Bobby Fischer, dead at 64

Bobby Fischer (right) on the move against Boris Spassky in their pivotal 1972 match in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Bobby Fischer (right) on the move against Boris Spassky in their pivotal 1972 match in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The news of Bobby Fischer’s demise has come as somewhat of a shock to the world chess community, but the 64-year old chess legend was said to be ailing. Born as Robert James Fischer on March 9, 1943 in Chicago, Illinois, he primarily grew up in Brooklyn and was raised by his mother and older sister, both to whom he was very close. After falling out of grace with U.S. authorities, he had been a resident in Iceland since 2005 when he was granted Icelandic citizenship. He had been detained in Japan for nine months in what a battered and bruised Fischer stated was a case of human rights violation.

In happier times, Fischer was busy dominating the chess world and first caught the attention of players as a young teen in the famous Manhattan Chess Club. It was there, Washington Square Park and the Marshall Chess Club that he honed his skills into a world-class player. He completely destroyed the American circuit winning the U.S. Championship at age 14.

Fischer played in eight U.S. Championships, all held in New York City winning each time. His scores were: 1957-58: 10½/13; 1958-59: 8½/11; 1959-60: 9/11; 1960-61: 9/11; 1962-63: 8/11; 1963-64: 11/11; 1965-66: 8½/11; 1966-67: 9½/11. In these tournaments, he dropped only three games.

Fischer made many theoretical contributions to the game, but perhaps his greatest contribution was his notion of playing with unrelenting and uncompromising passion. He had a distaste for draws and played on until the position was lifeless. He is known for the “Game of the Century”… a scintillating queen sacrifice on Donald Byrne. Below is the key position from that game later dubbed, “The Game of the Century” by Hans Kmoch.

Donald Byrne - Robert J. Fischer (after 17... Be6!!)

Donald Byrne vs. Bobby Fischer, Rosenwald Memorial, 1956

The move 17…Be6!! showed that the young Fischer had a deep understanding of positions, but he was creative enough not to let his technical skill get in the way of his intuition. He had other brilliant ideas as shown by another queen sacrifice. His determined individualism has resonated with a lot of young players today including Hikaru Nakamura who shares many characteristics in common with Fischer.

So obsessed with winning, it was said that he once played another move after the game only had two kings. It may have been an anecdote, but Fischer was certainly an “ultimate fighter.” Fischer was an imposing figure… tall, well-dressed, clean-cut and was famous for his incredible memory. So many stories are told of him being able to recall blitz games move-by-move that had been played many years beforehand.

During his rise to the World Championship, he claimed that the Soviet Union had engaged in collusion during tournaments which included pre-arranging games. While the pre-arrangements are still denied, his accusations of collusion turned out to have a semblance of credibility. Over the years, many players have affirmed the plot to derail Fischer’s quest for chess supremacy. This was not to be as Fischer scored some crushing victories including the famous 6-0 victories over Soviet Union’s Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen of Denmark.

Nevertheless, Fischer took on the Soviet chess empire and in 1972 faced the indomitable Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. This match would become the most famous chess match ever played and was filled with controversy from the start. Only and intervention by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the urging by close chess friends averted a forfeit loss. After forfeiting the first game, Fischer demolition of Spassky was so thorough and complete that the world was shocked beyond imagination. Spassky fell into disfavor with the Soviet establishment and later immigrated to France.

The two would then revisit their match twenty years later in a “World Championship Match” staged in Yugoslavia. The country was in the midst of a war and had been placed under sanctions by the U.S. government. Fischer violated the travel ban and was cited. In a press conference he spat on the citation and denounced America and its foreign policies. His relationship with the U.S. deteriorated and he never set foot again on U.S. soil… a man perhaps more adored abroad than in his own country.

Fischer’s victory led to the so-called “Fischer Boom” in America and he was responsible for a spike in chess interest. He also captured the imagination of players around the world. One other fact… Fischer was known as a very keen blitz player racking up ridiculous plus scores in tournaments. He won the 1971 Manhattan blitz tournament by the score of 21½-1½! Larry Parr wrote an interesting article about Bobby Fischer’s skill at blitz chess. The article details many stories about Fischer’s participation in strong blitz tournaments such as the Herceg Novi (Yugoslavia) tournament where he scored a blistering 19 – 3 (+17 -1 =4). How good was his performance?

