American chess genius and former world champion Robert James Fischer is dead at the age of 64 from undisclosed causes.
I am not having a good week.
Fischer was the young wunderkind who challenged Soviet hegemony in world chess, accused them of cheating and as a result changed the way the world champion was selected. His defeat of Boris Spassky in their 1972 match was seen as the Cold War writ large over an 8×8 grid. He gave up the title in 1975 to Anatoly Karpov when Fischer and FIDE, the world chess governing body, could not come to terms over match conditions.
Most folks who know of Fischer remember him for his vile post 9/11 comments, his professed and likely self-loathing anti-semitism, and his erratic behavior since he defied trade sanctions and played a match with Spassky in 1992 in embargoed Sveti Stefan, part of Slobodan Milosevic’s turf.
I think of him differently…
Players of a certain age remember instead the pre-1973 Fischer. Eight US Championships, winning every one he every played in. An undefeated 11-0 in the 1963 US Championship. Set the mark in 1959 as the youngest person to achieve the Grandmaster title, a mark only recently topped. The comeback at the Second Piatagorsky Cup in 1966, demolishing international fields in the 1962 and 1970 Interzonal tournaments. Twenty consecutive wins against world class grandmasters running from the 1970 Interzonal through his candidates matches with Taimanov, Larson, and then Petrosian. His games pantheon included his “Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne, his sacrificial masterpieces against Robert Byrne and Pal Benko, his strategic crush in Game 7 against Petrosian and Game 6 against Spassky.
For young kid who was learning the game, Fischer was a hero. His monthly columns in Boys Life magazine gave an insight into top level chess play at a time when it was almost impossible to get up to date information and analysis unless you could translate Russian and subscribed to 64 and Shakmatny Bulletin. He was a giant, and he made chess somehow cool. Everyone was playing chess, even-to my mother’s surprise-a local shoe salesman. She had purchased a book on the Fischer Spassky match for me for my birthday in 1972, and the salesman saw it in a bag while she was trying on shoes…and the next thing you know he is talking pawns and bishops and fianchetto’s to her…and she has no idea what he was saying.
Fischer was a meteor…his success popularized chess in the USA for a short time, and then it went back to the weekend tournaments, clubs, and parks. Oh, but for a while chess was THE thing…and all because of that Boy from Brooklyn.
Whatever he became, he was a hero to me as a kid…and I am sorry to see him pass on.