Finding Bobby Fischer

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Late Thursday night, beneath a soft rain that came in off the Atlantic, Bobby Fischer of Brooklyn walked off a small white jet, stepped onto the wet tarmac and officially arrived in his new homeland. He had a thick white beard and a tangle of hair and baggy blue jeans hanging on his 6-2 frame.

Thirty-three years earlier in this charming seaside city, the world’s northernmost capital, Bobby Fischer had become the first American world champion of chess in more than a century. He defeated Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in an event that was covered as if it were a Super Bowl, and he was almost universally hailed as the greatest chess player ever.

Now Fischer was back for the first time, and seeing him there on the tarmac, a few minutes after 11 p.m., the rush of history was as palpable as the wind. You knew you weren’t looking at the Babe Ruth and Beethoven of the 64-square set anymore, or a Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated cover boy, or even a U.S.citizen.

You were looking at an international fugitive; a venom-spewing flashpoint of the war on terrorism and the right of free speech; a person hours removed from an eight-month ordeal in a Japanese prison. You were looking at a weary, 62-year-old man who had just traveled 5,500 miles to an island with mountains rising from the sea, 100% literacy and more chess grandmasters per capita than any place on Earth.

“Thank you for saving my life,” Fischer said to his Icelandic friend, Saemi Palsson. Fischer hugged Palsson, an amiable, white-haired man, a former police chief and rock ‘n roll dancer who was Fischer’s security guard for the match against Spassky. “He seemed very thankful, and very much relieved,” said Gardar Sverrisson, one of an ardent group of Icelandic supporters who helped Fischer outmaneuver the U.S. government by assisting him in getting Icelandic citizenship.

Robert James Fischer has an IQ reported to be 180, and it would be hard even for him to imagine a person undergoing a more thorough transformation. Once a Cold War icon, he is now a man who publicly exults over the attacks on the World Trade Center. The son of a Jewish mother, he now uses the term “dirty Jews” as though it were a statement of fact.

Once the suit-clad knight of U.S. chess, he is no longer even a member of the U.S. Chess Federation. They kicked him out. Not that he much cares about anything with a “U.S.” in front of it.

He had scarcely heard the door slam behind him as he left his Japanese lockup Thursday when he said President Bush “should be hung.”

Dr. Frank Brady, chairman of the communications department at St. John’s University, is the author of a 1964 Fischer biography, “Profile of a Prodigy.” He is a rated master and an international arbiter for the World Chess Federation.

“He is the pride and the sorrow of American chess,” Brady says.

Bobby Fischer’s rise to fame began in Crown Heights, 560 Lincoln Place, Apt. Q, with a plastic chess set his sister gave him when he was 6. It reached its pinnacle in a hangar-shaped sports hall here called Laugardalsholl, on the southwest edge of a land with vast treeless stretches of lava fields, glaciers and enough geothermal pools to heat one end of the country to the other. Now, Iceland is about the last place where Fischer can find refuge. U.S. grandmaster Ilya Gurevich, a trader on Wall Street, recently wrote an open letter to Fischer’s Icelandic supporters, assailing their efforts to help him.

“The guy needs help,” Gurevich says. “That’s what it boils down to. The guy needs serious, serious help.”

John Bosnitch, head of the Tokyo-based Free Bobby Fischer group, believes the real villain is the U.S. government, which has had a warrant for Fischer’s arrest since 1992. Fischer has been a fugitive ever since.

“He got a ticker tape parade in 1972, but now they’d like to put him away for life,” Bosnitch says. “When you severely criticize the U.S. government, they will hunt you down like a wild dog.”

As a chess player, Bobby Fischer was known for his boldness, and his utter unpredictability. He is a hard man to read, and even harder to know. He was The Chess King from the Borough of Kings, a man with a mind unfathomably deep, and equally dark. Here’s the journey of his last eight months, and beyond.

Nabbed in Narita
It was 5:25 on a Tuesday afternoon at Tokyo/Narita Airport, and Bobby Fischer was at the immigration desk. He was bound for Manila on Japan Airlines Flight 745. His 90-day stay in Japan was up. He was used to moving. For a dozen years, Fischer had been on the move, ever since the U.S. government hit him with a felony charge ofviolating sanctions against the former Yugoslavia by participating in a $5 million rematch there against Boris Spassky. Fischer was warned beforehand, told he faced up to 10 years in jail. “This is my response,” he said, spitting on the warning letter. According to Fischer’s lawyer, Richard Vattuone, Fischer is the only American citizen charged with violating those sanctions, including government officials who shipped arms to the Bosnians.

When an immigration official put his U.S. passport — Z7792702 — under a special lamp, Fischer heard a beep. He was asked to take a seat. A half-hour passed. It was getting close to flight time. Fischer complained and was told to sit down. Soon security escorted him to a private office. He would have a long wait.

