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Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer.

Bobby Fischer.

Robert James "Bobby" Fischer (born March 9, 1943) is a grandmaster and former world chess champion, who on September 1, 1972, became the second American and the first American-born chess player to win the World Chess Championship. He officially lost the title when FIDE, the international chess federation, refused to accept his conditions for a title defense in 1975. Garry Kasparov wrote that of all world champions of chess, the skill gap between Fischer and his contemporaries was the largest in history [1]. Fischer is also well known for his eccentricity, unconventional behavior, and outspoken political views. Despite his prolonged absence from competitive play, or perhaps because of it, Fischer is still among the best known of all chess players.

Fischer's victory over the Soviet champion Boris Spassky to win the world championship was seen as a symbolic victory for the West that catalyzed interest in the game internationally. His opponent was portrayed, in the United States in particular, as the product of an impersonal, mechanical, and oppressive system of state control, while Fischer was the solitary genius overcoming the Soviets' claim to dominance. As a national hero, Americans were willing to forgive his behavior and views as eccentricities, and in popular culture he became a symbol of the genius whose brilliance is so great that he is destroyed by it.


Early years

Robert James Fischer was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Regina Wender, a naturalized American citizen of Jewish Polish ancestry who was born in Switzerland, raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and later became a teacher, registered nurse and physician. His father was reportedly Wender's first husband, Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist; the couple married in 1933 in Moscow, U.S.S.R., where Wender was studying medicine at the First Moscow Medical Institute. Though Hans-Gerhardt Fischer is listed as the father on Robert Fischer's birth certificate, a 2002 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer stated that Fischer's biological father was Paul Felix Nemenyi, a Hungarian Jewish physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project on the development of the atomic bomb [2]. Nemenyi paid child support for Bobby Fischer during his infancy and early childhood. Later, F.B.I. research determined that although Fischer's mother had returned to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1939, her first husband never entered the country after that date, making it improbable that Bobby Fischer, born in 1943, was Hans-Gerhardt Fischer's child. Although at least one of his parents was Jewish, Fischer has vehemently denied being a Jew in several public interviews, and blames the mischaracterization on a Jewish conspiracy to defame him.

The Fischers divorced in 1945 when their son was two years old, and Fischer grew up with his mother and older sister, Joan. In 1948, the family moved to Mobile, Arizona, where Regina taught in an elementary school. The following year they moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Regina worked as an elementary school teacher and nurse.

In May 1949, six-year-old Bobby learned how to play chess from instructions found in a chess set that his sister bought at a candy store below their Brooklyn apartment. Bobby saw his first chess book a month later. For over a year he played chess on his own. At age 7, he joined the Brooklyn Chess Club and was taught by the club's president, Carmine Nigro. When Fischer was 13, his mother asked John W. Collins to be his chess teacher. Collins had taught several top players, including Robert Byrne and William Lombardy. Fischer spent much time at Collins's house, and some have described Collins as a father figure for Fischer. Fischer attended but dropped out of Erasmus Hall High School, where many teachers remembered him as difficult. According to school records, he has an I.Q. of 180 and an "incredibly retentive memory."

Playing career before 1967

Fischer's first real triumph was winning the U.S. Junior Chess Championship in July 1956. In the same year, he played several brilliant games; his game against Donald Byrne, who later became an International Master, is referred to as "The Game of the Century".

In 1957, Fischer won the US Open Chess Championship in Cleveland, Ohio, on tie-breaking points over Arthur Bisguier. Because of this result, Fischer was given entry into the invitational U.S. Championship. This was controversial because it was believed that Fischer was too weak and would finish last. Instead, he finished first.

In January 1958, at age 14, Fischer became the U.S. champion. He holds the record for being the youngest to hold the title. Along with the title, he qualified to participate in the Interzonals, the next step toward challenging the World Champion. Nobody gave the young Fischer much chance of qualifying from the Interzonal, so it was a surprise when, after a good finish, Fischer tied for fifth place. The top six places qualified for the Candidates Tournament. His result also earned him the title of International Grandmaster. At the time, he was the youngest Grandmaster in history, a record that stood until Judit Polgr of Hungary became a Grandmaster in 1991.

