But hardly anyone in Iceland, the U.S. or the rest of the world seemed to care much if Fischer came to such an end last week. The press and public opinion, which had previously celebrated his eccentricities, were fed up.

The week before, Fischer had arrived in Iceland at the eleventh hour, his holdout of that moment having ended when an English millionaire sweetened the pot by $125,000, but now he seemed lost once more. John Lennon and Yoko Ono had recently sent him a chess set with white-on-white squares, all white pieces and this inscription: ‘For playing as long as you can remember where all your pieces are.’ But Fischer seemed to see nothing but black pieces. He feuded with his aides. He had committed the dictator’s cardinal sin—loss of control.

By Sunday Fischer had tickets on an afternoon plane to New York and the championships seemed doomed, but at the last moment a new accommodation brought him to, the chessboard once again.”

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Bobby Fischer as the smiling, chess-playing child.

Before he became an unstable, ranting anti-Semitic hermit, Bobby Fischer was one of the most revered people on the planet. His legendary chess matches with Russian champion Boris Spassky during the height of the Cold War were televised to a rapt audience of millions. Victory meant the world was at Fischer’s feet, but he punted and disappeared from the game for two decades. He emerged for a big-money rematch against Spassky in 1992 which had none of the gravitas of the original contest–it was merely a cash grab by two players past their prime who were trading on nostalgia. In a new article in the New York Review of Books, Garry Kasparov, an excellent writer as well as a former world chess champion, opines on Fischer’s sad tale of being moved from king to pawn by mental illness. An excerpt about Fischer’s uneasy return to the spotlight in the ’90s:

“It was therefore quite a shock to see the real live Bobby Fischer reappear in 1992, followed by the first Fischer chess game in twenty years, followed by twenty-nine more. Lured out of self-imposed isolation by a chance to face his old rival Spassky on the twentieth anniversary of their world championship match—and by a $5 million prize fund—a heavy and bearded Fischer appeared before the world in a resort in Yugoslavia, a nation in the process of being bloodily torn apart.

The circumstances were bizarre. The sudden return, the backdrop of war, a shady banker and arms dealer as a sponsor. But it was Fischer! One could not believe it. The chess displayed by Fischer and Spassky in Svefi Stefan and Belgrade was predictably sloppy, although there were a few flashes of the old Bobby brilliance. But was this really a return, or would he disappear just as quickly as he had appeared? And what to make of the strange things Fischer was doing at the press conferences? America’s great champion spitting on a cable from the US government? Saying he hadn’t played in twenty years because he had been ‘blacklisted…by world Jewry’? Accusing Karpov and me of prearranging all our games? You had to look away, but you could not.

Even in his prime there were concerns about Fischer’s stability, during a lifetime of outbursts and provocations. Then there were the tales from his two decades away from the board, rumors that made their way around the chess world. That he was impoverished, that he had become a religious fanatic, that he was handing out anti-Semitic literature in the streets of Los Angeles. It all seemed too fantastic, too much in line with all the stories of chess driving people mad—or mad people playing chess—that have found such a good home in literature.”

Dick Cavett interviews Fischer in 1971, before the shocking decline:

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