Swans Commentary » swans.com June 20, 2011  



Bobby Fischer


by Louis Proyect


Book & Film Review



Reviewed in this article:

Frank Brady: Endgame, Crown Publishers, New York, ISBN 978-0-307-46390-6, 401 pages.

HBO Documentary: Bobby Fischer Against the World (presently available on-demand).

Searching for Bobby Fischer (available from Netflix).


[ed. June 21, 2011 -- Correction: Louis Proyect refers to Zsuzsa Polgár, one of László Polgár's three daughters, as "widely regarded as the best female chess player in history," and commenting on Bobby Fischer's anti-Semitic views. It should read Judit Polgár, not Zsuzsa...]


(Swans - June 20, 2011)   Endgame is a riveting 401-page biography of Bobby Fischer that I read in one sitting, starting at page one in a passenger's lounge in the San José, Costa Rica, airport and ending about an hour before landing in New York. Although the strange story of the rise and fall of a madman/genius would be compelling on its own terms alone, Frank Brady is ideally suited to tell this story. He is the chairman of the Communications Department at St. Johns University in New York and author of acclaimed biographies of Orson Welles and Aristotle Onassis. He is also president of the prestigious and rather snooty Marshall Chess Club in New York that frowned on the young Bobby Fischer when he made his first appearance there in jeans and a flannel shirt, as well as the founder of Chess Life, a magazine that Fischer used to read cover-to-cover the way that other children his age read comic books.

While it would be easy to adopt purple prose in writing about such a controversial figure, Brady wisely chose to take a measured and dispassionate tone, avoiding even more wisely any attempt to psychoanalyze Fischer. The end result is a narrative that has a hair-raising impact all the more effective through its dryly effortless style.

Far into the night he'd play over the latest games by himself -- from tournaments in places ranging from England to Latvia to Yugoslavia to Bulgaria -- and he'd hiss and scream as he followed the moves. So loudly did he exclaim "Yes!", "Absurd!", "It's the knight!", or "Always the rook on that rank!" that his pronouncements could be heard on the quiet lane where he lived. Bobby's outbursts would startle the infrequent passersby and sometimes produce complaints from neighbors.

By the late 1970s, Fischer hadn't played a single game of chess in public since Iceland. He was continuing to study the game, but he spent more time exploring his theories on religion. At one point, he was spotted in a parking lot with an armful of anti-Semitic flyers that promulgated the superiority of the Aryan race. In between handing out the flyers to those who walked by, he placed his declarations on windshields. Gradually, his savings were evaporating, and other than biannual royalty checks from his books, Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess and My 60 Memorable Games -- which netted him roughly $6,000 a year in total -- he had no other source of income.

Either by choice or necessity, Bobby moved out of the Mokarow house and settled in Los Angeles, in a small, dingy, dark, and inexpensive furnished room on Orange Avenue, one block off Wilshire Boulevard. Within a short while, though, the rent for the room became too much of a financial burden to carry. So he wrote to his mother, who was living in Nicaragua doing pro bono medical work for the poor, to see if she could help out. She immediately instructed his sister, Joan, to send the entire amount of her monthly Social Security check to Bobby to assist him with his rent. Joan had been collecting Regina's checks and then banking them for her so that she'd have a small nest egg when she returned to the United States. Bobby continued to accept the proceeds of his mother's Social Security checks for years.

This, of course, is the Bobby Fischer that most people under 40 would be familiar with, a classic paranoid recluse in the Howard Hughes style, with Hughes having a phobia about germs and Fischer about Jews. His outbursts first came into the public eye when he arrived in Yugoslavia in 1992 in order to play Boris Spassky whom he had defeated in Iceland twenty years earlier. By this time both men were past their prime, like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier putting on gloves in their middle ages.

The comparison with Ali and Frazier is not facile. Just as their fights were widely portrayed as a showdown between Black Nationalism and American patriotism (calculated certainly as a way to sell tickets), the 1972 match between Fischer and Spassky was seen as part of the Cold War. Ever the prima donna, Fischer refused to sit down with Spassky until a number of conditions were met, chief among them a share of the revenues that the Iceland organizers were expected to take in from syndication.

At the last minute, he was persuaded to play chess after receiving a phone call from Henry Kissinger, who informed him "the US government wishes you well." Of course, the lure of big money and even greater fame weighed in the balance. Whether Fischer saw his patriotism as the Nixon White House did is questionable. Unlike most 29-year-olds, and particularly those who had a college education, Fischer had not had the benefit of reading freshman poli sci textbooks on the superiority of the American political system. His animosity toward the Russians had less to do with the merits of a planned economy than it did with what he saw as conniving among the Russians to maintain control over global chess tournaments. By playing for draws and consulting among each other, they always managed to come out on top. For Fischer, rankings in professional chess meant a lot more than ICBM placement in Europe.