It was at this stage, during the Candidates Tournament in Yugoslavia in 1959, that Fischer came face to face with the Russian chess juggernaut, which was to set the tone for the rest of his playing career. Fischer and others alleged that because of the number of Russian players involved in the tournament (the Soviet Union dominated international chess competition throughout most of its history), it was possible for them to agree on short draws among themselves and concentrate their full efforts on the non-Russian contingent. Once the non-Russians were effectively eliminated, the Russians would then be left to fight against each other for the right to challenge the reigning World Champion, (Mikhail Botvinnik). In interviews several years later, Soviet players substantiated these claims. Fischer finished the tournament in the middle of the pack (12.5/28) and lost his four games against the winner of the tournament, Mikhail Tal, who also went on to defeat Botvinnik and become World Champion.

For many years Fischer remained one of the strongest non-Soviet players, together with Lajos Portisch, Svetozar Gligoric, and Bent Larsen, but did not qualify for a World Championship match. In the 1962 cycle he confidently won the Stockholm interzonal (17.5/22) but in the Candidates tournament in Curaao he finished 4th with a score of 14 out of 27. This was a big disappointment for him, since he had been playing very strongly in the previous year and thought himself to be the favorite.

In the next cycle, Fischer did not compete. He reaffirmed his conviction that the Soviet players had a non-aggression pact and concentrated on playing against him. Therefore, he decided not to participate in the Amsterdam interzonal in 1964. He held to this decision even when FIDE changed the format of the eight-player Candidates Tournament from a round-robin to a series of knockout matches. (In the previous two cycles, FIDE had sought to address complaints of Soviet collusion by limiting the number of Soviet participants, which was a situation that Soviet chessplayers considered extremely unfair.) In the next cycle, at the Sousse Interzonal (1967), he failed to qualify for the final stages of the World Championship due to a very controversial forfeit.

At home, Fischer won all eight U.S. Championships that he competed in, beginning with the 1957-1958 championship and ending with the 1966-1967 championship. This string includes his win in the 1963-1964 championship, which he won with an 11-0 record, the only perfect score in the history of the tournament.

Religious beliefs about 1965

In 1962 Bobby Fischer claimed that he had "personal problems", (possibly related to the brutal murder of his patron Abe Turner) that coincided with his beginning to listen to various radio ministers in an attempt to find answers. This is how Bobby Fischer first came to listen to The World Tomorrow radio program with Herbert W. Armstrong and his son Garner Ted Armstrong. In an interview with Len Zola, Fischer said that "God has finally shown me the one, I guess. This guy really has power. Authority. He doesn't talk like the other guys. He really knows his stuff!" Fischer became an avid reader of The Plain Truth magazine published by Ambassador College for the Worldwide Church of God, who also sponsored the radio programs to which Fischer was listening. He recalled that in late 1963 he was at a chess tournament when he made a decision to stop sending in odd amounts of money to the church and to start tithing instead. He says that "It was a really big decision."

The Plain Truth was advertised on The World Tomorrow radio program that Bobby Fischer began listening to in 1962. It outlined horrific prophecies, which were graphically illustrated by Basil Wolverton concerning World War III, when the United States and Great Britain were to be destroyed by a United States of Europe. According to this booklet, Bobby Fischer would not have been able to have played his famous 1972 Match of the Century, because he would have already fled with the rest of the Worldwide Church of God to Petra, Jordan, because he was one of "God's People".

According to Fischer, he began to have conflicts between the two halves of his life: the part devoted to chess and the part devoted to religion. He claims in his interview with Len Zola that "'...if anybody tried to live by the letter of the law... it was me. I truly tried to be obedient. The more I tried, the more crazy I became. ... I can remember times coming home from a chess club at four in the morning ... half asleep ... half dead and forcing myself to pray an hour ... I was half out of my headstoned almost."

