"Chess demands total concentration and a love for the game" ~ Bobby Fischer
1. The Mortal Danger of Being a Chess Prodigy
On May 17, 1998 the final episode in the Fifth Season of the X-Files TV series was first broadcast in America. It is entitled "The End," and begins with a chess match taking place before a large audience, between a young American boy and an older, Russian grandmaster.
As the match progresses, the viewer is made aware of a sniper taking up position in a gallery overlooking the vast auditorium. The child player, who is gifted with extra-sensory perception and the ability to read others’ thoughts as they occur, becomes restless as he senses something threatening in the air. Tension rises as the sniper prepares to take aim, and the game is reaching its climax. The sniper fires. At this crucial moment the boy, having made his final move and check-mated his opponent, moves slightly down and backwards, and the shot which was intended for him kills the Russian grandmaster instead. Double check-mate!
Later, it emerges that the gifted child possesses his psychic powers as a result of a top-secret biological implant in his head, of alien origin. The evil conspiratorial elite which runs world affairs wants to see him dead because the abilities they have given him have turned out to be no longer required, or perhaps too much of a threat to their own sinister plans.
I suspect the show’s producers fully intended that viewers of this riveting opening scene should have had u2018Bobby Fischer,’ u2018exceptional abilities’ and u2018paranoia’ running through their minds in the same instant. Think chess, and the chances are that you will indeed think Bobby Fischer.
2) From Iceland to Montenegro to Japan
In 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland, Robert James Fischer, born 1943, became a national hero for winning a historic match against Boris Spassky, and thereby wresting the world chess championship from the Soviet Union, America’s corrupt arch-enemy in the Cold War.
Twenty years later Fischer again beat Spassky in Montenegro, then part of Yugoslavia, in an anniversary replay of their 1972 encounter. The match was played under controversial circumstances which led to his being effectively exiled from the United States ever since.
The late Murray Rothbard, writing in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report in October 1992, courageously protested a chorus of voices demanding that Bobby Fischer tow the line of political correctness. These were his prophetic words:
Why the unfair and out-of-line hysteria about Bobby? Well, it turns out that Bobby, an independent thinker in other fields than chess, is definitely not Politically Correct. Apparently, even chess players are not allowed to stray beyond the narrow bounds of PC without being severely punished.
Are we going to have to say, metaphorically, and even literally if he is nabbed for “violation of sanctions”: Free Bobby Fischer and All Political Prisoners?!
Well, yes we are. Bobby Fischer was finally u2018nabbed’ in July this year at Tokyo’s Narita airport, as he was boarding a flight for Manila, his 1997—issue US passport (valid till 2007) having earlier been revoked by Uncle Sam, apparently unbeknown to its bewildered holder.
Why does the US government in 2003 cancel a valid passport, if it could quite happily issue that same passport in 1997, when Fischer was presumably no less in violation of the sanctions than he is now? It is hardly cynical to say that this officious measure betrays every sign of deliberate and petty victimisation of an individual citizen. Sign of the times.
So Bobby Fischer, 61, the eccentric and, as Deweyians and psychologists would say, never properly socialized chess champion, is now in detention in Japan. He has been so held since his arrest at the airport, while legal proceedings proceed slowly, as they can be made to do, in connection with the compliant Japanese government’s order for his deportation to the United States, which has been challenged by Fischer’s lawyers.
The barracuda press, primed with unseemly haste, took vindictive pleasure at his misfortune. "Fugitive chess king Fischer caught," the Associated Press bulletin of July 16 obscenely exulted, informing us a little further on that "Fischer is wanted in the United States for playing a 1992 chess match in …Yugoslavia, in violation of international sanctions," for which he may face 10 years in jail, a fine of US$250,000 and confiscation of his prize money from the match, estimated at over US$3 million.
3) Free Bobby Fischer!
Were he still alive today, Murray Rothbard would no doubt ruefully smile at the fact that, sure enough, a u2018Free Bobby’ website has sprung up, T-shirts are being produced, accusations are flying that his defenders are only in it for their own self-promotion, and numerous petitions and letters have been written, including a poignant plea to the president from Fischer’s former chess opponent and now friend, Boris Spassky, who writes:
Bobby is a tragic personality. … He is an honest and good-natured man. Absolutely not social. He is not adaptable to everybody’s standards of life. He has a very high sense of justice and is unwilling to compromise as well as with his own conscience as with surrounding people. He is a person who is doing almost everything against himself.
I would not like to defend or justify Bobby Fischer. He is what he is. I am asking only for one thing. For mercy, charity.
If for some reason it is impossible, I would like to ask you the following: Please correct the mistake of President François Mitterand in 1992. Bobby and myself committed the same crime. Put sanctions against me also. Arrest me. And put me in the same cell with Bobby Fischer. And give us a chess set.
