I've never liked chess, and never played the game myself. But I sure knew the name "Bobby Fischer." He was, of course, the American chess Grandmaster who started as a child prodigy in Brooklyn in the 1950s, and then became a Cold War icon when he beat the Soviet champion Boris Spassky at the World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1972. Later in life he oddly morphed into an infamously reclusive crank, a fierce critic of the United States, and an equally strident anti-semite (which struck many as odd, since his own mother was Jewish). Was he merely a troubled, misunderstood genius? Or was he schizophrenic (tragically undiagnosed)? Or did he just become a bitter old man, after being hounded for years by the IRS? Who knows. He died of renal failure in exile in Iceland on this day in 2008, at the age of 64.
By the time I first heard his name in the 1980s, he was already well into his 'reclusive crank' phase, which began in the mid-1970s. You may remember that he re-emerged from obscurity very briefly, but infamously, to play a multi-million dollar rematch against Spassky in Belgrade in 1992. The big problem with this was that the former Yugoslavia was then under a United Nations embargo, so his participation was illegal. He was warned by US authorities beforehand not to participate, a warning he ignored. As a result, he lived the remaining 16 years of his life as an itinerant exile, living with chess enthusiast friends (and lovers) in Hungry, then in the Philippines, then in Japan, and finally in Iceland.
I've embedded below two videos that, when juxtaposed like this, illustrate his tragic, Icarus-like life arc. The first is from March 2005, when he was 62 years old, as he flew from exile in Japan to his final exile in Iceland. Here he is the very epitome of the disheveled, controversial crank. The second is from his much earlier appearance in 1971 on The Dick Cavett Show. He's very different here, at the age of 28, about the time of his greatest triumph against Spassky at the World Chess Championships. He's charming, witty, clean cut and almost athletic in appearance. If you watch even small parts of each of these two videos, you can't help but wonder what happened to (and perhaps inside the head of) this compelling but deeply flawed man between these years.