The Boy King
Bobby Fischer learned to play chess by reading the rulebook. He learned Russian so he could study the Soviets’ voluminous chess literature. He implored his mother, Regina, to let him go to Washington Square Park to play speed games. He became the U.S. champion as a 14-year-old sophomore at Erasmus Hall High School. By the time he became the youngest grandmaster in history a year later, he was playing or studying chess virtually every waking hour.

“You could mention a game to him and he would know it, whether it was from 1898 or a few weeks earlier,” says Brady, who vividly recalls a tournament he played in Poughkeepsie in 1960.

Fischer walked by on his way to the men’s room, barely even glancing at Brady’s table. Months later, Fischer visited Brady in his office, reconstructed the entire game and told Brady how he should’ve played it.

“It was an incredible feat of memory and mnemonic relevance that just burst forth from him,” Brady says.

Fischer did not have the same facility with social skills. He never knew the man listed as his father on his birth certificate, a German biophysicist named Gerhardt Fischer. He clashed often with his mother, a smart and forceful woman who embarrassed him with the way she pressured the chess establishment to recognize her son’s genius. Once she barged into a midtown meeting of the American Chess Foundation and dropped a packet of news clippings about the failings of top chess officials to promote young talent.

“Bobby was mortified,” Brady says.

He was living alone in the Lincoln Place apartment by his late teens, and visitors said he had three different beds, with a chess set next to each one. His mother gave him a leather-encased set with his name and likeness on the front; he’d sometimes pull it out and start playing, even if he was having dinner with a friend in a restaurant. Gudmundur Thorarinsson was the chief organizer of the 1972 match here with Spassky, and a person instrumental in getting Fischer Icelandic citizenship.

“He has devoted his whole life to the goddess of chess,” Thorarinsson says. “Because of that, he didn’t develop in other fields. Perhaps the most difficult thing in life is how to accommodate other people, learning to live with others and respect their views without constant collisions. He didn’t learn to compromise, because that wasn’t his field.”

One of Fischer’s favorite exercises was to walk, and he would do it very briskly, as if daring people to keep up. Few could. “He’s been a loner all these years since Reykjavik,” says Bill Lombardy, the New York priest and grandmaster who served as Fischer’s adviser in 1972.

Passport to nowhere
Immigration authorities at Narita told Fischer his passport had been revoked and that he was under arrest. Fischer said he’d gotten the passport in Bern, Switzerland, in 1997 and it was valid until 2007. That was before the U.S. State Department had been contacted on Nov. 18, 2003, by the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security, requesting assistance in “the revocation of the passport privileges” of Fischer “in order to secure his deportation.”

Fischer was shown a letter dated Dec. 11, 2003, informing him of the revocation. He says he was never notified, as U.S. law requires. He had been allowed to enter Japan with the supposedly invalid passport in April 2004, three months earlier. Vattuone calls it a blatant “ambush.” Fischer was not on the administration’s favorite-citizens list. He’d often go on the radio to rant about Jews and the criminal acts of the U.S. His most infamous commentary came on a Filipino station called Bombo Radyo. The date was Sept. 11, 2001, a few hours after the attacks.

“This is all wonderful news,” Fischer said. “It’s about time the bleeping U.S. got their heads kicked in. Look, nobody gets that the U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians for years. Bleep the U.S. I want to see the U.S. wiped out.”

The Big Red Chess Machine
Before Bobby Fischer, the Soviets weren’t merely the dominant chess-playing people on Earth. They were czars of the sport, producing every world champion between 1948 and 1971.

“Chess provides indisputable proof of the superiority of socialist culture over the declining culture of capitalist societies,” wrote the authors of a book called The Soviet School of Chess.

Winning the U.S. championship the same year that Sputnik went up, Fischer had no problem carrying the pawn for capitalism. The Soviets were so threatened by him that dozens of Soviet grandmasters were required to give reports on Fischer’s chess, and his personality, in hopes of finding a weakness Spassky could exploit.

“All the Soviet grandmasters were here, the best players in the world, and when they looked at Fischer they had stars in their eyes, because they sensed what he was,” Thorarinsson says. “It was quite amazing.”

Cell Change
In August, Fischer was moved to a detention center amid the rice paddies of the city of Ushiki. The U.S. sent two letters to Japanese authorities to turn Fischer over for deportation. Fischer renounced his citizenship and announced his intention to marry his girlfriend, Japanese chess champion Miyoko Watai. He filed motions through the courts to stop the deportation. The Japanese justice ministry turned down his request to be protected as “a political refugee,” and ordered him to be deported. It seemed only a matter of time. Fischer appealed. The order was stayed.

