Friday, January 18, 2008

Bobby Fischer (1943-2008)

Bobby Fischer is dead. I've never been more than a casual chess player and observer (my parents let me take some group classes as a kid), but I've always been fascinated by Fischer.

Looking back at his life, I think:
What an incredible mind he had; such will and determination--an unrelenting need to win and dominate his opponents. His work ethic was amazing, and his sense of humor was biting (though not always in a good way). An obsessive student of the game and its history, the man wasn't just a player; he was a true chess otaku. Most of us can only dream of being as good at something as Bobby Fischer was at chess.

As many people know, however, Fischer was also quite troubled for many years before he died. He spent years as a fugitive from the law, and his anti-Semitic diatribes led many to the conclusion that he must be mad, or at least a horrible misanthrope.

In response to the dark side of Bobby Fischer's life, some have said we should only remember his brilliance at chess, his good years, and ignore the ravings of a demented old man.

I don't think it's wrong to be outraged by the hateful content of his ravings (which I first heard in the late '90s), and what he said should certainly be dismissed as racist garbage. But the tragic part of Bobby Fischer's story should not be forgotten or glossed over, even by those who choose to remember the good things about Bobby Fischer. Although he abandoned and denigrated much that was good, he himself was abandoned by a society that could not (or would not) get him the help and support he needed.

Intentionally or not, Bobby Fischer was one of America's weapons during the Cold War; his sole purpose was to disrupt the previously undefeatable Soviet chess machine. Is it any surprise that he was twisted by the paranoia of the time? It doesn't take much to fuel paranoid delusions, and it's been revealed that Fischer and his mother were both under FBI surveillance for decades. The details are vague, but the KGB took an interest in him as well.

I suspect that most of us would crack under the pressures faced by Bobby Fischer. And when a genius with an obsessive mind like Fischer's cracks, the consequences are dire, and what can we do about it? Not much, perhaps, especially when those who need help refuse to admit that they need it. Despite his glaring flaws, I'd like to remember Bobby Fischer as an American hero and a chess genius of the highest order. He was a victim of his time, his celebrity, and the very genius that served him so well on the chessboard, but which became madness in the end.

Farewell, Bobby Fischer. Some will miss you, and some will say 'good riddance', but at the very least, you won't be forgotten.