Documenting Fischer’s troubled, paranoid life

By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / June 6, 2011

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No one had ever seen anything like Bobby Fischer. He was the American chess genius who went mad.

In 1972, at the height of the Cold War, Fischer, 29, took the world championship from the Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavík, Iceland. It was billed as the Ali-Frazier slugfest of chess. The world was transfixed by the match.

After winning, Fischer instantly became one of the most famous people on the planet and then disappeared. He refused to defend his title in 1975, and drifted into years of increased isolation and paranoia until he died, at 64, back in Reykjavík, in 2008.

Robert James Fischer’s story is astonishing on and off the chess board, and tonight’s HBO documentary “Bobby Fischer Against the World’’ captures it well. The title is apt; in his mind, it was Bobby Fischer against the world. He was a hothouse orchid who had never had social skills — his world was chess — and ability to deal with life.

Born in 1943, he grew up in a modest Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment with a sister and often absent mother. His parents divorced when he was young, and his biological father, a man named Paul Nemenyi, with whom his mother had had an affair, was a passing wraith in his life. Bobby became the ultimate loner who, as an adult, grew to see vast conspiracies lurking around him.

His mania is well-documented. What’s not is the sadness beneath it. For all of his appalling behavior, he is, somehow, a sympathetic figure.

Director Liz Garbus gives us a first-rate roster of on-air voices, from former world champion Garry Kasparov to author Malcolm Gladwell, Dick Cavett and a number of former grandmasters who provide sharp insights into the man. But it soars on the rich footage she presents of Fischer behaving on the world stage.

This is addictive television. Garbus also plumbs the connection between genius and mental illness. They were for Fischer, says one man, “joined at the hip.’’

Gladwell, who has written books about winners and innovators, adds, “Genius is also the determination to do X. It’s not just the talent. There are always 10,000 hours of deliberate practice first.’’

Fischer put in the hours. He started playing chess at 6, and later haunted chess clubs all over New York. We see the youngster, thin and pale, poring over a chess board. He was a sensation who, at 15, became the youngest grandmaster in chess history.

The title fight in Reykjavík almost didn’t happen because of Fischer’s petulant behavior. He made it there at the last minute only because Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security adviser, pleaded with him by phone to go for his country.

Once there, he nearly ceded the first match because he was late. He lost it anyway and failed to show up for the second. He complained about the noise of the television cameras in the room and persuaded Spassky to play in another room, absent the cameras, with the match shown on closed-circuit screens.

Down by two, a nearly insurmountable lead, Fischer came back to win, including one game that drew applause from Spassky himself. And then he was gone. His paranoia (an ability to see every possible attack against him that made him lethal on a chess board) ruined relationships. He saw dark plots against him by the US government and the Israeli Mossad. Despite the fact that he was Jewish, he spewed anti-Semitic cant.

Fischer ended up a fugitive, perhaps what he was always meant to be. He played Spassky in a match in Yugoslavia in 1992 (he won), violating US sanctions against the country, and was promptly indicted by the US government. He was on the lam until 2004, when he was arrested in Tokyo on immigration law violations.

His life had become both tragic and farcical. He pleaded with Iceland to take him in to avoid returning to the United States, and Iceland, site of his greatest success, made him a citizen. He returned there looking almost unrecognizable: bulky, wild gray hair and beard, wild eyes, and bad teeth. His mania wore on those close to him. One of his Icelandic friends concluded, “I’d had enough of him.’’

So what is Fischer’s legacy? A troubled genius? Is that it? No, says one commentator: “His games are his monument.’’

Sam Allis can be reached at



Time: Tonight at 9