Missing in Action
Relentlessness was nothing new to Fischer; he had displayed it over a chessboard many times. “Some pro players take games off. He would never take a game off,” says Asa Hoffman, 62, of New York, an international chess master who used to compete against Fischer. “He had incredible fighting spirit.”

He was also incredibly obstinate. Fischer defaulted his world title when he refused to play Anatoly Karpov in 1975. He made 179 demands on chess’s international governing body before he would agree to play, covering everything from the size of the squares to the lighting to the proximity of the fans (he wanted them far away), according to David Edmonds and John Eidinow, authors of “Bobby Fischer Goes To War”. Only 177 were accepted. Fischer wasn’t swayed even by a potential $5 million payday.

After his epic victory over Spassky in 1972, Fischer didn’t play in public again for 20 years. Some believed he was terrified of losing, but others insisted that Fischer’s self-confidence was unshakable. Brady, for his part, thinks it was hubris, plain and simple. From an early age, Fischer had masters seeking him out, deferring to him, wanting to be part of his inner circle. As with countless superstars before him, says Brady, it created a bloated sense of self-importance. “There was an incredibly super-attenuated sense of himself, a feeling of almost being God-like, and heaven forbid if you didn’t do what he wanted.”

The combination of Fischer’s irresistible genius and chronic crankiness made him great theater — and the greatest draw the sport ever had. Before he played Spassky, there were some 10,000 members of the U.S. Chess Federation. Today there are almost 100,000. When Garry Kasparov retired earlier this month, he did so as a multi-millionaire. He has Fischer to thank.

Enter Iceland
Iceland has a population of 293,000, and lists people in the phone book by their first names. It’s a place with deep Viking roots and strong sense of history, and Bobby Fischer was a big part of it. “Bobby Fisher is a hero in Iceland,” Gudmundur Thorarinsson says. “He became the world champion of chess here, and people have not forgotten that.”

With Fischer still managing to stave off deportation, Thorarinsson and a small group of fellow Icelanders who had been following his plight resolved to help him. Iceland is a longtime ally of the U.S., but some 80% of the nation is against the Iraq war. His supporters were appalled at what they felt was a gross violation of Fischer’s rights. Fischer’s crime, after all, was playing chess, says Gardar Sverrisson. For this he could not attend the funerals of his mother and sister — both of whom died while he was out of the country?

“This is a man who never harmed anyone, and all of a sudden he’s being treated as if he were Osama bin Laden? It’s absurd.” The Icelanders worked on their government and succeeded in getting Fischer residency, and then an Icelandic passport.

Fear and Loathing
In 1962, in the prestigious Candidates tournament in Curacao, Fischer placed fourth between a trio of Soviets, and outlined the reason why in Sports Illustrated: the Soviets were cheaters. They colluded against him, playing non-taxing draws against each other, saving their mental energy for Fischer. “Russian control of chess has reached a point where there can be no honest competition for the world championship,” Fischer said.

While experts agreed there was some merit to Fischer’s charge, it was nonetheless evidence that the king of American chess was also the king of the conspiracy theory. Not that Fischer wasn’t entitled to his wariness; his mother was under FBI surveillance for a quarter of a century starting in 1942. Her offense was apparently moving to Moscow in 1933. An FBI dossier on Regina Fischer, some 900 pages in length, was declassified in 2001, according to Bureau officials.

Bobby Fischer settled in the Pasadena area in the late ’70s and ’80s, living a reclusive life in a series of rundown apartments. Real or imagined, Fischer had his bogeymen. He reportedly had the fillings removed from his mouth, to prevent the Soviets from beaming in malignant waves. In 1982 he published a pamphlet called, “I was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse,” after being picked up on an erroneous suspicion that he’d robbed a bank. When his personal memorabilia was removed from a Bekins storage bin some six years ago (Bekins said it was for nonpayment of the monthly fee), he ranted about “the dirty Jews” who were out to get him, and called it “one of the biggest if not the biggest robbery in the history of the United States.”

From prison last year, he sent a pleading letter to the Seiko Corp., with whom he has been working on a chess-clock project: “They (U.S. government) are threatening to deport me to my death any day,” he wrote.

A friend and supporter of Fischer believes his time in Japanese detention has exacerbated Fischer’s anger, and his paranoia.

“There is a lot of hate in him,” the friend says. “But there is also a lot of kindness. I don’t know what goes on in his head. The anger comes up like that.” The friend is worried about Fischer’s mental health. He asked not to be quoted by name. Fischer has a history of cutting off friends who talk about him to the press.

