Robert James Fischer, 64

January 17 YahooNews says Robert James Fischer, 64, has died. Cause of death: kidney failure. He was interred at Laugardaelir church outside the town of Selfoss, and was buried in a private ceremony at a Catholic churchyard in southern Iceland. The funeral was attended by only a handful of people, mostly close friends, as well as Fischer’s long-time companion, Miyoko Watai, a Japanese chess player.

A chess genius with personality quirks that bordered on the eccentric and the disgusting, Fisher gained world fame in 1972 when he defeated USSR’s Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, becoming the first officially recognized world champion born in America. The match, played out at the height of the Cold War between the US and the USSR, took on mythic dimensions as a clash between two world superpowers. Add to this Fischer’s legendary hatred of the Russians, whom he thought had cheated in the games. As Fred Waitzkin described it in his book Searching for Bobby Fischer, “Each man bore responsibility for his country’s national honor. Spassky would be Russia’s greatest hero if he won, and would fall into disgrace if he didn’t…. Fischer wanted to annihilate the Russians, whom he had hated since he had decided as a teenager that they cheated in international tournaments. If he won he would instantly become a legend; if he lost he would be dismissed by many as a crackpot” (Quoted from Answers.com).

The 1972 world chess match showed an eccentric who was true to form, very difficult to get along with. Friends would reserve a space for him on the plane bound for Iceland, which at the last minute they would cancel, for Bobby Fischer was nowhere to be found, and if he was somewhere, he was munching sandwiches, or sleeping on a bench in the park. In Reykjavik, “he wanted television coverage, but when a television deal was arranged … he refused to play in front of the cameras, claiming that they were too distracting,” wrote Waitzkin, recalling Fischer’s match with Spassky. “He forfeited a game and threatened to leave unless Spassky agreed to play in a small room with no audience and no cameras. He argued about the choice of chess table, about his hotel room, about the noise in the auditorium, about the proximity of the audience to the players and about the lighting” (Quoted from Answers.com). And still, Fischer won the tournament with great style.

It is undeniably true that Bobby Fischer was one of the greatest chess players of all time. Garry Kasparov, another Russian world chess title holder, commented: “Many consider Robert Fischer to be the best chess player of the 20th century. Possibly this is so” (My Great Predecessors, volume 4, p. 490). However, “his extravagant life and scandalous statements did not contribute to the popularity of chess,” Kasparov was also quoted as saying to the Associated Press.

Bobby Fischer learned to play chess at six, following the instructions from a small chess set his older sister bought from a candy store. A month later he saw his first chess book. For a year he learned to play by himself. He joined the chess clubs, and was tutored by many grandmasters, among whom was John W. Collins, who also served as his father figure. He became the youngest national junior chess champion at thirteen, the youngest senior champion at fourteen. At age 20, this high school drop-out set a record nobody had done before: 11 wins in 11 games.

Bobby Fischer attended Brooklyn’s Erasmus High School. The singer-actress Barbara Streisand was a classmate of his, although he later dropped out in 1959 when he turned 16. “Many teachers remembered him as difficult.” His school records said he had an IQ of 184 and an incredibly retentive memory (Wikipedia, quoted by Answers.com).

With his victory over Boris Spassky in 1972, and his youthful energy and good looks, he won over a new generation of chess enthusiasts here, in America and throughout the world. “Chess clubs proliferated during the early seventies, inspired by Bobby’s success and charisma,” reported Waitzkin in his book Searching for Bobby Fischer. “Mothers pulled their sons out of Little League and ferried them to chess lessons. Talented young players with dreams of Fischer, television immortality and big chess money spurned college and conventional career choices to turn professional” (Quoted from Answers.com). Bobby Fischer had invented moves not found in the books. “In an era when the most highly publicized chess matches pit human against computer, Fischer represents the image of an earlier time that stressed the mental and emotional athletics of the game,” so says YahooNews.

Fischer won his title from a Russian but lost it to another Russian, Anatoly Karpov, in 1975, when he refused to defend it. Dr. Max Euwe, Fide’s president, could not conceal his disappointment after receiving Fischer’s telegram resigning his title. Karpov could not understand why Fisher refused to play the match. “I wanted this very much to take place. I think he was just not ready to play.” The truth was Fischer wanted more changes to the rules of game. He had objected to the rule that limited the championship matches to 24 games, to which Fide agreed. He too was prone to haggling over minor points, which some interpreted to be his psychological gambit to win. In his 1975 match with Karpov, Fischer demanded further concessions to which Fide would not agree. So Fischer refused to defend his title.

