BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 18 January 2008, 16:04 GMT
The genius who re-invented chess
By David Edmonds
Co-author of Bobby Fischer Goes To War

Bobby Fischer. Photo: 2005
Bobby Fischer's IQ was estimated at over 180
Bobby Fischer was the man who put chess on the map. A lone American had defeated the might of the Soviet chess machine.

After he beat Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972 to become world chess champion, the game would never quite be the same again.

Chess was suddenly on newspaper front pages across the world. In New York a reporter went from bar to bar and discovered that of the 21 he visited, 18 had their televisions tuned to the chess - and only three to the Mets baseball game.

Why such unprecedented attention to this ancient board game?

It is really the free world against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians
Bobby Fischer on his match against Boris Spassky in 1972

1972 saw the height of detente, but Mr Fischer portrayed his match as a proxy for the Cold War.

"It is really the free world against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians... This little thing between me and Spassky. It's a microcosm of the whole world political situation," he said.

Mr Fischer hated the Soviets with a passion - they had conspired against him for years, he claimed.

For the Soviets, chess was a vital propaganda tool. Their superiority at the game proved communism's superiority over capitalism - or so they thought.

There were literally millions of registered Soviet chess players, and the elite grandmasters were privileged members of society.

Kissinger's calls

Then there was Mr Fischer's eccentric - to put it mildly - personality.

Bobby Fischer (left) plays a practice match against Soviet grand master Tigran Petrosian in 1958
Bobby Fischer (left) became a grand master at the tender age of 15
Since the age of six chess had been his life. He spent hour after hour, day after day, studying the game.

At the age of 11, he - in his own words - "just got good". By 15, he was a grand master, the youngest in history - and it dawned on the Soviet chess authorities that their pre-eminence was finally under threat.

An evident genius - his IQ was estimated at over 180 - Fischer had no interest in school work and his solitary nature, and brusque manner, was already landing him in trouble.

Twice prior to 1972 he had dropped out of the game - as his demands to tournament organisers became ever more extravagant.

He complained about prize money, about the lighting, the size of the board and pieces, the noise from audiences.

It was unclear whether the 1972 match - the so-called match of the century - would ever take place.

It took a couple of calls from Henry Kissinger, the then US national security adviser, to persuade him to continue.

"This is the worst player in the world calling the best player in the world," one of these telephone calls was reputed to begin.

Total recluse

Victory in Reykjavik should have transformed Mr Fischer into a multi-millionaire. Offers flooded over. A million dollars alone was offered if he would endorse a chess set.

But Mr Fischer would not sign contracts, and within a year he had disappeared, almost without trace.

In 1975, he refused to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov, though the International Chess Federation had conceded to all but two of his 179 demands.

He became a total recluse - his life a fertile ground for rumour.

There was a bizarre episode in 1981 when he was picked up by the police apparently mistaken for a bank robber, and thrown behind bars for two days.

He later published a pamphlet, graphically depicting the indignities he suffered: "I was tortured in the Pasadena jailhouse."

Icelandic sanctuary

Then, in 1992, he defied US sanctions and played a re-match against Mr Spassky for $5m.

At a press conference he spat on a warning letter from the US treasury department.

He proceeded to beat Mr Spassky again - but from this moment on, he was on the run.

By this time he had descended into an abyss of unreality, the world of Holocaust denial, persecution complexes and conspiracy theories.

He raged against the Jews, though his mother was Jewish, and - as released FBI documents later showed - his biological father probably was Jewish too.

His anti-communism transmuted into a rabid anti-Americanism. America, he said after the 11 September 2001 attacks, had got what it deserved.

Finally picked up in Japan, this by now sad, forlorn, ragged character eventually found sanctuary in Iceland.

After all, many Icelanders remembered him with affection. He had not only put chess on the map. For a short period, in 1972, he put this tiny country of only 250,000 people on the map too.

Chess legend Fischer dies at 64
18 Jan 08 |  Europe
Iceland grants Fischer passport
21 Mar 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Fischer 'must be deported to US'
15 Mar 05 |  Asia-Pacific
The chess match of the century
09 Aug 02 |  Europe

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific