Bobby Fischer vs. The Rebbe
The chess genius denied he was a Jew, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe disagreed. Who was right?
By Jonathan Zalman
In the summer of 1971, a year before he won the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Bobby Fischer—who died five years ago today—appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in one of his many custom suits.
“Can you have any other life and be a great chess player?” Cavett asked Fischer, who sprawled opposite the host in an undersized chair.
“Not at the moment, no,” said Fischer. “You know, first things first, right? Get the title and uhm … ”
Cavett, sensing an unanswerable flash for Fischer, chimed in.
“And what’s the moment of pleasure for you?”
Fischer shifted his torso, his thumb and forefinger now stroking his chin.
Cavett clarified. “Is it when you see the guy in trouble?”
“Well, when you break his ego: This is where it’s at. [The opponent] sees it comin’ and breaks all up inside.”
On Dec. 15, 1992, the United States issued a federal indictment calling for Fischer’s arrest—if he were to return to the States, Fischer, along with his recent earnings, would be immediately detained. So, he remained in Belgrade and eventually settled in a small town on the Hungaro-Serbian border named Magyarkanizsa, or “The City of Silence,” where he hoped the political climate would enable Raycsani to visit more easily. When she did, though, Raycsani, whom Fischer was in love with and wanted to marry, told him that she was pregnant by another man.
In the summer of 1993, Fischer was visited by the Polgars, “the royal chess family of Hungary,” consisting of Laszlo and his daughters, Sofia, 19, and Judit, 16. (Judit is still currently the No. 1 ranked female chess player in the world; she defeated Boris Spassky a year after his rematch with Fischer, earning herself a $110,000 paycheck.) Laszlo’s eldest daughter, Susan, then 23, was already a grandmaster and playing at a tournament in Peru, and was therefore unable to visit Fischer with the rest of her family. Upon her return the Polgars made the trek again so that Susan could meet Fischer.
Like Fischer, Susan Polgar was a child prodigy. At 4 years old she published her first chess puzzle and is still considered the youngest composer ever to do so. The puzzle presents an endgame task—to find checkmate in two—with white to move. It’s notable too for its spatiality—it asks the solver to consider moving the king to an empty square in order to dictate play and then attack with the queen—and rigorous simplicity: One false move of the king will end in a stalemate (a draw), yet the correct move forces a win. Impressive thinking for a preschooler.
When they met, she and Fischer formed an instant bond, and Laszlo offered Fischer an open invitation to their country home a short car ride outside Budapest. Susan also convinced Fischer that if he chose to move closer to the Hungarian capital it would mean that he could spend time with members of the Hungarian chess elite, such as Pal Benko. For Fischer, a move back to Budapest also meant he could continue to pursue Raycsani. (Brady’s account of Fischer’s persistence, which included calling Raycsani a “bitch” in a letter, is summed up by this quote: “I have been in lost positions before … worse than this, and I won!”)
Fischer took Lazslo up on his invitation and spent time with the Polgars in the Slavic hills of Hungary. The Polgar daughters were able to play chess with Fischer, although he demanded they play a variation he called “Fischer Random.” Added to official FIDE rules in 2008 as “Chess960,” and named after the number of possible starting positions, the variation pushes traditional chess into an abstract and far less studied realm. Fischer Random was a material outpouring of Bobby’s suspicion that Russians fixed matches among themselves during competition in order to maintain supremacy. “Why do you want to get involved with something that is rote in prearrangement?” Fischer stated. “[Fischer Random] is much better than the old chess.”
For 25 years, Polgar was ranked as one of the top three female chess players in the world. She became an International Grandmaster in 1991. (Her sister Judit would usurp that record by becoming a grandmaster at 14.) Today, she heads the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellent (SPICE) at Webster University in St. Louis, the No. 1 ranked Division I collegiate chess program in the country.