Back in Fischer’s community in South Pasadena, California, his countrymen were equally disappointed. “It’s tragic,” said Col. Edmund Edmundson. “Tragic for Fischer, for world chess, for Karpov. Poor Fischer won’t have his title, Karpov will have a paper title (which won’t mean anything), and the world won’t have its match. We’re all losers” (The Times Report on the World Chess Champion, 1975, in Microsoft Encarta Premium Suite 2005).

Though the life of this young Jewish American chessman since his loss to Karpov was marked by a period of self-imposed obscurity that lasted nearly 20 years, there were reports of a dishevelled recluse living in the worst sections of the city of Los Angeles, news brought out only by the detective instincts in journalists. They heard tales of a man who didn’t care about the world, who wanted only to be left alone. His belongings were sold for failure to pay storage and tenancy rentals. In 1981 he was picked up by the police because he resembled a fugitive bank robber, and spent a night in Pasadena Jailhouse. After that incident, he wrote a pamphlet, his first attempt at writing, using the pseudonym Robert D. James, which became a bestseller in chess clubs. According to Sports Illustrated writer William Nack, it was titled I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse, and some chapter headings included “Brutally Handcuffed, False Arrest, Insulted, Choked, Stark Naked, No Phone Call, Horror Cell, Isolation & Torture” (Quoted from Answers.com). Fischer complained of police brutality. Eventually he was charged with damaging prison property (a mattress), and was later released.

Fischer resurfaced only in 1992 to play with Spassky in a multi-million dollar rematch in Belgrade, in defiance of the U.S. sanctions against the government of Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia. US Treasury agents followed him, and served the ban in person. And the world saw a very angry American denouncing his government for meddling in his personal affairs. He spat on the papers. “This is my answer to your ban!”

He won that rematch with Spassky (and the prize money of $3.5 million), but spent the next decade as a fugitive from US laws. The U.S. government handed down an indictment of Fischer in December of 1992, so he stayed in Eastern Europe (for instance, in Budapest, Hungary, where had “a girlfriend in the person of a 19-year-old Hungarian chess star, Zita Rajcsanyi”) (Quoted by Answers.com).

Fischer’s reputation as a genius was eclipsed, in the eyes of many, by his idiosyncrasies, annoying temperaments and outrageous outbursts. Answers.com says: “The young man, for all his brilliance, was considered something of a loose cannon, less than cooperative, and publicly scornful and egocentric.” Fischer occasionally made erratic and often racist remarks against the Jews, although his mother was Jewish. He even extolled Nazism. Every now and then he would emerge on radio stations in Hungary, Iceland, the Philippines and Switzerland, ranting belligerently excessive remarks against his perceived enemies: the US (“everything was controlled by ‘the hidden hand, the satanical secret world government”), the USSR (“I distrust doctors, I am sure the Russians are out to kill me”), and Israel. He had his dental fillings replaced “because he feared that Soviet agents might be able to transmit damaging rays into his brain through the metal in his teeth” (Quoted from Answers.com).

“In 1984, Fischer wrote to the editors of the Encyclopedia Judaica, stating that he was not, and had never been, Jewish, and asking that his name be removed from the publication. Encyclopedia Judaica complied with the request” (Wikipedia, quoted by Answers.com). Bobby Fischer also denied that the Holocaust ever happened.

Bobby’s mother, Regina Wender, was born in Switzerland, the daughter of a Polish Jew named Jacob Wender and his wife Natalie (Click this source). She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. A young woman who was fluent in six languages (English, French, Russian, German, Spanish and Portuguese), she applied for scholarship to study medicine at First Moscow Medical Institute, Moscow, Russia, where she met Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German Jew who was studying physics in the same university. They were married in 1933; she was 20, he was 25. Regina stayed only for a year in the medical school and never graduated. Quitting school, she worked as a riveter in the defense plant in Russia. In 1939, she returned to the US.

In the US, Regina became a grade school teacher and a registered nurse. She finished a PhD in hematology, and did pro-bono work for the poor in Central and South America. She studied in Berlin in 1966 and got a medical degree two years later, at age 55.