Yule logjam
The U.S. Embassy asked Iceland to not extend any special courtesies to Fischer, but Iceland declined. One year ended and a new one began. Bosnitch, head of the Tokyo-based Free Bobby Fischer, churned out press releases and lobbied the Japanese government to let Fischer go to Iceland. Japanese officials said privately that if Fischer were to get Icelandic citizenship, they would let him go. Saemi Palsson, Fischer’s old friend, traveled to Japan to see Fischer. They had not seen each other since 1972.

“You look good, Saemi,” Polsson told him.

“You have a big beard,” Saemi replied. They were separated by a plexiglas partition. Fischer had to go through 16 sets of locked doors to see his visitor. He was let outside only 45 minutes per day. He was growing increasingly agitated. He wound up in solitary confinement for ripping the shirt of a guard who wouldn’t give him a hard-boiled egg. Later, he was talking to Palsson on the phone when he was ordered to get off. “I am talking to my friend, you goddamn kidnappers!” Fischer shouted. A scuffle ensued and Fischer stepped on the guard’s glasses.

Even yesterday, at his first press conference in Iceland, Fischer was in full vitriol, telling ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap that his father, the late Dick Schaap, was “a typical Jewish snake.”

The cantankerous Fischer and the kindly Palsson seem an odd match, but the bond goes deep. Fischer prizes Palsson’s loyalty, and Palsson sees a goodness in Fischer that is cloaked by his hard-edged rhetoric.

Palsson believes Fischer’s greatest problem is his almost ferocious candor.

“He’s the most honest person I’ve ever met,” Palsson said. “He tells what he thinks without thinking. I always tell him, ‘Better to eat too much than talk too much.'” Palsson winces when he hears or reads some of Fischer’s ramblings about the “Jew-controlled U.S. government.”

“I try to get him not to talk like that,” Palsson says. “He should of course have not said anything about (9/11) or talk about the Jews. I know plenty of people who would not forgive that. It’s terrible. He has always been very sharp with his words. It’s one of the reasons why he is where he is. I am trying to get him to change.”

The RJF Committee, as Fischer’s Icelandic supporters call themselves, kept working behind the scenes to convince the parliament to grant Fischer citizenship. Last Monday afternoon, it did, by a 40-0 vote. The U.S. appealed to the Japanese government not to let Fischer go, and there were reports that a federal grand jury would bring fresh charges — for tax-evasion and money-laundering — against Fischer. “Mr. Fischer is a fugitive from justice. There is a federal warrant for his arrest,” said State Dept. spokesman Adam Ereli. But it was too late. Eights months of wrangling — moves and countermoves as complex as any game of chess Fischer ever played — were over.” Little Iceland stepped on the toes of the superpowers, the U.S.and Japan,” said Einar Einarsson, a top chess official in Iceland, After 253 days, Bobby Fischer walked out of the detention center. Saemi Palsson got on a flight and met Fischer and his fiancée in Copenhagen. They hugged and sang songs. Fischer had already told reporters on the plane that he had no plans to lighten up on his rhetoric. “I grew up with the concept of freedom of speech. It’s too late for me to adjust to the new world order.”

Return to Reykjavik
Fischer and his fiancée, Miyoko Watai arrived in Iceland late Thursday night, in a small jet provided by an Icelandic TV station. The plane landed at the Reykjavik Airport, because Fischer did not want to step foot on the grounds of Iceland’s biggest airport in Keflavik, where the U.S. has a military base. There was a crowd of maybe 250 people waiting with “Welcome home” signs, chanting his name.

In the rain, Fischer and Watai were escorted into a silver Range Rover, and taken to the Hotel Loftledir, to the same suite he stayed in when he played Boris Spassky. Later, his supporters gave him each a bouquet of flowers, and Fischer was handed his official citizenship document. While a U.S. federal grand jury continues to look into tax evasion and money laundering charges against Fischer, a federal law enforcement source said Friday “unless Fischer makes a nuisance of himself over there” in Iceland, the chances of the U.S. coming after him were slight.

Amid the lava fields and geothermal springs and radiant ribbons of light in the northern sky, the greatest chess player who ever lived is back among the free. On his first day out of detention, he went for an hour walk by the sea. He got a haircut and a beard trim from Saemi Palsson’s daughter.

“He looks pretty good now,” Palsson says, laughing.

Fischer is in a place where the water is pure, the air pristine, and where he is still revered as the king of chess, even though he never plays the traditional game any longer, only Fischer Random Chess, in which the back row pieces are shuffled before every game, into 960 possible combinations.

Bobby Fischer has never had a job other than playing chess, and spent most of his life wanting to conform to his own rules. For the first time in nearly nine months, he can do as he pleases.

“We are hoping this will be another chapter in his life, that he will start a new and different life and lifestyle in Iceland,” Einar Einarsson says. “We are hoping it is a quieter chapter, living with Miyoko, but with Bobby Fischer that remains to be seen — as always.”