It's checkmate for chess world's boy wonder

Posted: 3/10/2005
By: Lou Sessinger The Intelligencer

Bobby Fischer might be living proof that genius is no defense against lunacy.

Fischer hasn't been a household word since 1972. That was when, at the age of 29, he became the greatest chess player in the world by dethroning the Soviet Union's Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland.

It was called the "chess match of the century," and Fischer was hailed as a boy wonder and an American Cold War hero. He was the first officially recognized American world champion in a highly intellectual game that had been dominated by Soviets since the close of World War II.

For many in America, Fischer's brilliant victory showed the Soviets that we were just as smart as they were, even smarter.

But soon Fischer's eccentricity emerged.

In 1975, the International Chess Federation stripped him of his title after refusing to meet the temperamental Fischer's terms for a match with Soviet challenger Anatoly Karpov.

After that, Fischer all but dropped from public view. He didn't compete in another chess tournament until 1992. It was a rematch with Spassky that took place in the former Yugoslavia. Fischer won the match, 10 games to five, and walked off with the prize of $3.3 million.

But it also landed him in hot water with the U.S. government.

The Feds said his chess match violated United Nations sanctions against doing business with the warring republics that used to be known as Yugoslavia and issued a warrant for his arrest. So Fischer went on the lam, living at various times in Hungary, Germany, Japan, the Philippines and other nations.

From time to time he would give radio interviews. He'd talk about chess, but increasingly he'd rant about being the target of U.S. and Jewish conspiracies. He had become a raving anti-American and virulent anti-Semite, ironic considering his mother was Jewish.

This is what he said on a Filipino radio station hours after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11:

"This is all wonderful news. It is time to finish off the U.S. once and for all. I was happy and could not believe what was happening. All the crimes the U.S. has committed in the world. This just shows what goes around comes around, even to the U.S.

"I applaud the act. The U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians for years. Now it is coming back to the U.S."

It's not the kind of speech that endears him to his fellow countrymen.

The United States revoked Fischer's passport in 2003.

Last July, he was detained in Japan while trying to board a plane for Manila without a valid passport. He is being held at a Japanese detention center where he's fighting Japan's efforts to deport him to the United States, where he faces arrest.

And so there sits Bobby Fischer, 61 years old and behind bars waiting for the Japanese government to decide what to do with him.

He has his supporters. Iceland has offered to issue him a passport. There's a Web site called Free Bobby. Based on the messages posted there, it seems that most visitors are chess fans who admire his prowess and snarling Jew-haters like him.

It might be easy to dismiss Fischer as an eccentric genius, but the depth of his professed hatred and paranoia is both frightening and sad.

Some consider him to be the greatest chess player ever, but instead of riding the wave of his early successes, he chose to drop out to brood about and rail against his so-called enemies, be they real or imagined.

Fischer has become like a character in a Greek tragedy. He had fame, fortune, genius and talent, but he also had a fatal flaw. Perhaps the Grandmaster couldn't master himself and so has become undone by his own ego and pride.

A sad end for such a smart guy.

Lou Sessinger is a columnist with The Intelligencer. He can be contacted at (215) 957-8172 or