“[Bobby] was so much ahead of his peers,” Susan told me by phone as she recalled the time Fischer spent with her family in the early 1990s. “He still loved chess very much at that time. I always called him a ‘big child’—he was funny, he loved joking around, he was very down to earth in his everyday life. He would like to go hiking with us. He loved to eat a lot. He loved Japanese [food]. He used to go a lot to Hungarian spas. He was in a position (financially) where he could enjoy life.”
In 1993-94, she and Fischer communicated on a daily basis; after his rematch with Spassky in ’92, she became involved in negotiations on his behalf to organize matches—some serious, some exhibitions. “For example, one of the tobacco companies that was about to sponsor a small exhibition match—they were willing to pay six digits for a couple hours of his time and he said, ‘No, no, no, no.’ ” She remembered him saying, “ ‘I’m not willing to promote any tobacco or alcohol-related company.’ So you know, even a significant amount of money wouldn’t interest him because it was against his principles—he was never drinking or smoking.”
Fischer’s mistrust and loathing of Jews was also evident. The Polgars were a Jewish family who suffered losses of relatives exterminated in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust, but Fischer would deny to their faces that such events took place. “There were good Jews and bad Jews in his mind,” Susan told me. “[And] somehow he separated.” She believes that his anti-Semitism was an unfortunate byproduct of being wronged and unprotected during an extraordinary childhood. “[Bobby] had some very bad experiences with Jewish people and he really hated those experiences. At such an early age he was so successful. At the same time there were a number of people trying to take advantage of his status and he resented that, obviously.”
During his formative years, Fischer’s mother acted as a de facto manager, but she had neither the time nor the resources to provide her son with the support he needed. “Unfortunately in his time—he was 14, 15 years old and started becoming a celebrity—it did not mean he would be a millionaire or be in a position to hire [someone] that would protect him from people wanting to take advantage of him,” Susan Polgar said to me. “That’s how he developed these anti-Jewish feelings, and unfortunately later on in his life he got connected with people who instead of convincing him otherwise, they further ingrained in him these anti-Semitic feelings. I was trying to convince him otherwise when I met him in 1993 [but it] was just too deep.”
In 1997, when Fischer’s mother died, he supposedly (according to Brady) flew to Vancouver and then entered the United States by car and went to California to attend her funeral, incognito. His sister, Joan, died less than a year later, and this time Fischer was unable to be there. In 2004, Fischer was arrested at Narita airport in Tokyo for attempting to travel to the Philippines on an illegitimate passport. (It was from the Philippines that Fischer, as Foer points out, would broadcast hateful screeds over the radio against the United States on Sept. 11—“What goes around, comes around”—and against Jews.) The United States had revoked Fischer’s passport the year before, and he was held for 10 months in a Japanese prison before Iceland, the location of his chess crowning, took him in as a citizen.
Fischer was filmed on the jet to Iceland and in a car upon landing. An online search yields three videos of this trip. Among other things, Fischer readily offered opinions about President George Bush and the “Jews behind him.”
“Bobby was sick,” Susan Polgar told me. “He had mental diseases towards the end of his life.” She says that while his vitriol should not be excused, he also made a positive difference in chess and that the two should be separated. “Unfortunately,” she says, “It’s the same person.”
While many viewed Fischer as a greedy diva, he saw a dearth of money within a game that took everything within an individual to reach the top, so he fought tooth and nail for every penny. Today, as a result, tens of thousands of dollars can be won in international play on a regular basis. Susan Polgar’s program, SPICE, currently grants scholarships to chess-playing students from eight countries. And Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, the world’s current No. 1 chess player, has made numerous national television appearances, including on 60 Minutes and The Colbert Report (he beat the host at rock-paper-scissors).
“I think everybody recognizes his genius on the chessboard,” said Susan Polgar says of Fischer. “I know for a fact Kasparov does. The younger generations they don’t give as much respect to older generations as they should because they grew up so much already in the computer era.” Therefore, she says, they take for granted the tactics that are considered standard for a club player. Polgar says the older generations, which includes Fischer, “invented them.”