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Bobby Fischer, 1943 - 2008

Bizarre, reclusive genius of chess

January 19, 2008|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Bobby Fischer, the enigmatic American chess genius who became a Cold War hero with his 1972 defeat of Soviet champion Boris Spassky but fell from grace in later decades when he became a recluse and fugitive known for his hate-filled rants, has died. He was 64.

The legendary chess champion died Thursday in Reykjavik, Iceland, after a long illness, according to his spokesman, Gardar Sverrisson.

Fischer had lived in Iceland since 2005, when that country, which had hosted his legendary match against Spassky, offered him citizenship. He had been on the run from U.S. authorities since a 1992 rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia that violated economic sanctions against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian government. When Fischer made anti-American statements after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, the U.S. revoked his passport and unsuccessfully sought his return.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of the World Chess Federation, called Fischer "a phenomenon and an epoch in chess history, and an intellectual giant I would rank next to Newton and Einstein."

Once described by biographer Frank Brady as "the pride and sorrow of American chess," Fischer enjoyed mythical status in the chess world despite turning his back on it for two decades after becoming the world champion at 29. Fischer spent the 1970s and '80s living in isolation in Pasadena and Los Angeles, turning down lucrative offers to display his formidable talents against competitors eager to face him across a checkered board.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, January 22, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Fischer obituary: The obituary of chess champion Bobby Fischer in Saturday's Section A said he withdrew from international competition for five years in 1962. He participated by telegraph in a tournament held in Cuba in 1965.

Even in his strange exile from the chess scene, however, Fischer continued to haunt it. He became the Howard Hughes of chess, with fans eager for his return reporting sightings at tournaments and continuing to analyze his games years after other champions had taken his place.

He had transformed the humble game, his encounter with Spassky making front-page news and causing sales of chess sets and memberships in chess clubs to skyrocket.

"It was Bobby Fischer who had, single-handedly, made the world recognize that chess on its highest level was as competitive as football, as thrilling as a duel to the death, as aesthetically satisfying as a fine work of art, as intellectually demanding as any form of human activity," Harold C. Schonberg wrote in "Grandmasters of Chess," published in 1973. "If for no other reason, Bobby Fischer was and would be the greatest chess champion who ever lived."

Born in Chicago on March 9, 1943, he barely knew his father, a German physicist who divorced his mother when he was 2. His mother raised him and an older sister, Joan, on her own. A schoolteacher and nurse who later became a physician, Regina Wender Fischer spent long hours at work and saw little of her children when they were growing up.

In 1949, she moved her family to New York, where Bobby attended a progressive private school on a scholarship. About this time, when he was 6, Bobby's sister gave him a chess set and he began to learn the game.

When, within a short while, it became an obsession, he said, "All I want to do, ever, is play chess."

By the time he was 8, he was playing matches at Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village under the tutelage of Carmine Nigro, president of the Brooklyn Chess Club. He soon moved on to higher-level playing at the Manhattan Chess Club. In 1956, when he was 13, he became the youngest winner of the U.S. Junior Championship. In 1958, he stunned the American chess world by winning the U.S. championship, which qualified him to play in the Interzonal Tournament in Portoroz, Yugoslavia. He became the youngest international grandmaster in the history of the game.

In 1959, he captured the U.S. title again and dropped out of Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School. Living alone in Brooklyn after his mother remarried and moved to England and his sister left New York, Fischer devoted himself to chess and continued to rack up impressive wins. Between 1958 and 1967, he won eight of the 10 U.S. championships.

He also moved up in international play, finishing second at the International Tournament in Bled, Yugoslavia, in 1961, and taking the title at the Interzonal Tournament in Stockholm in 1962.

He stumbled badly at the next international event, the Candidates Tournament on the Caribbean island of Curacao in 1962. He finished fourth behind three Soviet competitors. Although observers said Fischer had not played well, the young American alleged that the Soviets had conspired against him. He aired his charges against them in a Sports Illustrated article. He then withdrew from international competition for five years. When the rules governing international chess competitions were later revised along the lines that Fischer had proposed, many experts credited him with instigating the changes.

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