Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The Fischer Saga

Bobby Fischer won the world chess championship in 1972. He defeated (destroyed, actually) the then reigning world champion Boris Spassky. In so doing he became the only official world chess champion from the United States (there was no world championship in the mid-nineteenth century, when the Louisiana native Paul Morphy was commonly regarded as the best player in the world). Fischer's convincing win was all the more significant since he defeated not only Spassky, but also the mighty Soviet chess machine. And he scored this victory essentially single-handed. Unlike Spassky, who had the aid of several top Soviet grandmasters, themselves among the strongest players in the world, Fischer earned his victory alone. Fischer, largely due to paranoia, did not trust anyone else to advise him.

Fischer's dominance of the chess world was total. At one point he won nineteen straight games against grandmasters, miles ahead of the second-longest such streak. He once won the U.S. Championship with a score of eleven wins, no losses, no draws. To earn the right to challenge Spassky, Fischer had to go through a grueling series of three elimination matches. The first, against Soviet grandmaster (and concert pianist) Mark Taimanov, he won 6-0. That effectively finished Taimonov as a chess player. The second was against Danish grandmaster Bent Larsen. Fischer defeated him by a 6-0 margin. Larsen, still active today, never again challenged for the world championship. Then Fischer defeated former world champion Tigran Petrosian by a score of 6.5-2.5 (remember that draws count half a point). After a rocky start to that match, Fischer rattled off four straight wins.

Sadly, away from the chess board Fischer was totally disfunctional. His paranoia was legendary. When a prominent Russian chess magazine sent former world champion Mikhail Tal (one of the few grandmasters with whom Fischer had cordial relations, (Spassky was another)) Tal had to report back that there was no way he could publish the interview. The things Fischer was saying were so insane that no reader would have believed them.

Fischer seemed to lose interest in chess after winning the crown. He was supposed to defend his title in 1975 against Anatoly Karpov, in a match everyone expected Fischer to win. Karpov himself has said that he was not optimistic about his chances. But Fischer made so many unreasonable demands that in the end the world chess federation stripped him of his title and awarded it to Karpov.

Fischer disappeared from public view. He got involved in various religious cults and squandered all his money. In the late seventies he emerged briefly to play a handful of games with a chess plaing computer program at MIT. He won easily. He did not reemerge until 1992, when he played a return match with Boris Spassky in Yugoslavia. Despite the fact that Fischer had not played top-level chess for twenty years, while Spassky was an active player right through the 1980's, Fischer won the match easily. The play was uneven. Fischer showed occasional flashes of his old self, but was also clearly rusty.

The Fischer saga took another distressing turn after 9/11. Fischer had always been virulently anti-semitic, despite the fact that his mother was Jewish. He made a series of radio broadcasts in the Phillipines in which he said, among other things, that America deserved the 9/11 attacks, and that he was overjoyed about them.

His 1992 match violated U.S. trade restrictions against Yugoslavia, and he has been a fugitive ever since that match. He was recently detained in a Japanese airport for holding an invalid passport.

Today's New York Times has this article reporting that Fischer will indeed be deported. Apparently, Fischer will appeal this decision.

The Japanese government is preparing to deport American chess legend Bobby Fischer for staying in this country on an invalid passport, immigration officials said Tuesday.

Fischer was detained at the international airport in this city just outside of Tokyo last Tuesday after trying to board a flight for Manila, Philippines.

Immigration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Fischer, 61, has been held in their custody since, and said he was being processed for deportation. They refused to give further details, but said he could appeal their decision.

You might also have a look at this article from July 16, which includes a picture of Fischer.

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, former world champion Garry Kasparov weighs in on the matter. Kasparov defeated Anatoly Karpov in 1985 and held the title until 2001, when he lost it to Vladimir Kramnik. Kasparov is generally considered the only person who can challenge Fischer for the title of greatest player ever. You can find his article here.

The stunning news of Bobby Fischer's detention in Japan came at a moment in which the American former world chess champion was already very much on my mind. I am currently finishing the fourth of my six-volume series on the game's great players and it is precisely this volume of which Robert James Fischer, forever known as Bobby, is the star.

This project has involved going over hundreds of Fischer's chess games in minute detail. It also means trying to understand the man behind the moves and the era in which he made them.

Despite his short stay at the top there is little to debate about the chess of Bobby Fischer. He changed the game in a way that hadn't been seen since the late 19th century. The gap between Mr. Fischer and his contemporaries was the largest ever. He singlehandedly revitalized a game that had been stagnating under the control of the Communists of the Soviet sports hierarchy.

As disgusting as Fischer's conduct away from the board has frequently been, the fact remains that he leaves a legacy of some of the most brilliant games of chess ever played. His book My Sixty Memorable Games is an absolute classic in the chess world; my own copy is falling apart for having been read so many times. Now sixty-one, there is no chance that Fischer will ever return to competitive chess. Hopefully he can find a little peace in his remaining years.


At 6:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, regarding Bobby Fischer's detention room at Narita Airport,
here's the inside skinny so to speak. Bobby-san is in the B-4
underground level of the Airport complex, and he is in a room with 8-9
other detainess, some of whom will leave for the home countries soon,
others who must wait for a papers to be completed before then can be
deported. Bobby is in a room that has a tatami floor, and there is a
clean toilet in the room for all cellmates to use. He is fed good
Japanese food three times a day, large helpings of rice, porridge,
fish, meats, vegetables and soups. Fruit too. At lights out at 9 pm,
he must sleep on a futon on the floor with the other cellmates, and an
electric light is on all night, according to inside sources who know
the set up there. The guards are friendly but firm. They feel sorry
for Bobby but they are following orders and if he gives them any
trouble, they will handle him that way. If he gets too rambuctious, he
will be put in a straitjacket room and kept solitary and incommunicato
until he decides to be more friendly. However, for now he is in the
main detainee room, green walls, tatami floor, toilet and a slot for
food to be passed in to the men there.

There is no exercise there, just the detention cell. If he stays for
more than 20 days, he will be taken to Kosuge Jail in downtown Tokyo,
an hour from the airport by prison bus, where he will be roped to
other prisoners, er, detainees. His hands will also be cuffed to the
bars behind each bus seat. At the Tokyo Detention House, or Kosuge, he
will be kept in a solitary cell, toilet inside the room, big enough
for a futon on the floor and that's it. A window, barred of course,
will give him a view of the inside courtyard with trees and grass. He
can hear the birds singing in the morning.

At deportation time, Bobby-san will be taken back to Narita Airport B4
level, and processed out. He will be escorted by two immigration
policemen, with his hands in handcuffs, yes, but there is a polite
blue cloth covering the handcuffs so that passersby and passengers in
the public terminal on the ground floor of the aiport will not SEE the
handcuffs. But they will see Bobby in his humiliatin, escorted by the
two beefy immig cops, all the way to the airplane that will fly him
back to the USA. He must return to USA, period. He cannot be deported
to a third country. He is heading to the USA, period.

At the boarding gate for the internatioinal flight home, Bobby's
handcuffs will be taken off and he will invited to enter the
airplane's cabin. If he doesn't enter, there could be trouble.


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