Filmmakers the world over have attempted to capture the Bobby Fischer mystique for decades, from his ascent to the World Chess Championship in 1972 up to and beyond his death in 2008. Documentaries have been made all over the world, and twenty-five years after Fischer became the first American to win the championship, documentarians continue to try to understand just who Bobby Fischer really was: The BBC produced a major film about the mysteries of the prodigy, “The Auld Enemy: Fischer vs. the Soviets.” In the same year, the A&E network broadcast “Bobby Fischer,” an hour-long study of his incredible and sometimes enigmatic career. These were not cut-and-paste jobs but an attempt to show what a brilliant and controversial figure Fischer was.
A feature film, “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993), which starred Ben Kingsley, Joan Allen, and Joe Mantegna, so angered Fischer that he threatened to sue the producers for the misappropriation of his name and image, citing invasion of privacy. And when his former bodyguard cooperated with a film production called “Me and Bobby Fischer,” Fischer became so incensed that he attempted, without success, to have filming stopped. A new Canadian television series entitled “Endgame,” not directly connected to Bobby, but with a detective who solves cases like Fischer solved chess problems, is now broadcasting every week. And in its documentary category the Sundance Film Festival has just premiered “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” which is receiving rave reviews.
Let’s explore why Fischer was and continues to be one of the most dramatic characters who has piqued the imagination of filmmakers.
In 1953, Bobby Fischer, about ten years old, sat at a chess board during a tournament on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was a teenager at that time, playing in the tournament, and I noticed with surprise the resolve and seriousness that he brought to the game – more than just about anyone I had ever seen play. But not everyone was so reserved. An older man, some six times Bobby’s age, was talking too loudly. “Please, this is a chess game!” the boy hissed angrily. Embarrassed, the man fell silent. To Bobby Fischer, chess was like a virtuoso piano recital at Carnegie Hall: There were simply no interruptions or noise permitted.
I became fascinated by the intensity of Bobby Fischer as I watched him, tournament by tournament, progressing up the ladder and becoming the youngest U.S. Open Champion, the youngest U.S. (closed) Champion, and the youngest International Grandmaster in the world … all by the time he was fifteen! His comportment at the board was fascinating to watch, a study in concentration. When he moved the pieces with his long, slender fingers, it was as if he were a concert pianist playing a sonata. The depth of his play was relentless, although it was entirely lucid – more Bach than Beethoven, more Rembrandt than Rothko.
In 1972 he traveled to Iceland to play Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union for the World Championship. Spassky had the full weight and assistance of the USSR behind him: trainers, psychologists, and servants – no expense was spared for him, as the Soviets wanted him to retain what they claimed was “their” title. Chess in Russia was like baseball in the United States: It was their national pastime, and they had no intention of allowing a high-school dropout from Brooklyn to wrest the championship from them. The match became an analogy for the Cold War.
All Bobby had was himself and his self-respect, virtually no backing and no financial assistance. He demanded proper lighting, the perfect chess set, no noise from spectators, and a sizable prize fund – ten times more than had ever been paid for a championship match. In making these constant demands, he incurred the wrath of the public throughout the world, who thought him a petulant, stubborn, ugly American. But boy, could he play chess! Hundreds of reporters descended on the tiny city of Reykjavik during the tense three-month contest, and the worldwide media tracked the games as avidly as they do current soccer matches. Even the television coverage of the Democratic National Convention was interrupted because viewers wanted to see the chess match.
Bobby roundly defeated Spassky and became the first official World Chess Champion in American history. Dick Cavett wrote that for that period of time, Bobby Fischer was “the most famous person on earth.” Plays and songs were written about him; more books were written about him than about all other chess players combined. He was courted by presidents and royalty.
The fascinating story could end there: how a young arriviste with no help and no government backing could defeat the hegemony of the Soviet Union in such an intellectual pursuit. But it didn’t. Upon returning to New York, Bobby was greeted on the steps of City Hall by Mayor Lindsay, who proclaimed it “Bobby Fischer Day.”
Then only thirty years old, Bobby had offers of $10 million to sponsor products and appear in tournaments. He spurned them all.
Instead … he disappeared.
For twenty years Bobby lived in flophouses in a seedy section of Los Angeles, subsisting on his mother’s Social Security checks, inexplicably refusing to play even one game in public, granting no interviews, permitting no photographs.
He didn’t come out of his self-imposed exile until 1992 when, desperate for money and in love with a girl thirty years younger whom he wanted to marry, he agreed to a return match with Spassky, to be played in Serbia. But the U.S. government had imposed economic sanctions on Serbia because of the war in Kosovo, and it warned Bobby not to play there. Indignant, Bobby, in front of the world’s press and television cameras, literally spat on the letter of warning from his government. He played the match and won $3.5 million. United States issued a warrant for his arrest, with the possible sentence of ten years in prison if convicted.
Bobby became a man without a country, living on the run for twelve years in Hungary, Japan, and the Philippines, surrounded by bodyguards. As his paranoia grew, fearing assassination, he wore a heavy leather coat to ward off knife attacks and wore a bulletproof vest. Finally he was caught attempting to travel with an invalid passport and spent nine months in a Japanese jail, trying to avoid deportation to the United States. The only country to grant him citizenship was Iceland, where he lived, unhappily, until his death.
Bobby Fischer’s life story is so bizarre and incongruous that it sounds like fiction, and will undoubtedly be written about and filmed for years to come. It is a great rags-to-riches tale, filled with sound and fury as he fell from grace, and, like the King in chess, toppled and resigned.
Frank Brady is the author of Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness.