Dark knight

O, BY THE WAY

A chess wizard and, sadly, a boor

On the mad genius of Bobby Fischer

January 19, 2008|By BILL ORDINE

They don't have to search for Bobby Fischer any longer. The American chess master died Thursday in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he won the most famous match in the history of his game, beating Boris Spassky in the summer of 1972. He was 64.

As with most competitions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the significance of the game was magnified beyond all reason by the real or imagined implications. These contests - chess, basketball, it didn't matter - were seen as morality plays, pitting ideologies of good and evil against each other. Sort of like the New York Yankees vs. just about anyone. Just kidding, Yankees fans.

I was there for Fischer-Spassky. I was in the Navy, stationed at the NATO base in Keflavik, Iceland, doing pretty much what I still do. I was a Navy journalist. In between my normal duties, I occasionally got to go to the big city down the road. One of those days, I covered the chess match. I recall it went on forever and the hot dogs were made of lamb.

And even with the confrontation being what it was - the young, brash American genius from Brooklyn, N.Y., against the established Soviet champion - it became increasingly difficult to root for Fischer, because his eccentricities overshadowed the sense of nationalism many of us felt at the height of the Cold War.

In short, Fischer was a jerk, complaining about everything, making incessant demands. Spassky was gracious and urbane. Imagining what might happen to the Soviet back home if he lost, you could almost have some sympathy for him. In the end, Fischer prevailed, and it was a great triumph for the U.S. But at the same time, the Summer Olympics were going on in Germany. The United States lost that controversial basketball game to the Soviets. And the Munich massacre, in which members of the Israeli delegation were killed, stunned the world and eclipsed everything else going on in sports.

Fischer went on to become a bizarre, shadowy figure (hence the irony of the title of the 1993 movie about a child chess prodigy, Searching for Bobby Fischer). Over the years, his eccentricity seemed to blossom into full-blown madness as he railed against the United States, went on anti-Semitic tirades (although his mother was Jewish) and was essentially in exile from the U.S. after breaking sanctions by playing a match in Yugoslavia.

Too often in the world of competition, people reach the pinnacle of their lives at a very young age. And nothing after that can ever match what they did at age 30 or 25 or even 18. But if they handle the reality with grace and intelligence, what they did in their youth can be a springboard. In the case of Fischer, who was on top of the world at age 29, it didn't have to work out the way it did. Chess isn't that kind of game. You can be superb for years. In fact, Fischer was. But there were other things going on - invisible demons is the best way to put it, I guess - that contributed to making him a victim of his own early phenomenal success.

Long, long before the end, Bobby Fischer had lost himself, never to be found again.

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