Fischer's anti-Semitism might at first be thought of as a case of self-hatred, a term often misused against American Jews who protest Israeli racism. His mother Regina was of Polish Jewish descent and grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. At an early age she apparently embraced Marxism and joined the Communist Party. She remained a partisan of leftist causes throughout her life, volunteering her medical skills to Nicaragua in the 1980s.

In 1933, when Regina was studying medicine in Moscow, she married Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist. But Bobby's father was actually Paul Nemenyi, a Hungarian Jewish physicist Regina had an affair with in 1942. Fischer and Nemenyi were Communists as well. In the 1940s the Communist Party held a powerful attraction to such Jewish intelligentsia since the USSR was on the front lines fighting Nazism as well as building what appeared to be a more just social order.

If either of these men had been a constant presence in Bobby Fischer's life, it is conceivable that he might have found other outlets than chess. His mother was forced to raise him and his older sister Joan through a series of menial jobs, often two held at the same time, while moving from one tenement apartment to another. As the ultimate latchkey child, Bobby was forced to fend for himself. At the age of six, he discovered chess at a Brooklyn candy store (a mostly Jewish-owned business that specialized in egg creams and comic books now as antiquated as kosher delicatessens). His mother bought him a children's version and he taught himself to play with the instructions that came inside the box.

Within in no time at all, he was totally consumed by the game and showing the kind of proficiency that earned him coverage in New York newspapers. Brady writes about young Bobby Fischer's obsession with chess:

Bobby read chess literature while he was eating and when he was in bed. He'd set up his board on a chair next to his bed, and the last thing he did before going to sleep and the first thing he did upon awakening was to look at positions or openings. So many peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, bowls of cereal, and plates of spaghetti were consumed while Bobby was replaying and analyzing games that the crumbs and leavings of his food became encrusted in the crenellated battlements of his rooks, the crosses of his kings, the crowns of his queens, and the creases in the miters of his bishops. And the residue of food was never washed off. Years later, when a chess collector finally took possession of the littered set and cleaned it up, Bobby's reaction was typically indignant: "You've ruined it!"

He even maintained his involvement with the game while bathing. The Fischers didn't have a working shower, just a bathtub, and Bobby, like many young children, needed to be urged to take at least a weekly bath. Regina established a Sunday night ritual of running a bath for him, practically carrying him to the tub. And once he was settled in the water, she'd lay a door from a discarded cabinet across the tub as a sort of tray and then bring in Bobby's chess set, a container of milk, and whatever book he was studying at the time, helping him position them on the board. Bobby soaked sometimes for hours as he became engrossed in the games of the greats, only emerging from the water, prune-like, when Regina insisted.

If a comparison between Bobby Fischer and Howard Hughes in his old age can be made, perhaps a more flattering and more accurate one can be made between the chessboard genius and Glenn Gould, a genius of the classical keyboard. I could not help but think of Gould as I read about Fischer's growth in his own chosen art. Both men were perfectionists to the point of obsession and both succumbed to mental illness at the peak of their powers.

Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker magazine contributor whose insights often leave me cold, does get something right when he addresses the question of success, whether it is in the field of basketball, chess, or music. In a real sense, it is like the old joke about the tourist who asks a New Yorker how to get to Carnegie Hall. The answer: practice, practice, practice. Gladwell wrote:

To become a chess grandmaster also seems to take about ten years. (Only the legendary Bobby Fischer got to that elite level in less than that amount of time: it took him 9 years.) And what's ten years? Well, it's roughly how long it takes to put in ten thousand hours of hard practice. Ten thousand hours is the magic number for greatness.

Of course, if you don't have that native, almost instinctual, gift, no amount of practice will work. When Gould discovered how to draw out the inner voices of Bach's Goldberg Variations, he was producing something new even though the foundation for that breakthrough rested on a lifetime of practice.

You can witness something of the same power in Fischer's game with Donald Byrne in 1956 that has been called "the game of the century." At the time, Fischer was 13 years old and Byrne was a 23-year-old who had won the U.S. Open Chess Championship three years earlier. The game involved a Queen's sacrifice by Fischer that enabled him to gain the initiative against Byrne until victory. It is a game that I have played at the Chess Games Web site over and over, deriving as much pleasure as listening to Gould play Bach.