Fischer then stated that his life had split into two pieces: On the one side was his chess career, and on the other side was his religious life. This was the foundation of Fischer's belief system as he entered the "Match of the Century" in 1972.

Contending for the World Championship (1969-1972)

It was the candidates' cycle that started in 1969 that put Fischer on the road to the World Championship. The first step in the championship process was the zonal tournaments around the world. The U.S. Championship that year was also the zonal, with the top three finishers qualifying for the next stage, the Interzonal. Fischer, however, had sat out the U.S. Championship because of disagreements about the tournament's format and prize fund. To enable Fischer to compete for the title, the third-place finisher, Grandmaster Pal Benko, gave up his coveted place in the Interzonal, for which he received a modest $2,000 payment from the United States Chess Federation (USCF). All the other participants also had to agree to defer to Fischer, which they did. This unusual arrangement was the work of Ed Edmondson, then the Executive Director of the USCF.

Fischer proceeded to win the Interzonal by a remarkable 3.5 points, finishing with seven consecutive wins (one by default). He continued his display of chess prowess in the Candidates matches, defeating his opponents with a lopsided series of results which still has not been equalled by the world's top players. Both Mark Taimanov (USSR) and Bent Larsen of Denmark, the second best non-Soviet player after Fischer himself, were crushed 6-0 (+6 -0 =0). Only former World Champion Tigran Petrosian, Fischer's final opponent in the Candidates matches, made any impression against Fischer's skill and strength. Fischer won the first game to complete a remarkable streak of twenty consecutive wins, a feat which has been compared to throwing back-to-back no-hitters in baseball. Petrosian broke the streak by beating Fischer in the second game. After three draws, however, Fischer won the next four games to win the match by a comfortable score, 6.5-2.5 (+5 =3 -1). In 1971 Fischer had finally earned the right to challenge the World Champion, Boris Spassky.

The Match of the Century

Main article: Match of the Century

Fischer's career-long stubbornness about match and tournament conditions was manifest in the run-up to his match with Spassky. Of the possible sites, Fischer preferred Yugoslavia while Spassky preferred Iceland. For a time it appeared that the dispute would be resolved with an unusual split schedule, putting some games in each location, but that arrangement fell through. At one point Fischer announced that he would not play the match. In answer to Fischer's objection that the prize fund was inadequate, London financier Jim Slater donated an addition of $125,000, bringing the prize fund to $250,000. Henry Kissinger telephoned Fischer, appealing to his patriotism in urging him to play. For whatever reason, Fischer eventually decided to go ahead.

The match between Spassky and Fischer took place in Reykjavk, Iceland, from July through September, 1972. Fischer lost the first two games, the first on a blunder, the second by forfeit. Then he won seven of the next 19 games, losing only one and drawing 11, for a final score of 12.5 - 8.5, to win against Spassky.

World Champion (1972-1975)

The outcome of the Match of the Century cemented two milestones in Fischer's career--the ambition of being the World Chess Champion, and being the highest rated player ever according to the Elo rating system (a rating of 2780 after the Spassky match, although he had been as high as 2795 in 1971).

The win over Spassky was also considered something of a Cold War propaganda victory for the United States, confirming as it did that the strongest player in the world, in a sport dominated by the Soviets since World War II, was now an iconoclastic American who defeated the mighty Soviet chess establishment almost single-handedly.

In the same interview with Len Zola, Bill Hughes asked Bobby Fischer about the money that he won in 1972 and what he had done with it. Fischer said that he had given the Worldwide Church of God $61,200 out of the $200,000 that he made that year. However, 1972 was also the key year in the climax of prophecies both broadcast and written by Herbert W. Armstrong and those prophecies had failed to come true. Meanwhile Garner Ted Armstrong was exposed as having engaged in a series of sex scandals and he was subsequently removed as the main speaker on The World Tomorrow program. Fischer became disillusioned with the organization and left it, subsequently publicly denouncing it.

