The Greatest Chess Players: Bobby Fischer

The Legend of Bobby Fischer

Robert James Fischer, the so called Bobby Fischer, was born on March 09, 1943 in California, USA, and he died on January 17, 2008 in Reykjavik, Iceland.

He learned to play chess at the age of 6 with his older sister Joan, who would entertain him with a chessboard while his mother Regina Wender was at work.

At the age of 13, the prodigy from Brooklyn was the protagonist of what is considered to be the “game of the century”, in which he defeated Donald Byrne with a brilliant sequence of sacrifices. See the game with comments by clicking here.

 

[With his first coach John W. Collins]

 

Fischer’s Career

At 14 years of age he became the first North-American “adult” champion, a feat that was repeated 8 more times (he won all national championships that he played)! At 15, he became the youngest Grandmaster until then, when he qualified to the Candidates Tournament for the first time.

In his first appearance in the Candidates Tournament (Belgrade, 1959), the spot to challenge the world champion was taken by Mikhail Tal.

The second time he played the Candidates Tournament was in 1962 in Curacao, and the challenger spot was taken by Tigran Petrosian. In that occasion, Fischer accused his Russian opponents of fixing the results of the games that they played among themselves so that one of them would be in advantage in the last round. The famous episode has never been proved, but the World Chess Federation changed the tournament format and adopted the “knockout system”, avoiding suspicious draws since then.

In spite of that, the episode made Bobby Fischer announce that he would not play the Candidates Tournament anymore. He only went back on his decision in the year of 1971, when he beat both Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen by 6 – 0. The right to challenge the world champion came when he defeated Tigran Petrosian by 6.5 – 2.5.

 

The Match of the Century

By doing so, North-American Bobby Fischer would play Russian Boris Spassky for the world title of chess in what was considered “the match of the century”.

The importance given to that match was greatly due to the fact that it just got beyond the chessboards, and just like in the space race, it became a true battle field between capitalists and socialists right in the middle of Cold War.

And it all came about because the hegemony of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in chess was overwhelming by then. Since when Mikhail Botvinnik, the Patriarch, clinched the world title in 1948, the Soviets would take turns holding the crown: Smyslov in 1957, Botvinnik again in 1958, Tal in 1960, Botvinnik once again in 1961, Petrosian in 1963 and finally Spassky in 1969.

 

 

In contrast, the westerners had the one who was already considered the best player of all time. However, Boris Spassky was then the only opponent that Fischer had never defeated.

The famous match of 1972 began way before the first move, when Bobby Fischer started to impose countless demands, which ranged from the place where the games would be held, went through postponements, and got to the issue of his participation purse, until he was finally sponsored by a British banker who was a lover of the 64 squares.

Fischer’s eccentricities had been long known. In the 1959 North-American Championship he refused to play unless the match draws were conducted in his presence. He pulled back from oddities and became champion. However, in the 1967 Interzonal Tournament held in Sousse, Tunisia, despite holding the lead, he withdrew from the contest claiming religious issues. He refused to play between Friday at dusk and Saturday also at dusk. As the organizers did not object to it, though, Fischer did not accept to play 4 games on 4 straight days to compensate for the consequent delays.

During the contention for the 1972 title, Fischer kept on making his demands based on the persecution complex that made him believe he had been constantly harmed by the Soviets. He complained about the chair, the audience and the cameras. So, he had all of his demands met even with Spassky’s consent. According to some, that fact rattled the Soviet a little, and he performed below his usual.

Spassky won games 1 and 11. He also won game 2 by WO once the American opponent did not show up to play. Fischer won games 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 13 and 21, and on September 1, 1972 he became a chess world champion.

Many consider Fischer’s victory in game 6 as the best in the match. To me, however, the best game ended in a draw, with both players performing at the best of their skills. See the game here.

 

 

Fischer Quits Chess

But the greatest loss was about to come and the biggest loser would be the sport of chess itself, because he stopped playing chess after his title, and that brought his career to an end.

When in 1974 rising young gun Anatoly Karpov defeated Boris Spassky and Viktor Korchnoi, and earned the right to face the world champion, Bobby Fischer announced on June 28 that he was renouncing his title. FIDE even got to offer him 3 months to reconsider his decision, and the capital of the Philippines, Manila, offered US$ 5 million to organize the match, but there was no agreement on the format.

The end of Bobby Fischer’s career was due to his fear of losing according to many, or to his mental disorders according to others.

 

A Sad End

After years as a recluse, Fischer had unusual and rare public appearances. In 1992 he promoted a late rematch against Boris Spassky, and he won it. It happened in Yugoslavia during a period of international economic sanctions towards Slobodan Milosevic’s government. As a result, the U.S. announced that he would be arrested if he returned to his country.

In the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he gave an interview to a Manila radio station celebrating the tragedy and making anti-Semitic claims even though his mother was Jewish.

In 2004, he was arrested in Japan for carrying an expired American passport. The U.S. asked for his deportation, but Fischer won the imbroglio, and he was given foreign citizenship in Iceland, where he died in 2008.

 

Fischer’s Legacy

“The Mozart of chess”, “west’s great hope”, legend, genius, best player of all time, eccentric, fussy (as he would label himself)… How to define Bobby Fischer? The mission is hard, but the unquestionable fact is that he will always be a myth either for good or bad.

I grew up watching Fischer’s games, and for many years my bedside book was “My 60 Memorable Games”. I will always be thankful to Bobby for everything that he made to the lovers of chess. To me, he was the best chess player of all time.

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