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'Bobby Fischer' by David Tang

An old article I stacked away for some time. It was written in 2004 I suppose.

“This is the worst player in the world calling the best player in the world.” So Henry Kissinger telephoned Bobby Fischer, who was stewing in one of his capricious stupors, and urged him to fly to Reykjavik for the World Chess Championship in July 1972. Everything had been set up: the reigning Russian champion Boris Spassky was already in Iceland; all the tickets for the match in the insipid sports hall, the Laugardalsholl, had been sold out; the prize money at US$250,000 was 20 times more than the last world championship, and the entire fraternity of chess was waiting for the clash of the titans. The Soviets had dominated the game of chess since World War II, but now came the thrill of an unlikely American trying to break that supremacy. The Cold War at the time also gave the entire event a real frisson, for the confrontation of the Soviet champion and American champion on the chess board was seen to be a fight between Democracy and Communism, a combat between the intense hosTILities of the world’s two super-powers. It was the High Noon of chess, and ideologies. But Mr. Fischer was prevaricating.

I well remember my own adolescent excitement during that summer. I was eighteen and had been obsessed with playing chess almost from my first day at boarding school, when I couldn’t read English and turned to chess notations. For 5 years I played hours of chess each day and travelled around England taking part in tournaments. And my inspiration was Fischer. To me, he was a genius who made moves on the chess board that nobody had dared or thought of before. I had studied all the games of the Russian masters, particularly Botvinnik and Petrosian, whom I respected with awe, but they were like robots, reliable, methodical and effective but rather mechanical. Yet when I got to know the play of Fischer, I began to realize that he gave elegance and artistry to the game. He brought new blood to chess that was not unlike the arrival of Nijinsky at Ballet Russe.

Fischer did eventually turn up at Reykjavik, but a couple of days late amidst all the tension of a suffering and waiting crowd. His idiosyncratic and volaTILe behaviour, coupled with his appalling manners, was already well-known and much dreaded. Therefore, we disciples were relieved that he got on his plane. Everyday we anxiously followed his moves on the wireless and television. The suspense in a chess game, which is seemingly slow, is however as intense as any fast game. Cricket fans will tell you the same. In the end, Fischer triumphed and became world champion. The Russians’ stronghold was broken and her National pride lost. Poor Spassky! Then, just as one might expect from a man with an undecipherable complex, Fischer went into hiding and after an appearance on television with Bob Hope, he became a recluse from which he emerged only fleetingly for a re-match with Spassky in 1992. He thrashed his former opponent 10-5. But the only trouble, even though he won US$3.3million, was that the match was played in Yugoslavia during U.N. sanctions and a warrant for his arrest in the U.S. was issued immediately afterwards. Ever since, Fischer has been a fugitive, mainly living secretly in the Philippines and Japan and occasionally making extremely provocative radio interviews. On the trauma of 9/11, Fischer praised the terrorists’ attack, saying that America should be “wiped out”. He also described Jews, even though he himself is Jewish, as “thieving, lying bastards.”

Last July, he was arrested at Narita Airport for allegedly using an invalid U.S. passport and is now languishing in jail, with the possibility of being extradited to his native America to face his indictment for which he could go to prison for 10 years. I remember asking myself when I was last in Reykjavik: “How do and can we admire a genius who is however clearly evil in his thoughts?” Fischer’s anti-semetism and moral turpitude are repellent. Yet he is a stupefying wonder in chess whose record stands above all other players, lending magic to this majestic game of the intellect. Let’s hope at least that his Japanese girlfriend Miss Watai (who has described herself as a “pawn” that might turn into a queen!) might bring him round to his senses so that Fischer, who forfeited his world title in 1975, could once more contribute to the brilliance of chess, but without the ugliness of his tarnished vileness.