All of these events had a tremendous impact on Fischer, who felt betrayed and swindled by a church that kept the seventh day Sabbath, did not keep Easter or Christmas, but celebrated many of the days that are holy to Jews, while claiming that the Anglo-Saxon peoples constituted the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. (However, unlike other groups who believed variations on this same theory, the Worldwide Church of God held that Jews were brothers within the same family of Israel.) This may have catalyzed Fischer's extreme anti-Semitism and beliefs in a worldwide conspiracy against him.

Bobby Fischer on the cover of Life magazine

Bobby Fischer on the cover of Life magazine

Publicity of chess in the United States

Fischer's winning of the title brought both him and chess tremendous publicity in the United States. The U.S. public went wild over Fischer's victory against Spassky. Fischer became an instant celebrity whose name became known by people who knew nothing about chess. He received countless product endorsement offers, had his picture featured on the cover of Life magazine, and even made an appearance on national TV. Membership in the United States Chess Federation tripled, creating what is commonly called the "Fischer Boom" years. The last time chess had been so topical among the general American public had been when Paul Morphy returned to the U.S. after beating Europe's greatest masters. More recently, his name appeared in the title of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, about a young chess prodigy. Fischer cited this film as a Jewish conspiracy's attempt to make money off his name, since he has received no royalties from it.

Fischer authored two best-selling books on chess during this time: My 60 Memorable Games (ISBN 0671214837) and Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess (ISBN 0553263153).

Fischer - Karpov 1975

In 1975 the time came for Fischer to defend his title, against the winning challenger Anatoly Karpov. Fischer had not played any tournament games since winning the title, and he laid down numerous conditions for the match. FIDE agreed to all of his demands but two, rejecting Fischer's demands on how the match would be won. Fischer claimed the usual system (24 games with the first player to get 12.5 points winning) encouraged the player in the lead to draw games, which was not good for chess. He instead wanted a match of an unlimited number of games, with the first player to score ten wins winning the match, draws not counting. Most controversially, in the event of each player winning nine games, the champion (Fischer) would retain his title. This meant that Fischer only needed to win nine games to retain the championship, while Karpov had to win by a score of ten to eight. FIDE set a deadline of April 1st for Fischer to accept FIDE's scoring approach, or he would forfeit his championship. Fischer refused to accept and was held to have resigned his title.

Fischer disappeared and did not play competitive chess for nearly twenty years.

Disappearance and aftermath

In 1982, Fischer's pamphlet (published under the name Robert D. James) I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse! was published, detailing Fischer's experiences following his arrest in 1981 after being mistaken for a wanted bank robber. It alleges (at some length) that he was treated "brutally" at the hands of the police. He was eventually charged with damaging prison property (specifically, one mattress). In 1984, Fischer wrote to the editors of the Encyclopedia Judaica asking for his name to be removed from the publication because he claimed he is not Jewish [3].

Bobby Fischer at the 1992 match that would lead to his arrest warrant for violating UN sanctions against Yugoslavia (AP)

Bobby Fischer at the 1992 match that would lead to his arrest warrant for violating UN sanctions against Yugoslavia (AP)

After 20 years of not competing publicly, Fischer emerged from isolation to challenge Spassky (then placed 96-102 on the rating list) to a "Revenge Match of the 20th Century" in 1992. This match which was played with his new clock (see "Chess innovations", below) took place in Sveti Stefan, FR Yugoslavia, in spite of a severe UN embargo which included sanctions on sports events. Fischer, who insists to this day that he is still the World Champion because he never lost a title match, demanded that the organizers bill the match as "The World Chess Championship," although at this time Garry Kasparov was the recognized FIDE champion. The purse for this match was reported to be $5 million, with two-thirds to go to the winner. The United States Treasury department informed Fischer, before the match, that his participation was against the law, and, following the match, obtained an arrest warrant for him. Fischer won the match, 10 wins to 5, with 15 draws. Many grandmasters observing the match said that Fischer was past his prime. In the book Mortal Games, Garry Kasparov wrote: "He is playing ok. Around 2600 or 2650. It wouldn't be close between us." Fischer has not played any competitive chess since the 1992 match.

