Robert James “Bobby” Fischer began playing chess at Age Six when his mother Regina bought him a chess set at a candy store. Fischer and his older sister Joan learned the rules from the enclosed manual. Bobby and his sister began playing with each other, but Joan soon wasn’t a match for Bobby.[i]
Fischer’s potential was discovered by Carmine Nigro, the newly elected president of the Brooklyn Chess Club. Although seven-year-old Bobby lost his first exhibition game with a local chess master, Nigro was impressed with the sensible moves Bobby made in the game. Nigro approached Regina and Bobby after the game and invited Bobby to join the Brooklyn Chess Club. Bobby became a regular member of the club, and Nigro, an expert player of near-master strength, became Bobby’s first tutor and mentor.[ii]
Bobby was a dedicated chess student with an insatiable desire to read chess literature. One chess master said of him: “Bobby virtually inhaled chess literature. He remembered everything and it became a part of him.”[iii]
Bobby at Age 12 became the youngest member in the history of the Manhattan Chess Club. The Manhattan Chess Club was the strongest chess club in the country, and afforded Bobby the opportunity to play chess 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Bobby would play as many as 100 speed games a day. With additional tutoring from Jack Collins, one of the great teachers of chess, Fischer at age 13 became the youngest American ever to achieve the ranking of chess master.[iv]
Fischer became the United States Chess Champion at age 14[v], eventually winning the U.S. title a total of eight times. In December 1963, Fischer won every game in the U.S. Chess Championship against 11 of the highest-ranked players in the country. It was an awesome performance; Fischer had proven himself to be in a different league. Everyone realized that Fischer posed a threat to Soviet supremacy in chess, and the world buzzed in anticipation of his future performances.[vi]
American Chess Grandmaster Pal Benkö generously gave Fischer the opportunity to play for the 1972 World Chess Championship. Benkö explains:
It was like this: Fischer did not play in the American championship because of some quarrel. That automatically meant that he could not play in the interzonal tournament in Palma de Mallorca. The winner of that tournament had the possibility through all kinds of matches to challenge the world champion in the end. I ceded my place to him because I thought he had a better chance. That turned out to be correct. He won in Mallorca and after that beat Taimanov, Larsen and Petrosian and finally had the right to play against Spassky.[vii]
Fischer still almost did not make it to Reykjavik, Iceland to challenge Soviet chess grandmaster Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship. A call from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and additional prize money from millionaire businessman James Slater were factors that finally persuaded Fischer to make the trip.[viii]
Even with Fischer in Iceland the championship almost did not take place. Fischer forfeited the second game and continued to make incessant demands of tournament officials. The joke making the rounds in Reykjavik was that Fischer had demanded the setting of the sun three hours earlier. Fortunately, Boris Spassky was a gentleman and true sportsman throughout the match. Spassky capitulated to most of Fischer’s demands and allowed the match to continue.[ix]
American Chess Grandmaster Isaac Kashdan stated: “In a contest for the nicest guy in chess, Bobby Fischer would finish out of the money. But he is definitely the best chess player in the world.” Fischer won the World Chess Championship by a 12 ½ to 8 ½ margin over Spassky.[x] Spassky and Fischer became lifelong friends after their match.[xi]
Attractive financial offers were made to Bobby Fischer after he won the World Chess Championship. However, except for a relatively modest offer to be the guest of honor at the First Philippine International Chess Tournament in 1973, Fischer turned them all down.[xiii] Fischer also refused to play competitive chess for the next 20 years.
So what did Fischer do with his free time? Fischer biographer Frank Brady writes:
Many people who haven’t been formally educated awaken later in life with a desire to progress and deepen their view of the world, to go back to school or self-educate themselves. Bobby joined their ranks out of an essential self-awareness…
Bobby’s lack of traditional institutional education was well known and continually reported in the press, but what wasn’t common knowledge was that after he won the World Championship at age 29, he began a systemized regimen of study outside chess. History, government, religion, politics, and current events became his great interests, and during the 33-year interval from his first Reykjavik stay to his second he spent most of his spare time reading and amassing knowledge.[xiv]
Fischer began to develop politically incorrect ideas from his readings. Fischer read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and many other conspiracy books. He also became convinced that the so-called Holocaust was a major fraud. Fischer’s Jewish mother Regina wrote him stating that Nazi Germany had murdered children like vermin in homicidal gas chambers. Fischer, however, remained an outspoken critic of the Holocaust story.[xv]
Fischer would even tell first-time acquaintances that the Holocaust was a hoax. For example, Dutch Chess Grandmaster Jan Timman writes about his only meeting with Bobby Fischer in 1990 in Brussels: “It was inevitable that the conversation would touch on the Holocaust. ‘It is a hoax,’ he said very softly, almost mumbling.”[xvi]
Fischer had been embraced as the prodigal son by the Worldwide Church of God after winning the World Chess Championship. However, Fischer left the church, stating in 1977: “They cleaned out my pockets. Now my only income is a few royalty checks from my books. I was really very foolish.”[xvii]
Fischer eventually found a way to make money by agreeing to a rematch with Boris Spassky in 1992.
Fischer Returns to Chess
The Fischer rematch with Spassky took place in war-ravaged Yugoslavia. Fischer received a letter from the U.S. Department of the Treasury 10 days before the match began stating that as a U.S. citizen he would be prohibited from playing the match under Executive Order 12810. Violations of this Executive Order would be punishable by civil and criminal penalties and up to 10 years in prison.[xviii]
Fischer despised the U.S. government and disregarded the Treasury Department’s letter. In a press conference held the night before the match, Fischer was asked: “Are you worried by U.S. government threats over your defiance of the sanctions?” Fischer responded:
One second here. [He then removed a letter from his briefcase and held it up.] This is the order to provide information of illegal activities, from the Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C., August 21, 1992. So this is my reply to their order not to defend my title here. [He then spat on the letter, and applause broke out.] That is my answer.[xix]
Fischer continued to make controversial statements during the press conference. When asked about Communism, he said, “Soviet Communism is basically a mask for Bolshevism which is a mask for Judaism.” Denying that he was an anti-Semite, Fischer responded that Arabs were Semites too, “And I am definitely not anti-Arab.”[xx]
The chess match was somewhat anticlimactic, with Fischer beating Spassky and collecting the winner’s prize of $3.5 million.