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Chasing the king of chess

What made Bobby Fischer so brilliant yet so bizarre? Could the truth about his father unlock the puzzle?

September 21, 2009|Peter Nicholas

Like a lot of kids in the summer of 1972, I was riveted by a strange spectacle unfolding in Iceland: a chess match between Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer, the mercurial young American.

The games weren't televised -- Fischer permitted no cameras -- so chess experts replayed the moves on public television using oversize boards. Through long summer days, I puzzled over poisoned pawns and bishop pairs as Fischer, after nearly walking out on the match, crushed the Russian champion.

Through solitary study and determination, Fischer had toppled a Soviet chess establishment that had every advantage: better coaching, state stipends, access to the latest games and opening theory.

I got caught up in the chess mania that swept the country after Fischer's victory. The craze quickly faded, but my fascination with Bobby never did.

Over the years, I read everything I could find about him, replayed his most famous games and talked with friends of his who frequented the Marshall Chess Club in New York, scene of some of his triumphs.

In time, my interest shifted from Fischer's chess to a much murkier aspect of his life: the identity of his father.

Bobby's life story, like his behavior, was bizarre and complicated. At the height of his powers, he abandoned the game and went into seclusion, surfacing periodically to spout paranoid, anti-Semitic screeds and to denounce the United States. He died last year at 64 in Iceland, the only country that would have him.

It seemed to me that if I was to get a better grasp of this elusive figure, I needed to know more about his origins.

Bobby was born in Chicago and raised in Brooklyn by a single mother, Regina Fischer. She told people his father was a German biophysicist named Gerhardt Fischer. The couple divorced when Bobby was a toddler. That's about all that was known.

The dearth of details about Gerhardt and his role in Bobby's life whetted my curiosity. What was he like? Did he share his son's intellectual gifts? What kind of relationship did they have?

My wife, fellow journalist Clea Benson, came to share my interest, and before long it morphed into something of an obsession.

We became part of a subculture in which Fischer fanatics dissect his old games like sacred scrolls, pay tens of thousands of dollars for his old notebooks and argue ceaselessly about whether later champions could have held their own against him.

In search of Fischer arcana, we've been to the Chess Hall of Fame in Miami, whose dominant architectural feature is an oversize rook. We've pored over records at the New York Public Library. We've hired Hungarian translators and sifted through 70-year-old letters stored at the National Archives in Maryland.

In 2002, I even made a pilgrimage to Reykjavik to see the chess board where Fischer and Spassky squared off 30 years before.

That same year, I resolved to get more serious about my research on Gerhardt. Enough amateur sleuthing. Now I would use my reportorial skills to gather every available fact about the man.

FBI dossiers are often a rich source of information. I thought it unlikely the bureau had a file on Gerhardt, but Regina was well-known in her day. Whatever information the FBI had collected about her might shed light on him. I requested the file under the Freedom of Information Act.

A few months later, it arrived in the mail -- 900 heavily redacted pages reflecting the ideological phobias of a bygone era.

Regina was a European Jew who immigrated to the U.S. as a child, traveled widely and earned nursing and medical degrees. She married Gerhardt in Moscow in 1933, and the couple lived there for several years.

She returned to the U.S. at the outset of World War II. The FBI, suspecting she was a Soviet agent, read her mail and tracked her movements for years. (In the end, agents concluded she was not a spy.)

The file has little to say about Gerhardt. But its pages are crammed with details about a man Clea and I had never heard of: Paul Felix Nemenyi.

Born to a prominent Jewish family in Hungary in 1895, he was brilliant. At 17, he was co-winner of a national math and physics competition. He had a special gift for spatial relations -- a skill important to chess players. In the 1920s, he became a university lecturer in Berlin.

Nemenyi lost his position in 1933, when "non-Aryans" were purged from German universities. He settled in the U.S., and in 1942 he was teaching at what was then Colorado State College in Fort Collins. Regina was studying at the University of Denver.

They appear to have met and had an affair. Gerhardt, unable to obtain a visa to enter the U.S., was in Chile at the time, according to the FBI file.

In 1943, Regina moved to Chicago, alone. Bobby was born there in March of that year. His birth certificate lists Gerhardt as the father. FBI agents doubted that was possible, since their records indicated he had never set foot in the U.S.

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