~ Boris Spassky, Appeal to President Bush, August 7, 2004
The appeal is likely to fall on deaf ears, I fear. Fischer has been known to hurl some choice words of abuse at US officials, including the president — words which Dubya would no doubt recognize as parts of his own colorful vocabulary. If there is one thing for which George W. Bush does have a documented record in Texas, as the born-again ghost of executed murderess Karla Faye Tucker could testify, it is that he is not responsive to pleas for clemency, and u201Chas a long memory for slights.u201D As Texas governor, Bush did not just turn down her plea for clemency; he actually sneered and made fun of that plea as he confirmed the order for her execution.
In a recent Philippines radio interview, a medium he has taken to with relish over the last few years, the true-to-form Bobby vows revenge against the Japanese prime minister and the US President for his imprisonment, and excoriates both of them as u2018motherf****rs’ who are u2018going to pay for this, and … for your crimes in Iraq, too.’
Poor Bobby! How is it all going to end? Will he be allowed to walk free, as any rightful sentiment of human justice would decree? Or is he going to continue to be subjected to a petty vendetta waged by the US government and its ever-ready-to-be-vengeful mass media, in the name of an absurdly contrived form of collective punishment for the alleged sins of the Serbs?
Or will he just be left to rot? The u2018paranoid’ Bobby, as the press and other commentators love to label him, also complains that he is being kept in a cell which is life-threateningly close to the site of a past nuclear radiation leak. At the rate things are going, the US and Japanese governments’ Bobby Fischer problem will be solved by natural causes, he fears. And who would not fear this? When it comes to radiation, I defy anyone not to be a firm advocate of NIMBY, except perhaps the over-imaginative, fast-moving Chernobyl bikers, whose intriguing website has turned out to be a fake.
The mind-addled couch-potato generation’s short span of attention has barely been disturbed by news of Bobby’s detention and the sad plight of their exceptional fellow human being.
The arrest was briefly newsworthy, as are his occasional outbursts, but the approved media have long ago pigeon-holed him as a has-been and a freak, a diseased mind, and a far-out — way, way far-out — anti-Semitic and politically incorrect ranter to boot. Even in a forum on the Free Bobby website there is someone, well-meaning enough but thoroughly imbued with the erroneous idea that the combination of government and medicine can actually do some good, who is advocating that Bobby should be treated with drugs for mental illness.
Are all these people completely unable to see beyond the end of their sanctimonious noses? Could not the poor man be left alone to live the rest of his life in peace?
4) Private Man, Public Property
Things were not always this bad, or this depressing. Between his first ventures into chess at age 6 in the late 1940s, his teenage grandmastership in the 1950s, and his most famous victory against Spassky in 1972, Bobby Fischer became a true global chess legend and household name, and has remained so to this day.
This status is reflected in the attention still given to analyzing his games, to his chess books, and to the new form of the game which he invented, Fischer random chess. Inevitably, because of the Cold War context of his triumph, Bobby Fischer the American champion came to be seen as a public property. There has always a part of him which resented that, and sought refuge in privacy and seclusion (and maybe even in all his u2018unreasonable’ demands).
So much so that when an inspirational movie came out in 1993, entitled Searching for Bobby Fischer, he was apparently upset at the use of his name, which was presumably not authorized or paid for. He sought to have it removed from the film’s title.
In some markets the movie was accordingly given the truly dire and ridiculous new title "Innocent Moves," thereby destroying a major part of the significance of the original name, which was to show (a) how a new young chess prodigy, Josh Waitzkin, aspired to the same heights of achievement as Bobby Fischer (the movie cleverly uses old black-and-white clips of the 1972 Fischer-Spassky game and other historical moments to convey Josh’s thoughts of Fischer), and (b) how those around him — parents and teachers of rival prodigies, tournament organizers, players — also yearn and compete to find another champion who would be a worthy successor to Fischer.
I wonder in passing whether such a problem could not easily have been solved by a courteous request to Fischer, or his nominated agent, in recognition of the extent to which he had indeed become an admired household name in America. It costs little to ask nicely for permission, or even offer a small fee, but it is presumptuous to assume you can do anything with anyone’s name, let alone a national celebrity’s.
The movie’s end-titles make a heavy-handed point of telling us explicitly how well-balanced Josh Waitzkin is, with his interests in a variety of sports other than chess and in life’s activities in general, in clear contrast to the totally chess-absorbed, and therefore by implication unbalanced, Fischer. Any half-observant viewer would have realized this for himself without having to have it spelled out. But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise delightful film.