It had four world champions competing, and Bobby not only finished 4 ½ points ahead of Tal in second place, he also obliterated the Soviet contingent, 8½ – 1½, whitewashing Tal, Tigran Petrosian and Vasily Smyslov, six-zip; breaking even with Viktor Korchnoi; and defeating David Bronstein with a win and draw. According to one report, Fischer spent no more than 2 ½ minutes on any game, thereby also giving, in effect, heavy speed odds to powerful opponents.

After abdicating his crown to Anatoly Karpov in 1975, he distanced himself from chess, but created a new chess variant called “Fischer Random” chess. In this game the pieces are shuffled in the beginning which meant each player could not rely on volumes of analysis that had been prepared beforehand. This was one of the complaints of Fischer’s… the game of chess had been “played out.” Fischer Random chess has indeed caught on, but has not yet developed a mainstream following. One day it will and Fischer will be remembered for its popularity. There had been talk of Fischer Random matches with top players, but they never materialized.

Later in his life Fischer espoused many views besides chess. Hours after the 9/11 attacks, he stated that the United States had “gotten what they deserved” and recounted atrocities such as slavery of Africans and the extermination of the Native Americans as examples. His comments met the ire of the American media and thereafter, the news reports usually focused on his anti-Semetic rants and his non-chess problems.

Even in his death most of the media clips show him in a confused, disheveled state as opposed to his glory years… a dashing figure with a penchant for tailored suits. Many had simply dismissed Fischer as mentally unstable, but of course his comments will be examined very closely in his death. Whether one questioned his mental stability or not, his story is one of intrigue. A story of intrigue… yet one that ended in a pitiful tragedy. Perhaps one tragedy is the U.S. government’s inability to resolve his issues long before he began making inflammatory, disestablishment comments.

Sources say that Fischer succumbed to kidney failure and rejected specific treatments over the past few months. Some may say Fischer died of a broken heart and certainly there were those who took advantage of him. There are perhaps as many opinions of Fischer as there are chess players on the planet. However, no player has ever denied Bobby Fischer’s important contributions to the sport… in a day before computers and databases. He will go down as one of the legendary figures in all of chess.

Footage of Bobby Fischer during his match with Boris Spassky in Reyjavik, Iceland. Fischer would destroy Spassky 12½-8½ to become the World Champion.

Daaim Shabazz

Daaim Shabazz is the founder of The Chess Drum, while serving as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds a B.S. Computer Science from Chicago State University, an MBA in Marketing and a Ph.D. in International Affairs & Development, both from Clark Atlanta University. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

42 Comments

  1. Mr. Shabazz, Arnold Denker and I spoke of his relationship in mid-1979 with Bobby. At the time Arnold was still on good terms with him. Later, I remember Larry Christianson literally shaking his head and just down right mad that he couldn’t play the “greatest player of our time; and I can’t even play him because he doesn’t compete.” I feel a loss as others do that love the game. E J Shade

  2. I think the Guardian Newspaper of England sums him up correctly,the headline is titled “Death of a madman driven sane by chess” and goes on to state
    “‘What made him a great player also made him an impossible human being’ ”

    Sad loss to chess community

  3. ➡ ➡ Bobby Fischer’s contribution to chess is immeasurable. Let us remember the phenomal chess player he was. Please go to uschess.org and enter “Dick Schaap” as a search term. You’ll be led to David Friedman’s article about WILT CHAMBERLIN’S encounter with Bobby Fischer, and Wilt’s contribution to the invention of Fischer Random Chess. Thank You Dr. Shabazz for an excellent article and site.

  4. Over the past couple of days, hundreds of stories have run about the death of Robert James “Bobby” Fischer. It is a shame that these stories have continued to demonize him instead of focusing on his chess contributions. I suppose that is an attempt to discredit his political claims since admitting his brilliance would infer that he was rational in his statements. If you will notice, mass media (non-chess) sources give a basic overview of his career, but mostly focus on his vitriolic comments about a number of topics.

