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I recently watched HBO’s new documentary “Bobby Fischer Against The World.” It’s an interesting but sad review of the anguished genius’s life.

Bobby Fischer (1943-2008) was clearly a prodigy, perhaps the greatest chess master in history, one who shot to worldwide fame at just 14 years of age when he became the youngest US champion in history. He played in 8 US Chess Championships in a row, winning them all. At 16 he published his first book becoming the youngest author in chess history.

At age 29 in 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland, Fischer reached his peak by playing Russia’s Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship. It was the Cold War: Russia versus the United States without fighting. The entire world watched a series of chess matches that Fischer came from behind to win spectacularly, sealing his fame forever.

If Fischer’s life had ended there it might have been to his good, but he lived to age 64, along the way by turns becoming a religious fanatic, conspiracy theorist, anti-American fugitive, and an anti-Semite. The last one was the most odd because Fischer was Jewish. After 9/11 he said the chickens had come home to roost for America and he later wrote a letter to Osama bin Laden claiming they had a lot in common against America.

Fischer was a prodigy. He was anguished lonely loner, and eventually, he evidenced clear and repetitive signs of paranoia and mental illness. He was a tragic genius in every sense of the phrase.

In the summer of 1972 I was in college between my sophomore and junior year. Watching the documentary, sobering though it was, brought back a lot of memories: the weird clothes and long hair, the cars, the sideburns, the news anchors and public personalities. I remember following Fischer and Spassky too.

I played chess through high school and much of college. In high school Physics class several of us played every day. During my undergrad years I came in second in the college tournament two years in a row, beaten both years by my roommate Timothy Barker. We enjoyed the mental challenge of the game, liked the strategy, and followed the Fischer saga for part chess, part patriotic reasons.

Fischer’s story is one of what might have been. What might he have become if he’d not lost his father at a young age and his mother hadn’t abandoned him when he was a teenager? What chess majesty might have been his had he been able to overcome his volatility and emotional pain to play competitively for the next fifteen years after winning the World Championship? What even greater greatness might he have enjoyed had he been able to function as a sociable champion? What would have been his larger impact upon the game of chess if he’d been able to teach, play more, or become an ambassador for the game? Unfortunately we’ll never know.

Just three years ago Fischer died of renal failure in Iceland, refusing treatment and reputedly uttering as his last words, “Nothing is as healing as the human touch.” His life is an American tragedy with a high watermark in the early 1970s.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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