Since 1972, Fischer has occasionally given interviews, but only if they are broadcast live. In 1999 Fischer gave a call-in interview to a radio station in Budapest, Hungary during which he described himself as the "victim of an international Jewish conspiracy." The Budapest station eventually cut him off, but a similar episode occurred after the September 11, 2001 terrorism attacks. Here, Fischer gave a broadcast interview to Pablo Mercado and Grandmaster Eugenio Torre on the Philippine radio station Radio Bombo in which he has confirmed his strong anti-Semitism among other things, he spoke of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, and denied the Holocaust happened.

In another Philippine broadcast, he applauded the September 11 attacks. "This is all wonderful news," Fischer said. "I applaud the act. The U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians, just slaughtering them for years. Robbing them and slaughtering them... Now it's coming back to the U.S." In 2003, Fischer's United States Chess Federation membership was revoked following these comments.

Similar broadcasts were made through a station in Iceland. Fischer made disparaging remarks about the political situation in chess, alleging that chess is dominated by Jewish control and that every World Championship match since he had left the scene in 1975 had been pre-arranged. The sudden re-emergence was apparently triggered when some of Fischer's belongings, which had been stored in a Pasadena, California storage unit, were sold by the landlord in response to nonpayment of rent. He claimed this was further evidence of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy perpetrated by "the Jew-controlled U.S. Government" to defame and destroy him [4].

For some years Fischer was reportedly living in Budapest, where he became acquainted with the Polgr family, and later on in Japan.

Detention in 2004 and 2005

Fischer being arrested in Japan in July 2004.

Fischer being arrested in Japan in July 2004.

On July 13, 2004, Fischer was arrested at Narita International Airport in Narita, Japan near Tokyo for allegedly using a revoked U.S. passport while trying to board a Japan Airlines flight to Ninoy Aquino International Airport near Manila, Philippines. Fischer used a genuine passport that the U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland issued to him in 1997, but which was revoked in 2003. It has been reported that Fischer traveled frequently between Tokyo and Manila using his U.S. passport.

He has been wanted by the United States government since 1992 when he played a chess match with Spassky in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which violated the presidential executive order #12810 of George H. W. Bush based on UN sanctions against engaging in economic activities in Yugoslavia. Japan and the United States have a mutually binding extradition treaty.

Bobby Fischer renounced his U.S. citizenship, according to the AFP. The following month, it was reported that Fischer would be marrying Miyoko Watai, the President of the Japanese Chess Association, with whom he has been living since 2000. There has been speculation that the move occurred in order to aid Fischer's chances of being allowed to stay in Japan. He also appealed to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell to help him renounce his citizenship.

Notice of deportation.

Notice of deportation.

Nevertheless, Japan's Justice Minister rejected Fischer's appeal that he be allowed to remain in the country and ordered him deported.

Icelandic citizenship

Seeking ways to evade deportation to the United States, Fischer wrote a letter to the government of Iceland in early January 2005, asking for Icelandic citizenship. Sympathetic to Fischer's plight but reluctant to grant him the full benefits of citizenship Icelandic authorities granted him an alien's passport. When this proved insufficient for the Japanese authorities, the Alingi agreed unanimously to grant Fischer full citizenship in late March [5]. Meanwhile, the U.S. government filed charges of tax evasion against Fischer in an effort to prevent him from traveling to Iceland.

As confirmation of Fischer's new citizenship reached Japanese authorities, they agreed to let him out of custody to fly to his new home country. Although Iceland has an extradition treaty with the United States, according to Icelandic law, Icelandic citizens may not be extradited from Iceland.

