REYKJAVIK (Reuters) – Bobby Fischer, the eccentric genius who became America’s only world chess champion by humbling the Soviet Union’s best but who spent his last years as a fugitive from U.S. authorities, has died at 64.
A spokesman for Fischer said he died after an unspecified illness at midday on Thursday in Reykjavik, the site of his 1972 victory over Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War.
Once feted as a national hero and seen by some as the greatest chess talent ever, the Chicago-born former child prodigy seemed unable to resist perplexing his public with angry gestures, decade-long sulks and outrageous opinions.
Having won the world title, he gave it away again to the Soviet champion Anatoly Karpov three years later by refusing to defend it.
After years of obscurity, he defied U.S. sanctions to play and beat Spassky again in former Yugoslavia during the Balkan wars. This was the match that got him into trouble and forced him to become a fugitive wanted by U.S. authorities.
Of Jewish ancestry himself, Fischer claimed to be the victim of a Jewish conspiracy.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks he said he wanted to see the United States wiped out. He spent months in a Japanese jail cell, and his last years as a wild-haired, shambling recluse after Iceland gave him refuge.
Fischer’s triumph over Spassky ended the dominance of the seemingly invincible Soviet chess system. From the late 1920s to 1972, Soviets had held the world title for all but two years.
Fischer’s style of play was often hyper-aggressive. Unlike many grandmasters, he always strived to win each game rather than settle for a draw — even when he was playing with the black pieces, which are at a disadvantage as white moves first.
He acquired a reputation for relying on pure mathematical logic, calculating as many positions as humanly possible, rather than on intuition.
FIGHTING THE WHOLE SYSTEM
Spassky, who now lives in Paris, had little to say on Friday about his one-time nemesis. Asked by Reuters for his reaction to the news, he said: “It’s bad luck for you. Bobby Fischer is dead,” then hung up.
Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov hailed Fischer as a pioneer of chess. “We have lost a great individual,” Kasparov told reporters in Moscow.
“He was always alone .. . but while alone he demonstrated that a human being is capable of reaching new heights.”
Reigning champion Viswanathan Anand called Fischer the ultimate romantic: “He fought the whole system,” he said. “He was someone who could not deal with being a world champion.”
But he said Fischer had avoided challenging him. “I don’t want to say he was afraid, but he must have been vaguely sensing he could lose. And this thought gnawed him.”
Russian chess grandmaster Mark Taimanov, who lost to Fischer in 1971, said: “His whole life was dominated by the chess board, by chess and this is perhaps why he was so great.”
“It is symbolic that he died at 64 as 64 is the number that symbolizes the chess board,” he told Reuters Television.
The events that had led the American to spend his final years in the city of his 1972 triumph were typically bizarre.
By the 1990s, he was said to be living under assumed names in cheap hotels in Pasadena on the outskirts of Los Angeles, surviving on occasional royalties from his books.
After victory in the Yugoslav game, which earned him $3 million, he spent years globetrotting, a wanted man in the United States. He resurfaced in public to praise the September 11 attacks in an interview with a Philippine radio station.
In 2004, he was detained in Japan for trying to travel on a revoked U.S. passport. After eight months in detention, during which the United States sought to have him extradited, Iceland granted him citizenship in March 2005.
Debate has always raged in chess circles about who was the greatest, but Fischer himself was in no doubt. He once said: “It’s nice to be modest, but it would be stupid if I did not tell the truth. It is Fischer.”
“SEE ‘EM SQUIRM”
Fischer told interviewers his favorite moment was when opponents began to feel they would lose. “I like to see ’em squirm,” he once said.
He was U.S. junior champion at 13 and U.S. Open champion at 14, retaining the title whenever he chose to defend it.
He became an international grandmaster at 15, gaining the rating at his first international tournament in Yugoslavia. He once defeated 21 grandmasters in succession — no other U.S. player had beaten more than seven in a row.
As Fischer’s fame grew, he became more unpredictable. He walked out of tournaments because of what he considered to be bad lighting or bad air conditioning.
In the mid-1960s, he opted out of two world championship qualifying series because he thought the tournament system favored the Russians. In 1967, when officials would not meet his demands for better conditions, Fischer angrily withdrew from international competition “for a period of introspection”.
He took his collection of chess books to California, where he later said he had “plotted my revenge if I ever came back”.
When the rules were changed in 1972 to include an eight-player eliminator to find the challenger to world champion Spassky, Fischer had the chance to prove he was as good as he always said he was.
A friend of the chess master told Reuters Fischer had been taken to hospital in October last year. Not trusting doctors, he returned home and was looked after by friends until his deat.
Einar Einarsson, president of a group that fought to bring Fischer to Iceland from Japan, said Fischer had liked living in Iceland but at times felt trapped because he could not travel.
One commentator said there was one constant through his life — his “running battle with the rest of the human race”.
(Additional reporting from Paris, Moscow and Amsterdam bureaus, and Oskar von Bahr in Stockholm; editing by Andrew Roche and Giles Elgood)