    The mass media has also presented him as one who is unclean. This not only adds to the notion that he was unstable, but the photos are also being used deceitfully. The photo below (lower left) was taken shortly after his release from a prison. He was disheveled and sported an unshorn beard with crumpled clothing! This is a photo that is being used in the popular media when there would be no logical reason to use it. It is neither the most current, nor was it how he normally appeared after he arrived in Iceland.


    On the left, Bobby Fischer nine months after Japanese detention. On the right, Bobby Fischer two weeks after his release in Iceland. Photos from ChessBase.com.

    Of course, Fischer’s political views will be questioned by many, but the media is on the offensive trying to make him into some type of monster… an apparent vendetta. Reminds me of the military strategies when the enemy is demonized to make their demise acceptable. The pictures of a haggard-looking Fischer will ultimately do more to hurt chess’ image and chess journalists would do well to present him respectfully. As it stands now, the public may believe that chess took away his life instead of giving him life. Yugoslavian great Ljubomir Ljubojevic stated it most succinctly when he spoke of Fischer’s generosity,

    “Fischer gave to the chess world much more than he received himself… from the chess world. In general, he left much more for all of us that he could ever receive himself.”

  5. Chess community, justy appreciate what Fischer did to the chess world. His personal life is his, it does not belong to chess world. Remember what he did on the board thats all. Thats was a man who possessed immense skills. He was truly a genius. We have lost a great man with great talent. The demise of Bobby has brought chess players around the world into deep mourning, anguish and untold sorrow. His expirience has been lost forever in chess community
    Expirience is not bought in shops hence a loss
    and a loss is a loss. We lost Fischer.
    Thats bad.

  6. :Fischer was and is still and will always be one of the Great Chess Legend!!
    M still inspired by his games and he has contributed much in my Chess repertoire.

    May his soul rest in peace

  7. This witchhunting on Fischer (in his death) continues. Most of the articles focus on him being eccentric, mad, delusional, anti-Semetic, pro-9/11. Perhaps this is the only thing non-chess journalists understand about him. They certainly could not understand what he did for chess. The attacks on him make you wonder about the motives and why the media is so persistent in their characterizations. They continue to bring religion into this. There was talk about him having converted to Catholicism because he choose a Catholic burial ceremony. Some hypothesized that at some point, he converted from Judaism.

    On these claims, we have to ask, “is Judaism a religion or a race?” Some may interpret it in Rabbinic law as race. If if it race, then you cannot convert into or out of it. The logic being… since Fischer’s mother is a Jew, then that makes him a Jew. If one says Judaism is a race, are conversions acceptable in Rabbinic law? If not, we are saying that millions of people who converted to Judaism are not Jews?

    Now… if Judaism is a religion (which is how it is presented to the world), you can disavow (or accept) any association with a religion by uttering a mere statement… or in your actions. If Judaism is a religion, then Fischer never mentioned any practice of Judaism and of course disavowed any association. However, many media reports want to make him on one hand into an anti-Judaic monster and on the other, a Jew.

    I do believe that once time passes, the public will focus more on his accomplishments and less on his post-1975 statements. However, his controversial interview on 9-11 will always be analyzed with great interest. He will be always be known for his biting diatribe against America on that fateful day.

  8. There is an interesting article at ChessBase.com about Bobby Fischer’s last weeks. It turns out that he had a terminal kidney disease that was treated in November 2007 and given only a few months to live. He returned to the doctor in January after the condition worsened and died on January 17th. What I’m not clear on is his refusal for treatment. Was his dire condition because he rejected treatment or because the disease had run its course? Nevetheless, it is good to see a positive article about Fischer since they wanted to paint him as something other than a great chess player… the greatest player of all time.

    Article here!

  9. The Bobby Fischer story is still in the news, but one story revealed his anatagonism toward his mother (Regina Fischer) due to apparent neglect and extreme views. This revelations came from unpublished letters that were revealed by Joan Rodker, a friend of Regina Fischer. Here is the story posted on thaindian.com (28 January 2008):

    * * *

    London, Jan 28 (ANI): Bobby Fischer might have been a chess prodigy, but deep inside he was the most perplexing of human characters and a terribly heartless son, it has been revealed.