5) A Family Spied on by the FBI
However bizarre Bobby’s behavior on the chess tournament circuit may have been (and it was), and however strange and seemingly inexplicable his long self-imposed absence from it, things were never as personally vicious as they are today, when, as T. V. Weber cogently writes, self-perpetuating bureaucrats fool the public into thinking they are delivering justice by making examples of easily-targeted celebrities who stray outside approved PC lines:
"One does not have to be much of a cynic to observe that the actions of the State Department, the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, et al., serve only to create a false sense of security that affords cover to America’s genuine enemies."
But there was always plenty of official paranoia, especially under FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the friskily unorthodox cross-dresser who held down his job for 50 years by keeping the goods on every public figure and candidate you could possibly mention, even if an already heavily propagandized and bamboozled public failed to realize it at the time.
For it turns out from now declassified FBI files that Bobby’s biological parents, Paul Lemenyi and Regina Fischer (née Wender), were for many years spied on by the federal government, which feared they had pro-Soviet sympathies. Her husband, Gerhardt Fischer, whom she divorced in 1945 when Bobby was 2 years old, had in 1939 been permanently barred from entering the United States on account of his suspected Commie sympathies, and according to the FBI never did so. Short of also being possessed of magical powers of impregnation by a process of thought or telepathy, he could therefore not have fathered young Bobby.
In the federal language of immigration, all these people were u2018aliens’ and so, as the X-Files intriguingly reminds us, inherently threatening to the status quo.
The declassified files reveal that Bobby’s talented multi-lingual mother, who had to struggle to bring up two children on her own under difficult circumstances, was spied on for over 30 years, from around 1940 until 1973.
If you hear FBI footsteps for as long as this, as Bobby and his mother did, is it any wonder that she was judged by one psychiatrist to be "brilliant, but paranoid," suggest Peter Nicholas and Clea Benson in their groundbreaking November 2002 investigative report in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"The FBI went so far as to read case notes compiled by the social workers she visited as a struggling single mother who moved from state to state." These were the same social workers she had consulted in 1957, when Bobby was 14, describing her son as "temperamental, unable to get along with others, without friends his age, and without any interests other than chess."
In a fascinating later article, they go on to write: "Paul F. Nemenyi — Fischer’s father, though not listed on the birth certificate — was a Hungarian scientist with a gift for spatial relations, a gift clearly passed on to his son," and they sum up the Bobby Fischer story thus:
"This is a story about who Fischer really is, about his parents, his origins, his life. The story begins with two Jewish immigrants. They would meet. They would have an affair. Together, they would produce a troubled little boy who would become the best chess player who ever lived."
Nicholas and Benson end their article reflecting sadly on Bobby’s isolation in recent times, and on the eerie parallels with the life of his predecessor prodigy Paul Morphy (1837—1884), right down to the reclusiveness and the claims of persecution.
Perhaps, like Paul Morphy whom he is said to revere, Bobby Fischer is destined to become a tragic legend.
But I hope not.
I hope he will just be able to settle down quietly with that nice homely-looking lady who is the acting president of the Japanese chess federation, that he will be able to live into a comfortable old age off his book royalties and whatever might be left over of his prize money, and that a humbled USG will realize that, just as no WMD were on their way from Baghdad to London in 45 minutes, so too there are no real threats to anyone coming from Bobby Fischer’s big mouth.
Selected Links, Further Reading, and Further Viewing
- Online list of Articles about Bobby Fischer, including:
- Rene Chun, Bobby Fischer’s Pathetic Endgame — Atlantic Monthly, December 2002 — with Reader responses and comments to the above.
- Larry Evans, FBI Files on Fischer — June 23, 2003.
- Peter Nicholas and Clea Benson, Life is Not a Board Game. The Philadelphia Inquirer — February 8, 2003.
- Peter Nicholas and Clea Benson, Files Reveal How FBI hounded chess king. The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 2002.
- Other links:
- Roger Ebert’s Review of Searching for Bobby Fischer — Chicago Sun Times, August 11, 1993.
- Ryan McMaken, The X-Files and the Decline of the State — LewRockwell.com, January 6, 2003 (a review of Paul Cantor’s Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization — Rowman & Littlefield Publishers — September 1, 2001).
- Murray N. Rothbard, The Lynching of the Returning Hero, in The Irrepressible Rothbard, Chapter 58 (original u2018Triple R’ article: October 1992).
- United States Government, Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, Order to Provide Information and Cease and Desist Activities — August 21, 1992 — This is the government order on which Fischer famously spat.
- T.V. Weber, Bobby Fischer: America’s Disposable Hero — September 3, 2004.
- Searching for Bobby Fischer (aka Innocent Moves) (DVD: Region 1, Region 2).
- The X-Files — The Complete Fifth Season (DVD Region 1). DVD Region 2 link here.
Richard Wall (send him mail) has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics & Political Science, and lives in Estoril, Portugal, where he currently works as a freelance writer and translator.