Shortly before his departure to Iceland on March 23, 2005, Bobby Fischer and his spokesperson-associate appeared briefly on the BBC World Service, via a telephone link to the Tokyo airport from where he departed for Iceland. His associate stated that Fischer would never play chess again and Fischer began by denouncing President Bush as a criminal. He then stated that he would appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court but that he would not return to the United States while the current administration is in power. He denounced Japan as a puppet of the United States. His associate added that Fischer now considered his home to be in Iceland. With that his associate shouted "Bon voyage!" to Bobby Fischer as he left to board the aircraft for his new home.

Bobby Fischer landed safely in Reykjavk, thereby avoiding Iceland's main international airport at Keflavk, as it is near a U.S. naval air station. Many people were there to welcome this new Icelander.

In May, a delegation including Boris Spassky visited Iceland with the intent of "drawing Fischer back to the chessboard". Fischer appeared interested in playing a Fischer Random Chess match against a "worthy opponent". Spassky said that he was not planning to play Fischer. [6]

Chess innovations

Fischer made several contributions to chess theory, in particular, playing the Black side of the so-called "Poisoned Pawn" variation of the Najdorf Sicilian (1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bg5 e6 7. f4 Qb6!) Fischer's plan of quickly developing the queen and snatching a pawn challenged then conventional opening principles, but through rigorous analysis, Fischer was able to prove that the variation was perfectly safe for the second player. [7].

He also wrote an article entitled "A Bust to the King's Gambit" [8] in 1961 for the first issue of Larry Evans' American Chess Quarterly, after being beaten with the black pieces in this opening by Boris Spassky, in their first ever game against each other. Reportedly, Fischer was so enraged by this loss that he immediately started working out how to make the King's Gambit favourable for Black. After its publication, the opening was seen less frequently in master level games, although Fischer himself employed the White side of the King's Gambit in the 1963 U.S. Championship - against Evans.

In 1988, Fischer filed for U.S. Patent 4,884,255 for a new type of digital chess clock. Fischer's clock gave each player a fixed period of time at the start of the game and then added a small amount after each move. The patent expired in November of 2001 because of overdue maintenance fees.

On June 19, 1996, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Fischer announced and advocated a variant of chess called Fischer Random Chess.

Writings of Bobby Fischer

  • My 60 Memorable Games by Bobby Fischer (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1969, and Faber and Faber, London, 1969). A new edition, published by Batsford, London in 1995 and edited by John Nunn, introduced many changes of Fischer's words and variations. Fischer did not authorize the text changes, and accuses the editors of having falsified his analysis on purpose, to make him look bad. Fischer only autographs the Simon and Schuster edition.
  • Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess by Bobby Fischer, Donn Mosenfelder, Stuart Margulies (Bantam Books, May 1972, ISBN 0553263153)

Further reading

  • Bobby Fischer, Profile of a Prodigy by Frank Brady, McKay 1973. Fischer, in one of his radio interviews, said this book was "full of lies".
  • Bobby Fischer Rediscovered by Andy Soltis, Batsford 2003. ISBN 0713488468
  • Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Faber and Faber 2004. ISBN 0571214118
  • My Great Predecessors, Part IV: On Fischer by Garry Kasparov, London 2004
  • Twelve Great Chess Players and Their Best Games by Irving Chernev, Dover; August 1995. ISBN 0486286746
  • The World's Great Chess Games by Reuben Fine, Dover; 1983. ISBN 0486245128
  • World chess champions by Edward G. Winter, editor. 1981 ISBN 0080249041
  • World Champion Fischer (Chessbase, CD-ROM) - includes all Fischer's games (around half annotated), biographical notes, and an examination by Robert Huebner of Fischer's annotations in My Sixty Memorable Games.


External links

Preceded by:
Boris Spassky
World Chess Champion
Succeeded by:
Anatoly Karpov