    When Fischer, who died last month aged 64, went to Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972 to play Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky for the world championship, he was everything an American hero was supposed to be, except for a caring son.

    Unpublished letters have shed an unprecedented light on the genesis of Fischer’s shaky mental state and his obsession with beating Spassky at the so-called match of the century in Reykjavik in 1972.

    The letters also reveal that he did not know who his real father was, and deeply hated his mother for being an active communist under continuous supervision by the FBI.

    Fischer’s mother, Regina Fischer wrote to Joan Rodker, now a retired journalist, photographer and film-maker, on a regular basis revealing some of the anguish experienced by a mother disowned by an extraordinary son.

    In a letter to Rodker in May 1959, Regina wrote:

    I have found I am not very necessary or useful to Bobby, and actually my presence is an irritant to him. Merely being there, or in the vicinity, is enough.

    When Fischer became US champion at the tender age of 14, Regina confided in Rodker, describing her son as temperamental, unable to get along with others, without friends his age, and without any interests other than chess.

    When Fischer was 16, Regina decided to pursue her training in medicine, which meant that her son would have to live without her.

    It sounds terrible to leave a 16-year-old to his own devices, but he is probably happier that way. Maybe he is better off without my nagging him to go out for sports, etc, eat, get through his homework, go to bed before 1am, etc. I am tired of being a scapegoat and doormat, she wrote.

    And Bobby was apparently relieved after getting rid of his mother. In an interview with Harpers magazine in 1962 he accused his mother of being a square, adding, “I dont like people in my hair, so I had to get rid of her.”

    Rodker, now aged 92, believes that Fischers anger was because of his mothers fascination with left-wing activism, leading to an apparent letdown to be there for him as a mother.

    She was an ardent communist. The Soviet Union could do no wrong, which was why Bobby was so ardently against it, Times Online quoted Rodker, as saying.

    Fischer’s paternity was officially held by Regina’s first husband, Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, but his real father, according to the 750 pages of files released by the FBI on Reginas death from cancer in 1997, was Dr. Paul Nemenyi, a Hungarian physicist.

    David Edmonds, co-author of the respected biography Bobby Fischer Goes to War, said that the letters were of immense significance in helping to solve unanswered questions about Bobbys life and provided further anecdotal evidence that he was really Bobby Nemenyi. (ANI)

  10. GM Robert J. Fischer, the greatest champion of all time, followed closely by GM Jose Raul Capablanca then GM Alexander Alekhine. Both Fischer & Alekhine were persecuted because of their critique of Zionism. Most chess enthusiasts are not aware of some historians account of Alekhine’s mysterious death ; murdered! Shot in the back while studying at his chess board. There were Jewish gangs roaming Europe at this time murdering those that expressed “anti-Semitic” views. I believed Fischer’s death should be more critically examined; an autopsy should performed post haste.

    If Bobby’s mother was alive, I have no doubt that she would with a quickness be on the case. It’s sad there is no one left to defend the champ. Ms. Fischer was a person to be admired.She was a true progressive. I remember her travelling to Nicaragua during the Reagan administration to demonstrate solidarity with the Sandinistas by volunteering to work on farms there doing manual labor. She always defended the have-nots, views Bobby adopted late in his life. I recall Bobby claiming he was being poisoned during his illegal incarceration in Japan, which behaves as if it is a U.S. colony. Well I guess after having two atomic weapons exploded on your civilian population……

    Personally, I feel I did what little I could for Bobby while he was alive. When an auction for Bobby’s personal valuables came up for sale on eBay I immediate reported them as stolen to the appropriate authorities and they were removed. I received an email from the seller explaining that he had purchased them at a garage sale with the intent of returning them to Fischer. It’s a mystery how he obtained my address.

  11. I thought about the same things while reading these reports about him in his death. The media is painting Fischer’s legacy with a broad stroke of anti-Semitism and paranoia. Some of the articles are spiteful and in poor taste. One called him an “American Jew” and it appeared in such a context as if to defy his wishes.

