This Day in Jewish History, 1972 |

Bobby Fischer Smashes Nemesis, World Doesn't Stay Impressed for Long

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Bobby Fischer, 1972.Credit: AP

On August 31, 1972, Bobby Fischer became the 11th World Chess Champion, after Russian grand master Boris Spassky conceded the match. With this "Match of the Century," Fischer magnificently put an end to a 24-year streak of Russian domination over the game, if not for long. But he was an odd duck to represent the stars'n'stripes, given his own jaundiced view of American culture ("I want to see the U.S. wiped out. Death to the U.S."), misogyny ("[Women are] stupid compared to men. They shouldn't play chess") and his anti-Semitic bent ("[the U.S. is] a farce controlled by dirty, hook-nosed, circumcised Jew bastards".)

Robert James Fischer was born on March 9, 1943, in Chicago, to brilliant parents, whoever they were. His mother was the polyglot Regina Fischer (nee Wender), born in Switzerland to Jewish parents, who had moved to the United States with her parents in her teens.

Fischer's father on record was Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a biophysicist. However, the FBI's investigation into suspicions of communist leanings in mother and son revealed the view that Fischer's sire was the Jewish Hungarian mathematician Paul Felix Nemenyi, whom she supposedly met in the U.S., in 1942. Nemenyi both paid support for Bobby and followed his upbringing until his own death in 1952. Still, the birth certificate listed Hans-Gerhardt as father; he and Regina would formally divorce in 1945. As Bobby told a Zagreb newspaper, "My father left my mother when I was two.  I have never seen him."

Though of clearly Jewish origin, Fischer would not consider himself a Jew.

Candy-store chess set

Regina brought up Bobby and his older sister Joan alone, first in Mobile, Arizona and from 1949, in New York. Fischer began to play chess at age six with a set his sister Joan had bought at a candy store for $1. By age nine, he was obsessed, later saying, "When I was eleven, I just got good," perhaps indicating that as a turning point when his prodigious study of previous masters and innate genius meshed.

The world took notice in 1951, when Fischer, 8, participated in a "simultaneous exhibition" – chess master Maz Pavey taking on multiple opponents. From that point Fischer would gain contact with masters of chess, who would help him hone his skills. In 1955, Fischer, age 12, joined the prestigious Manhattan Chess Club. The following year, Fischer would become the youngest-ever junior champion of the U.S., put in a good showing in the adults ranks at the U.S. Open Chess Championship – and would win a "brilliancy prize" for playing an "immortal" game against chess master Donald Byrne, about which player and critic Hans Kmoch wrote, "a stunning masterpiece of combination play performed by a boy of 13."

Screen grab from Israeli TV: Bobby Fischer playing at age 13 - back when he was, the Hebrew subtitles say, "modest and polite".Credit: Yes Doco TV

In 1957, not yet 15, Fischer would become the youngest-ever U.S. Champion and an international master. At 15, Fischer wangled an invitation to visit Russia but peeved at not being invited to any formal matches, he irked his hosts by calling them "pigs".

The following year, having wowed masters throughout eastern and central Europe, he wrote his first book of collected games, "Bobby Fischer's Games of Chess". He also dropped out of school, at 16, to play full-time.

His tussle with Spassky would begin in 1960, when they tied at a match in Argentina, and culminate in their 1972 match in Reykjavik, a contest of 24 games by the two best players in the world - which he almost missed, due to his insistence on extraordinary conditions. As the planet watched in fascination, Fischer, between tantrums, prevailed and was even invited to the White House by then president Richard Nixon.

But while the world applauded his genius, it was appalled at his personality. Within a year of his great victory, he had fallen off the map, and in 1992, he came out of a 20-year break from chess to vie with Spassky again – in Yugoslavia, defying a UN embargo. America issued a warrant for his arrest, following which he remained outside the country. Nor did he gain fans for applauding the perpetrators of September 11, 2001: "This is all wonderful news," he told Philippine radio from self-imposed exile, leading the U.S. Chess Federation to eject him in disgust. His raging anti-Semitism and adoration of Hitler and Nazism were no help either. Fischer would die on January 17, 2008, at age 64, in Reykjavík.

Click here for a database of games by Bobby Fischer.

Bobby Fischer leaves Iceland, where he had been held for 8 months for travelling on what U.S. officials said was an invalid passport, for Japan. March 24, 2005.Credit: Reuters
Bobby Fischer's grave, Reykjavik. He had denied being Jewish.Credit: AxelBoldt, Wikimedia Commons