If Bobby Fischer was an anti-Semite, he was not a consistent one. After the State Department revoked his passport for playing chess with Boris Spassky in Yugoslavia in 1992 when the country was under embargo from the U.S., he became a man on the run. At one point, he settled in Budapest where he became a constant houseguest of László Polgár, a chess expert of Jewish origins whose three daughters became exceptionally strong players. His daughter Zsuzsa is widely regarded as the best female chess player in history. He obviously enjoyed their hospitality but could not help from spouting his bizarre conspiracy theories about the Jews over dinner.

Although the Polgárs had a great deal of respect for Fischer, and even affection, they would not tolerate his abuse, even if it were not intended to hurt them personally. Brady writes:

László Polgár was a man who didn't mince words. When Bobby denied the very existence of Auschwitz, refusing to acknowledge that more than one million people had been murdered there, László told him about relatives who'd been exterminated in concentration camps. "Bobby," he said, frowning, "do you really think my family disappeared by some magic trick?" Bobby had nothing to back up his claim and could only refer to various Holocaust denial books.

It seems in keeping with Bobby's beliefs and personality that even though he was a guest, he had the audacity to voice his anti-Semitic views in the Jewish household of the Polgárs'. Zsuzsa recalled: "I tried to convince him in the beginning about the realities, telling him the facts, but soon I realized that it was impossible to convince him, and I tried to change the topic." Judit was more outspoken: "He was an extremely great player, but crazy: a sick-psycho." And her father agreed: "He was schizophrenic."

Oddly enough, Bobby Fischer's madness was overlooked by a hostile media in the United States that was anxious to pillory him for his anti-American and anti-Semitic views during the "war on terror." After September 11, 2001, Fischer made headlines by lauding the terrorist attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. Anxious to find anybody that could serve as a scapegoat in its new crusades, the White House and its minions drafted Bobby Fischer to serve as public enemy number two, after Osama bin Laden. The notion that Fischer was driven by ideology rather than brain chemistry is only possible in a country that has effectively made an insanity plea impossible. Like the unfortunate Jared Loughner, who was turned into a Tea Party activist rather than a sick individual after going on a shooting spree in Arizona, Fischer became a receptacle for the hatred of the American punditry. Fischer deserves better and Frank Brady's book restores balance by emphasizing his genius while not shirking from the need to look at his madness.


* * * * *


The best thing that can be said about HBO's documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World is that it is clearly indebted to Frank Brady's masterful biography, including an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, whose reflections on the importance of single-minded devotion to one's art is found in Brady's book. This film can be seen on-demand right now from HBO and is a must-see, especially if one lacks the motivation to read a 400-page biography about the skills of a grand master in a game that many potential readers may have never learned.

Seeing Fischer being interviewed throughout the course of his lifetime, starting as a mere stripling in Brooklyn, helps to understand why he went off the deep end. You can never lose the sense that underneath his bravado there was a very vulnerable personality. Unlike Muhammad Ali, who was also fond of telling the world how great he was around the same time, Fischer always strikes one as pathetic. Without his chess skills, he would have been nothing.

And even with those chess skills and the attending fame, Fischer ended up as a devoted follower of a radio preacher named Herbert Armstrong who built a powerful empire from funds donated by his credulous followers. When he wasn't playing chess during that time, he was studying the bible. A greater contrast between reason and unreason cannot be imagined. Like the laughable Harold Camping, Armstrong was famous for predicting apocalypses that never happened. After one such false prophecy, Fischer decided that he was through with religion. One has to wonder if his loss of faith opened him up to another crackpot religion -- anti-Semitism.

The film depicts the highs and lows of Fischer's life, giving the lion's share to the legendary match with Spassky. It might be difficult for people who were not alive in 1972 to fathom how swept up ordinary people were in the games. The evening news made the games a lead story and millions of young people were inspired to take up chess as a result.

In keeping with its title, Bobby Fischer Against the World concludes with the fall of Fischer both as an active chess champion and as a favored son of the United States. His shabby existence in California and his status as a man without a country receive poignant treatment.

Like Frank Brady, director Liz Garbus refuses to be judgmental about Bobby Fischer, a sine qua non for anybody who seeks to make a statement about his legacy. In an interview on the HBO Web site, she is asked about Fischer's anti-Americanism (a sin obviously for others than Swans' readers) and anti-Semitism. She replies:

We had about 200 hours of audio of Bobby calling into radio shows from all over the world. I was looking for some clue, a psychoanalytic insight that might reveal the cause for his beliefs and behavior. His mind was just a scratched record that couldn't get off the groove of the Jews and the Americans. His ideas were so far from reality that you can't help but feel empathy for him.