    I didn’t know the story of his mother, but of course Fischer may have felt embarassed by his mother’s activities because he was so outspoken against the Soviet empire and anything associated with it. However, Fischer’s issues with his mother appeared to have happened much earlier (according to the article). We also have to remember that Fischer never knew his father and was probably resentful for this fact. Fortunately, young Bobby had chess and many mentors serving as his surrogate family.

  12. Please excuse my grammatical errors in the above comments re: the champ as I wrote this in haste & anger. My English teachers taught me much better than the above.Prof. I am sure there is some technical reason why there is not an edit or spell check feature.

  13. There is no spell check on this software. I use the spellcheck on the Google toolbar. You have to download it.

    https://toolbar.google.com/T4/index_pack_xp.html

    The discussions are going with Fischer, but they are starting to focus more on his accomplishments and how he was mistreated. There are many stories coming out. The issue of his illegal imprisonment in Japan has come up quite a bit lately. Interesting discussion at The Daily Dirt.

    https://www.chessninja.com/dailydirt/2008/01/bobby_fischer_19432008.htm

  14. Prof., Thanks for the toolbar. Yes, I’ve noticed the trend and it appears that quite a few will be attempting to cash in on Bobby’s demise.I also recommended ” The Drum ” to Bobby via his website several years ago. It was here that I first learned of the brotha traveling to Iceland with the champ.A European was bragging about his military career had taken him to Iceland, a place no African had ever been.Of course I knew immediately that this was not correct but I did indeed inform him about Bobby’s traveling companion.

  15. That’s straight bogus. Not sure why he thought we’d never been to Iceland. I have a female colleague who has been to Iceland… she just wanted to see Iceland. There are all kinds of Black professionals in England that certainly have traveled there. In fact, I have done a routine search and there are Blacks living in Iceland! There is also an Air Force Base there with Black sailors.

    Nevertheless, it would be interesting to know what Archie Waters thought of Iceland and how he was received. Black people don’t get up there too often in 1972 and they must’ve been intrigued at his presence.

  16. Bobby Fischer continues to impress the world with his chess, first he gives us a collection of his games, secondly we transform that into the science Ultramodern, third the younger generation are able to study that science and apply it in various competitions ,an example being Hikura Nakamura in the global chess challenge in 2005 playing the ultrapirc (d6 f5!) in rd9 which you alerted me to brother Shabazz if you recall, and more recently Magnus Carlsen defeating Kramnik in rd12 of corus2008 with the Ultramodern (nc7 f5!) idea. This type of chess comes directly from bobby’s games so even death cannot hold ” The Geometric Beauty of Robert James Fischer”, and the future of Black Chess is right on course . Peace

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  18. Fischer was the 2nd greatest player of all time. The legendary Paul Morphy was the greatest. As Fischer himself stated, if he were alive today, he would be familiar with all of the book knowledge and he was the most accurate player who ever lived. Morphy was light years ahead of his time, something that cannot be said about any other player, including Fischer.

  19. An argument can be made for Morphy, but of course he didn’t have to defeat an entire machine as did Fischer. Fischer was able to beat the powerful Soviet Union… in effect, an entire country by himself. Morphy never had such a powerful opposition. Of course, Fischer demolished everyone else and would have crushed Karpov. Powerful opponents were crushed and he won tournaments (with GMs) by ridiculous scores. I’m not sure if you can find a Morphy parallel.

  20. I have always been amazed by Bobby Fischer’s success. His fall from favor with American politics was unfortunate, but other notable Americans have disagreed with their home Country’s position in the world for one reason or another. It is expected that people will speak carefully of their home Country and so his comments were both a surprise and a disappointment for many. What he did in Russia in the early 70′ s amazed people all over the world. You cannot take that away from him. He had the ability and he showed it. I believe that he did a lot for the game of chess. I will always admire his ability in the game, and politics aside, I will always think of Bobby Fischer as one of the chess greats of all time , because …………….he was !

  21. Yeah well he was the best the traditional gms had to offer. They got Magus now we saw each other at the St. Louis Chess Club when we visited on August 24-25 during their Sinquefled Cup 2019. So their top guys realize im not some internet “GHOST” now. Buffalonians over the board chess? ULTRAMODERNIST.

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