He was probably the greatest chess player the world has ever seen. He also was virulently anti-American and anti-Semitic, odd because he was born in Chicago to a Jewish woman. Bobby Fischer, who had been living for years in exile, died Thursday.
He had emerged briefly in 1992 from a mysterious seclusion that had lasted two decades and defied an American ban on conducting business in wartorn Yugoslavia to play a $5 million match against his old nemesis, the Russian-born grandmaster Boris Spassky.
After he won handily, he dropped out of sight again, living alone. He avoided arrest on American charges over his Yugoslavia appearance and stayed in touch with his few friends in the United States by telephone, compelling them to keep his secrets or risk his rejection.
He lived in Budapest—and possibly the Philippines and Switzerland—and emerged now and then on radio stations in Iceland, Hungary and the Philippines to rant in increasingly belligerent terms against the United States and against Jews.
Genius was certainly too much pressure for Fischer, whose appearance, when he made it, was constantly on the wane and prone to outburst. Often on the radio, the most telling of these was his Sept. 11, 2001 reaction to the terrorist attacks:
“This is all wonderful news,” he announced. “I applaud the act. The U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians, just slaughtering them for years. Robbing them and slaughtering them. Nobody gave a sh—. Now it’s coming back to the U.S. F—- the U.S. I want to see the U.S. wiped out.”
Fischer added that the events of September 11 provided the ideal opportunity to stage a long-overdue coup d’Ã©tat. He envisioned, he said, a “Seven Days in May scenario,” with the country taken over by the military; he also hoped to see all its synagogues closed, and hundreds of thousands of Jews executed. “Ultimately the white man should leave the United States and the black people should go back to Africa,” he said. “The white people should go back to Europe, and the country should be returned to the American Indians. This is the future I would like to see for the so-called United States.” Before signing off Fischer cried out, “Death to the U.S.!”
When Fischer was released from detention in Japan two years ago, he was confronted at a press conference by Jeremy Schaap, the ESPN broadcaster whose father had befriended a young Fischer.
“I knew your father,” he drawls to the young, dark-haired Schaap. “He rapped me very hard. He said I didn’t have a sane bone in my body. I don’t forget that.”
I ask about chess; a Russian TV crew asks about Kasparov; the Icelanders ask whether Fischer likes herring, but the Schaap affair won’t go away. Fischer insists on returning to it, and things suddenly turn ugly. “Let me get back to this guy,” says Fischer, pointing at the young, dark-haired Schaap. “I hate to rap people personally, but his father many years ago befriended me, took me to see Knicks games, acted kind of like a father figure, and then later like a typical Jewish snake he had the most vicious things to say about me.”
Schaap snaps at that, says “I don’t know that you’ve done much here today really to disprove anything he said,” and walks out. All on camera. Maybe it’s a made-for-TV set-up, maybe not, but it certainly chills the air: Fischer groans and there is a half-minute silence before the woman from Icelandic radio can can things back on track with another question about herring. The human being starts to emerge from under the baseball cap, then bang, he’s off again with another lengthy exposition of his intricately wrought, completely bonkers theories, usually rounded off with: “It’s all on the internet! Why don’t you go look it up?”