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Jewish Journal

Bobby Fischer: The decline of a troubled genius

by Rabbi David Wolpe

July 19, 2011 | 4:39 pm

The world is rich in ability, awash in talent. But, though we use the word with abandon, genius is rare.

Many more people play the game of chess than basketball, football and baseball combined. To reach the rank of Grandmaster requires considerable talent. Breaking the ranks of top Grandmasters requires something approaching genius. To become one of the best players who ever played, genius is simply required.

So what can one say about a lonely, eccentric boy who grew up in Brooklyn and became arguably the greatest chess master who ever lived? How to weigh the achievement of a boy who took on the Soviet system — where Grandmasters were groomed from grade school, where teams of experts analyzed and improved the games of the premier players — and defeated it? In the Soviet system, outsiders were not only playing the person before them, but the squads of analysts who had combed over games and shared their conclusions with one another. To challenge the Soviet system and achieve a greater result in match play than has ever been seen before or since, one must be touched by the gods. Bobby Fischer, who accomplished all this, was a great genius. He was also, especially as he grew older, spiteful, hateful, ungrateful and borderline insane.

Fischer’s story has all the elements of tragedy: a supremely gifted young man, good looking, shy and preternaturally focused on a game that draws eccentrics as reliably as basketball draws pituitary cases. This is the tale of a child discovering he has a gift; such a gift that at age 13 he defeats an International Master in a game of such startling brilliance that it is still known as “the game of the century.”

In 1972, after many struggles, ups and downs and sordid difficulties, Fischer won the world title against Boris Spassky in the most publicized chess match in history. If his personality was strange up to this moment, from then on a precipitous decline set in. This man, who emerged from a brothel at 17 after his first sexual encounter with the comment “chess is better,” made it impossible for organizers to lure him back into competition. Piling conditions on conditions — “Bobby always wants more,” as a friend remarked — it gradually became clear that in some deep way this genius did not want to be tested again.

The descent began. Fischer began to make publicly anti-Semitic statements that grew increasingly vile, despite the fact that his mother was Jewish. He celebrated 9/11 when it happened, called for another holocaust (while publicly denying one had occurred) and became, with a second, long overdue match against Spassky in Yugoslavia, an official fugitive. As with many who develop persecution paranoia, there were some people actually out to get him. The American government was always suspicious of a child whose mother had some association with communism and who traveled to Russia, even though for Fischer it was all about chess. (Indeed, he grew to despise the Soviet Union, accusing the players of all manner of misbehavior.) Governments were suspicious of him and often inhospitable to the wandering celebrity. As the descent accelerated, the implosion of a genius became painful to watch.

For this was no ordinary gift. Although one could argue that there are two or three players who might give Fischer a run for the title of greatest player ever, none achieved so much against such odds, and none so early in life. In a way, it was his temporary triumph over himself that gave him the world championship. For as long as Fischer conquered himself, however briefly, there was no one else who could really challenge him. Prior to Fischer, never had a Grandmaster won a match from another without the second achieving so much as a draw. Never in the long history of chess. Fischer did it twice in a row. His 12-0 score against two of the leading Grandmasters in the world on his way to the championship is a rough equivalent of a pitcher pitching a string of perfect games in successive World Series. Still, he almost sabotaged the match against Spassky with his demands and petulance, and after winning the title, his complexes overtook him.

For Fischer to abandon competition is to chess players rather like Mozart giving up composition is to musicians, or Raphael tossing away his brushes is to artists. Since chess is not exactly a game, not precisely a sport and certainly not a science, it seems fair to say that Fischer is a man who gave the world some beautiful works of art — of a specialized kind, to be sure — and his mania deprived us of what we might have seen. His play had the directness and fierce simplicity of a search for the essence of each position. Life, on the other hand, called for a complexity and nuance alien to him. As he said about his playing style, no matter the opponent: “I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.”

In one respect, Fischer was very fortunate — in his biographer. Frank Brady’s early book on Fischer, “Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy,” is still riveting reading, and Brady’s new book, “Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall — from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness” (Crown: $25.99), is perhaps even more gripping. This is not a book about chess. It is about the rise and fall of a man who was given so much, but with a streak of craziness that compromised him again and again. Brady knew Fischer throughout his life, has pored over documents, writes about his relationship with his brilliant mother, speculates on who his father really was (to this day it is uncertain) and outlines the rise and fall of an extraordinary man, including the postmortem drama when Fischer was partially exhumed to test and see if a claimant to his estate was really his daughter.

Various interesting characters shade Fischer’s life — friends, opportunists, other players with their own views and agendas. But at the center of the storm is this profoundly lonely, brilliant and unbalanced man, leaving wreckage in his wake. Fischer died at age 64, the number of squares on the chessboard.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook/RabbiWolpe.

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