Hans-Gerhardt Fischer never lived with Regina Wender in the US; he was not admitted because of his communist leanings. Bobby was born in Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago on March 9, 1943, and was given the surname Fischer. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York. But Bobby Fischer never met his father. In 1945, Regina Winder and Hans-Gerhardt Fischer were divorced. Here is one pertinent comment from Wikipedia:

“A 2002 article by Peter Nicholas and Clea Benson of The Philadelphia Inquirer suggests that Paul Nemenyi, a Jewish Hungarian physicist, may have been Fischer’s biological father. Nicholas and Benson quote an FBI report that states that Regina Fischer returned to the United States in 1939 while Hans-Gerhardt Fischer never entered the United States. Hans-Gerhardt and Regina Fischer divorced in 1945 when Bobby was two years old, and he grew up with his mother and older sister, Joan. In 1948, the family moved to Mobile, Arizona, where Regina taught in an elementary school. The following year they moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Regina worked as an elementary school teacher and nurse” (Wikipedia, quoted by Answers.com).

Paul Nemenyi lectured in engineering at the University of Berlin in 1922. When the Nazis came to power, he was sacked from this teaching position and for a time found a job in Copenhagen. At the outbreak of the World War I, he migrated to the US and taught at the University of Iowa. He had also helped in the development of the atom bomb (cryptically labeled as The Manhattan Project). It is said that Paul Nemenyi had been giving support to Regina Wender until he died (March 1, 1952).

Being a gifted child born into a family where both the father and the mother were high achievers intellectually speaking is not all that there is to a good life. In 1962, Bobby Fischer told the people close to him that he had “personal problems,” and began to listen to various radio ministers in a search for answers. This is how he first came to listen to The World Tomorrow radio program of Herbert W. Armstrong. Armstrong’s denomination, The Worldwide Church of God, predicted the imminent coming of Jesus in 1975. “According to Fischer, he lived a bifurcated life, with a rational chess component and an enthusiastic religious component” (quoted from Answers.com).

As a devoted Armstrongite, Fischer began tithing to the church, gave to it $61,200 of his world championship prize money. But the year 1972 too was a disastrous year for the Armstrongites, as the prophecies by Herbert W. Armstrong about “The World Tomorrow” did not come to pass and the group “was rocked by revelations of a series of sex scandals involving Garner Ted Armstrong. Fischer, who felt betrayed and swindled by the Worldwide Church of God, left the church and publicly denounced it” (Wikipedia, quoted by Answers.com).

In the year 2000 a certain Robert James Nemenyi came to Baguio City in search of a way to perpetuate his genes. A Filipina-Chinese volunteered. Nine months later a daughter was born, the only one sired by Robert James Fischer, aka Robert James Nemenyi (Click this source).

“Hours after the September 11, 2001 attacks Fischer was interviewed live by Pablo Mercado on the Baguio City station of the Bombo Radyo network, shortly after midnight September 12, 2001 Philippines local time (or shortly after noon on September 11, 2001, New York time). Fischer commented on U.S and Israeli foreign policy that ‘nobody cares … [that] the US and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians for years.’ Informed that ‘the White House and Pentagon have been attacked,’ he proclaimed, ‘This is all wonderful news.’ Fischer stated ‘What goes around comes around even for the United States,’ and said that if the U.S. fails to change its foreign policy, it ‘has to be destroyed.’ After calling for President Bush’s death, Fischer also stated he hoped that a Seven Days in May-type military coup d etat would take over power in the U.S. and then execute ‘hundreds of thousands of American Jewish leaders,’ ‘arrest all the Jews,’ and ‘close all synagogues” (Quoted from Answers.com).

On 16 July 2004, Fischer was arrested at Tokyo’s Narita Airport on a charge of trying to leave Japan for Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, Philippines, without a valid US passport. He was detained by the Japanese until March of 2005, when he was granted citizenship by Iceland and was deported to his new home country. Upon his arrival in Reykjavík, he was welcomed by a crowd.

His chess career ended January 17, 2008, in a Reykjavik hospital. He was 64. Another CNN.com reader Susan Polgar points out that it’s the same number of spaces on a chessboard.

If human beings were cars coming out of an assembly line, you could almost always predict the outcomes. Faulty designs result in faulty cars. But manufacturers can always recall their faulty products. Can a parent recall faulty kids?

One faithful Jewish mother turned out a Timothy. But in the case of Bobby Fischer, there must be something wrong somewhere.

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