* * * * *


In Searching for Bobby Fischer, the eponymous madman-genius is a dominating presence even though he is only seen through the kind of old news clips that appear in the HBO documentary and not as a character in the film. Made just one year after the 1992 Fischer-Spassky rematch, the film is based on a book that a New York Times sportswriter wrote about his son Josh, a chess prodigy but one with a more supportive family environment.

Since his family lived in Greenwich Village, it was to be expected that at some point the young Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) would spot the chess-playing hustlers in Washington Square Park, many of who likely learned their craft in prison. Cast as Vinnie, one such player, Larry Fishburne, is shown teaching the young child the finer points of the game, at least how he saw them.

When Fred Waitzkin (Joe Mantegna) learns that his son is a gifted player, he puts him at the disposal of former grand master Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), who will teach him how to improve his game, presumably unlearning the style Vinnie taught him.

Pandolfini is a monomaniacal instructor who tries to inculcate a go-for-the-jugular mentality with which the 7-year-old is ill at ease. He enjoys winning at chess but not much more so than baseball. A game-winning hit means as much to him as a chess trophy.

His father is convinced that Pandolfini's approach is correct. By helping to shape his son into a winner, he will be vindicated as a father. With such a son carrying his genes, there is proof of his own superiority. Josh's mother Bonnie (Joan Allen) begins to grow doubtful about the whole project and remonstrates with her husband. What good is it for him to become a junior chess champion when he is missing out on all the fun that other kids are having? The clear implication is that she doesn't want him to grow up into a freak like Bobby Fischer.

The main problem with the film, which is understandable given its ambition to sell tickets, is its utter failure to describe the beauty of chess, which fortunately is found in the book on which it is based. For example, in one pivotal scene Josh is seen playing another boy his age who is supposedly a better player. After Josh has made what others consider a blunder, he offers the other boy a draw. Astonished, the boy replies that Josh must be out of his mind since he is about to be destroyed. Within two moves, Josh has won -- taking advantage of a subtle combination that the other boy did not foresee. Unfortunately, the moves are not described in the film. It is a bit like making a movie about a ballroom dancing competition with the camera only showing the facial expressions of the dancers.

The film and the book it is based on ends long before Josh Waitzkin has become an adult. His evolution in some ways is as interesting as Bobby Fischer's. In addition to the work he does with Chessmaster, a popular computer game, he is a Tai Chi Chuan grand master as well as an expert in Jiu Jitsu. Apparently there was enough fighting spirit in him after years of playing chess to make him succeed in another deeply competitive arena.


* * * * *


Although I have been playing chess ever since the age of 10, a game I learned from my mother, I have never been so devoted to it as to sit down with books and study the moves. I know the basic openings but after 4 or 5 moves, I wing it.

Starting some time in the late 1980s, I began playing on a fairly regular basis with Jeffrey, an old friend from Bard College, and a litigation attorney named John who was married to Jeff's wife's sister. John was a much better player than either one of us. Not surprisingly, he had read chess books on and off over the years but not as many as Bobby Fischer.

When we first began playing with John, his politics were Democratic Party centrist but by the mid '90s, he had become a neo-conservative. Bad enough as that was, he insisted on picking arguments with Jeffrey, whose politics were closer to mine but certainly not of the fire-breathing Trotskyite variety.

When the two of them began bickering over Israel or civil rights, I generally stayed out of it for pretty much the same reason I avoid arguing with people at work. It doesn't do anything except raise the temperature.

About five years ago, I complained to John -- as I had on many occasions -- that he needed to put up some curtains in his living room where we played chess. The sun was pouring into the room and making it hard for me to concentrate. Usually John ignored me but this time he erupted. Rising to his feet (he is about 6 and a half feet tall and weighs about 250 pounds), he bellowed at me for five minutes about how this was his apartment and where did I get the fucking nerve to tell him how to furnish it.

That was the end of our chess-playing days. I never thought much about what happened but wonder if his aggressive outburst and his superiority as a chess player go hand in hand. As a litigation attorney and an expert player, winning in the courtroom and on the board gave him an intense pleasure.

Somehow, I never developed the killer instinct in anything I did except for politics, I suppose. Over the years, the far left has been in a kind of chess game with the ruling elite in the United States, who have far more pieces than we do. The game is often frustrating because we end up as losers so much of the time. What keeps us going is a deeply rooted conviction that unless our enemies are checkmated, civilization has no future -- including the great arts that are its crown jewels, the game of chess among them.


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Published June 20, 2011