Bobby Fischer, the reclusive chess genius who became a Cold War hero by dethroning the Soviet world champion in 1972 and later renounced his American citizenship, has died. He was 64.
Fisher died of kidney failure Thursday in a Reykjavik hospital after a long illness, his spokesman, Gardar Sverrisson, said Friday.
Born in Chicago and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Fischer faced criminal charges in the United States for playing a 1992 rematch against Boris Spassky in Yugoslavia in defiance of international sanctions. In 2005, he moved to Iceland, a chess-mad nation and site of his greatest triumph.
As a champion, he used his eccentricities to unsettle opponents, but Fischer’s reputation as a genius of chess was soon eclipsed, in the eyes of many, by his idiosyncrasies.
“Chess is war on a board,” he once said. “The object is to crush the other man’s mind.”
Career marred by hate speech
Fischer vanished after the 1992 match and occasionally re-emerged to give interviews on a radio station in the Philippines. During one interview, Fischer praised the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying America should be “wiped out,” and described Jews as “thieving, lying bastards.”
Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion from Russia, said Fischer’s ascent in the chess world in the 1960s and his promotion of chess worldwide was “a revolutionary breakthrough” for the game.
“The tragedy is that he left this world too early, and his extravagant life and scandalous statements did not contribute to the popularity of chess,” Kasparov told The Associated Press.
Fischer lost his world title in 1975 after refusing to defend it against Anatoly Karpov. He dropped out of competitive chess and largely out of view, emerging occasionally to make erratic and often anti-Semitic comments, although his mother was Jewish.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of the World Chess Federation, called Fischer “a phenomenon and an epoch in chess history, and an intellectual giant I would rank next to Newton and Einstein.”
Spassky, reached briefly at his home in France, said of his friend and rival: “I am very sorry, but Bobby Fischer is dead. Goodbye.”
An American chess champion at 14 and a grand master at 15, Fischer dethroned Spassky in 1972 in a series of games in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, to become the first officially recognized world champion born in the United States.
The match, at the height of the Cold War, took on mythic dimensions as a clash between the world’s two superpowers.
Fischer played — and won — an exhibition rematch against Spassky on the Yugoslav resort island of Sveti Stefan, but the game was in violation of U.S. sanctions imposed to punish then-President Slobodan Milosevic.
In July 2004, Fischer was arrested at Japan’s Narita airport for traveling on a revoked U.S. passport and was threatened with extradition to the United States to face charges of violating sanctions.
He spent nine months in custody before the dispute was resolved when Iceland granted him citizenship and he moved there with his longtime companion, the Japanese chess player Miyoko Watai. She survives him.
A star with volatile behavior
In his final years, Fischer railed against the chess establishment, alleging that the outcomes of many top-level chess matches were decided in advance.
Instead, he championed his concept of random chess, in which pieces are shuffled at the beginning of each match in a bid to reinvigorate the game.
“I don’t play the old chess,” he told reporters when he arrived in Iceland in 2005. “But obviously if I did, I would be the best.”
Born March 9, 1943, Robert James Fischer was a child prodigy, playing competitively from age 8.
At 13, he became the youngest player to win the United States Junior Championship. At 14, he won the United States Open Championship for the first of eight times.
At 15, he gained the title of international grand master, the youngest person to hold the title.
Tall, charismatic and with striking looks, he was a chess star — but already gaining a reputation for volatile behavior.
He turned up late for tournaments, walked out of matches, refused to play unless the lighting suited him and was intolerant of photographers and cartoonists. He was convinced of his own superiority and called the Soviets “Commie cheats.”
His behavior often unsettled opponents — to Fischer’s advantage.
This was seen most famously in the showdown with Spassky in Reykjavik between July and September 1972. Having agreed to play Spassky in Yugoslavia, Fischer raised one objection after another to the arrangements and they wound up playing in Iceland.
When play got under way, days late, Fischer lost the first game with an elementary blunder after discovering that television cameras he had reluctantly accepted were not unseen and unheard, but right behind the players’ chairs.
He boycotted the second game and the referee awarded the point to Spassky, putting the Russian ahead 2-0.
But then Spassky agreed to Fischer’s demand that the games be played in a back room away from cameras. Fischer went on to beat Spassky, 12.5 points to 8.5 points in 21 games.
A Cold War victory
Millions of Americans, gripped by the contest, rejoiced in the victory over their Cold War adversary.
In the recent book “White King and Red Queen,” the British author Daniel Johnson said the match was “an abstract antagonism on an abstract battleground using abstract weapons ... yet their struggle embraced all human life.”
“In Spassky’s submission to his fate and Fischer’s fierce exultant triumph, the Cold War’s denouement was already foreshadowed.”
The victory made Fischer the first U.S.-born world champion. Paul Morphy, an American, was regarded as the world’s best player from 1858 to 1862, and William Steinetz, an Austrian immigrant to the United States, was an official champion from 1886 to 1894.