Fischer, Robert James ("Bobby")

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FISCHER, Robert James ("Bobby")

(b. 9 March 1943 in Chicago, Illinois), eight-time U.S. chess champion who dominated matches throughout the 1960s, hailed as the greatest chess player ever produced within the United States, known for his eccentricities and reclusive nature.

Fischer's father, Gerald Fischer, was a biophysicist, and his mother, Regina (Wender) Fischer, was a teacher and then a registered nurse. She is Jewish and was born in Switzerland. Fischer's parents divorced when he was two, and he was raised by his mother and his elder sister (his only sibling). Fischer's mother worked to support the family by teaching elementary school, and the family spent periods of time living in Los Angeles and Phoenix. Fischer's first schooling took place at Mobile in western Arizona. In 1948 the family moved to Brooklyn, New York.

As a teenager Fischer attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. Not surprisingly, Fischer was at the head of his class in mathematics and science. However, he ended his formal education at age sixteen.

At the age of thirteen Fischer was the youngest player ever to win the national junior chess championship. His breakthrough performance was in August 1957 in Cleveland. In a field of 175 players, Fischer finished as first equal with Arthur B. Bisguier, the U.S. champion. Then on 7 January 1958 he defeated Bisguier at the U.S. Chess Federation's championship. As a result of being national champion, he represented the United States in international matches, and in the late summer of 1958 he visited Yugoslavia and Russia. At an international competition in Portoroz, Yugoslavia, Fischer finished in fifth place. Having become one of the top six chess players in the world, Fischer became a part of the complicated and convoluted match-making and selection process to find the one challenger to take on the world chess champion.

Throughout 1959 Fischer played chess internationally and visited places such as Mar del Plata, Argentina; Santiago, Chile; Zurich, Switzerland; and Bled, Zagreb. His game developed to such good effect that at the world championship challenges and tournament Fischer took fifth place. Clearly and consistently throughout 1959 Fischer demonstrated that he was one of the world's top chess players. However, it was not until April 1960 that Fischer showed himself as an heir apparent to the world crown. At Mar del Plata, Argentina, Fischer tied with Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union.

To look at Fischer's chess career over the decade of the 1960s is to cover a sporting and cultural landscape that could not divorce itself from a global stage dominated by the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Chess has been, and continues to be, the most highly regarded sport in terms of status and recognition within the former republics of the old Soviet Union. Champions, especially in the 1960s, were seen as national icons and folk heroes. Spassky and then Anatoly Karpov had the appeal, name recognition, and celebrity clamor that a Joe DiMaggio (baseball) or a Muhammad Ali (boxing) or a Bart Starr (football) enjoyed in the United States during the years from 1960 to 1970. Furthermore, this was a time of heightened tension and hostility between America and the Soviet Union, and Fischer waged his own campaigns to wrest a world championship from a country grown used to being the Holy Grail of chess. Ruben Fine, a former international chess player, notes that following the conclusion of World War II, "the Soviets had the best [chess] team in the world," and "the leading contenders for the world title … consistently turned out to be Soviet grand-masters." Fischer, at the onset of 1960, was firmly confronted by a Soviet hegemony in chess.

At the 1960 Chess Olympics at Leipzig, East Germany, Fischer was a member of the U.S. team, which was a runner-up to the Soviet Union. In March of 1962 Fischer took part in a world tournament held in Stockholm, Sweden. His first place finish meant that he was automatically included in the play-offs to select a single challenger for the world chess championship.

At Willemstad, Curaçao, in May and June 1962, Fischer finished in fifth place in this play-off competition in a contest dominated by the Soviet Union. Soviet players filled the first four positions. This effectively meant that the selection process to pick a new challenger for the world title would come from the four Willemstad Soviets. Fischer railed against a system that he felt ensured continuing Soviet domination in chess. As far as he was concerned, the governing body of world chess, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE), was "rigging" chess. Fischer announced that he would eschew any further FIDE competitions. Sports Illustrated (20 August 1962) published Fischer's allegations and, as with many of Fischer's outbursts, they contain much that is polemical. However, there is a strong thesis that merits support. Unequivocally, FIDE was a bulwark to the status quo and the retention of a Soviet monopoly on world chess. Fischer in his Sports Illustrated essay describes his Soviet competitors at Willem-stad as being, to all intents and purposes, members of the same team. They socialized with one another, swam in the afternoons, and repeatedly settled for quick and early draws, which greatly restricted the intensity of their competition and created, for them, an almost recreational ethos. As Fischer recounts it, the Soviets successfully conspired to marginalize the Americans. Conspiracy theories aside, the evidence would support Fischer's claim that the challenge selection process, as supervised by FIDE, was "bad for chess" and "bad for any real standard of the world championship." There is little doubt that Fischer's vehement denunciation of the FIDE protocol played a role in that body changing its challenge selection formula.

In 1972 Fischer competed against Spassky, the Soviet world champion. Thanks to Fischer's feisty persona and his ability to bully and bluster, the title/challenger prize purse contained a quarter of a million dollars. Because of Fischer's presence, the matches were shown on television, and his success saw him receiving "Soviet-like" recognition in his homeland. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek, and Life.

Sadly, the glitz and glamour quickly faded. In 1975 Fischer refused to defend his world title against Anatoly Karpov. He retired to Pasadena, California, was stripped of his title, and gave generously to a new hobby, the Worldwide Church of God. In subsequent years he turned down chess exhibition tournament offers from Las Vegas and the Philippines.

In 1992 Fischer came out of retirement to play Spassky. The event was an ill-starred disaster. Chess experts called it "scandalous." In recent years Fischer has lived in Baguio City in the Philippines. He has been labeled a "mythical self-creation," and his political positions, coupled with his hysterical outbursts against Jews, has made the most celebrated world chess champion seem an unstable and unsavory maverick. He has written several chess books, and his My 60 Memorable Games, Selected and Fully Annotated (1969) is held up as a classic of chess literature.

Current Biography (1963) contains a rich narrative on Fischer's career in the early 1960s. Fischer's own thorough analysis of the 1962 Willemstad challenge tournament, "The Russians Have Fixed World Chess," Sports Illustrated (20 Aug. 1962), is a compelling read. Earl Blackwell, Celebrity Register (1990), provides a useful gestalt on the ups and downs of Fischer's life. The Philippine Daily Inquirer (20 and 26 Sept. 2000) gives some sense of the extent of Fischer's fractious disconnect with contemporary society, especially Western culture.

Scott A. G. M. Crawford