Bobby Fischer Against the World charts the late American chess grandmaster’s rise to international celebrity, his 1972 defeat of Boris Spassky which broke the Soviet stranglehold on the world chess championship, and his sadly precipitous downfall.
Based on a compilation of news clips covering all the major public moments in Fischer’s life going back to the 1950s, this compelling film documentary – directed by Liz Garbus – provides a unique record that handles the often harrowing subject matter just about as objectively as possible. Given, that is, Fischer’s complex personality, his tendency towards reclusiveness and the all too obvious struggle with debilitating personal demons.
For much of his later life, Fischer’s public persona betrayed a near-broken mind that seemed increasingly to be teetering on the brink of total breakdown.
The film draws heavily on the calm and measured testimony of several key figures in Fischer’s life, to tease out these more hidden vulnerabilities. Of course, the later Fischer’s horrific anti-semitic and anti-US rants were unquestionably abhorrent – but they didn’t fundamentally define the man. To those who knew him or who had followed his chess career closely over the years, Fischer (1943–2008) was, for much of his life and particularly in his later decades, profoundly ill at ease with himself and distinctly troubled.
Whether, how far and from what precise time in his life Fischer may have suffered from actual (even serious) mental illness, I will leave others to discuss. But certainly by the early 1990s, most Fischer-observers feared for his ability to cope as well as most of us “normally” can with the mundane challenges of day-to-day existence. By that stage, largely estranged from his earlier and much fuller life in chess, Fischer’s behaviour seemed to have become alarmingly erratic, frighteningly self-obsessed and increasingly self-deluding.
Although the film doesn’t overly dwell on this, 1992 may have marked a particularly significant psychological turning-point for the erstwhile American world champion. In that year, following Fischer’s self-styled world championship “revenge match” with Spassky – held in civil-war-torn Yugoslavia – the US state department controversially indicted him for indulging in “banned” economic activity in what it termed an “enemy” country. For Fischer, whose ever-fragile psyche seemed to be at one of its shakiest points, this unexpected blow must have been absolutely crushing.
As a result of the indictment, Fischer suffered effective exile from the US and a heavy-handed witch-hunt for the remainder of his life. Yet the charge itself was based on highly challengeable legality. No other US citizen was ever indicted for the same “offence”. No other country either recognised the “crime” or even dreamt of punishing their own nationals who were connected “economically” with the 1992 rematch (which Fischer won by ten wins to five, with 15 draws). Many others from all over Europe benefited financially from the match – including, notably, Spassky.
It was a truly bitter irony. Fischer had many flaws, but he was no law-breaking gangster. Although one can’t blame Uncle Sam for all of Fischer’s subsequent difficulties, it is tempting to wonder whether only the US could have acted against one of its most famous citizens with a sense of such high moral outrage. In 1972, having defeated Spassky first time round in the famous “Match of the Century” in Reykjavik, Fischer had been lionised by the same US state as its foremost representative of the “Free World” against the Soviet “Cold War” enemy.
In 2005, Fischer found sanctuary in Iceland, which recognised that the 1972 match in Reykjavik had put that small country on the map and now decided to help him. Iceland made no comment on his local spat with the US. Neither did Iceland (nor Japan, earlier) consider that Fischer’s alleged crime merited his being extradited to the US under either their own or international law. Iceland’s compassionate step at least allowed Fischer to live out his last few years in comparative peace and safety.
Flashback to 1975, another major turning point. In the film, US chess grandmaster Larry Evans reveals that he had already developed a sense of impending doom about Fischer’s future by the early 1970s. By 1975, many – myself included – shared that view, after Fischer sensationally “resigned” his world title. He flatly refused to play against the challenger, Anatoly Karpov, under the auspices of the World Chess Federation (FIDE). There were no truly rational grounds for Fischer to have taken this step. It was a painfully pointless gesture.
Ostensibly, Fischer took umbrage at a decision made at a special general meeting of FIDE, in March 1975, not to accept one of his two “non-negotiable” demands to play the match against Karpov. FIDE met his main demand – that the winner should be the first to score ten wins, without limit to the number of games. They baulked at accepting his second demand – that the champion should retain the title in the event of a 9–9 tie, which would have meant Karpov having to win by at least 10–8 to become champion (whereas Fischer only needed to reach nine wins).
I was present as the Scottish delegate at the 1975 FIDE meeting and can confirm that there was no real doubt in the minds of any of the delegates that a likely outcome of voting against this second demand would be that Fischer might never play again. It was, however, hard to vote for Fischer on his second demand when the Soviets quoted Fischer’s own words against him.
Following a forfeit in the second game of the 1972 Reykjavik match (for which he had not turned up), Fischer had written to Spassky requesting him not to accept the “free” point, as it would mean that he needed 12 points to win to Spassky’s 11, thereby creating the same uneven playing-field as he was to demand against Karpov three years later.
But logic didn’t really come into this at all. Even the American delegation didn’t really believe in the “rightness” of Fischer’s second demand. Privately, they confided what everyone knew anyway: that you simply had to give in to Fischer or he would walk.
In walking away from Karpov (against whom he might well have won in 1975), Fischer not only turned down a guaranteed $5m prize fund – an extraordinary sum at the time – for a match to be held in the Philippines, but he also effectively abandoned a game at which he excelled and which had also nurtured him.
Were there even earlier significant turning points in his life that might have predisposed Fischer to tragic breakdown? It is sad that we even think about his life in this way, but its eventual course impels it. The jury, however, is out on this one and too much depends on speculation. Fischer may have been shy as a youngster and he certainly acted a little strangely at times through the 1960s – but he kept coming back to chess, seemed on the whole to enjoy playing the game and incontrovertibly remained a world-beater.
The film relays the familiar early Fischer “story”: he was brought up in an intense one-parent family that struggled a bit financially but did not seem uncaring; his biological father was (apparently) unknown to him until age nine; he achieved spectacular national and international chess success in his very early teens, dropping out of school to play the game solely; his passionate, driven, intellectually gifted mother walked out of the family apartment leaving him (aged 16) and his older sister to look after themselves after a huge flare-up… And so on. But does any of this really prove anything?
The film omits testimony from some who might have thrown more light on the man. Fischer’s closest chess colleagues, Evans and Tony Saidy, along with the Glasgow-born photographer Harry Benson, knew him well and often went out of their way to be truly supportive. In the film they all sing persuasively from much the same sad hymnsheet. Fischer was often clearly difficult but more often his own worst enemy. Defensive, fiercely independent, petulant, impulsive, naïve and unworldly – but not deliberately unkind to anyone – he resisted even minor intrusions on his privacy, deep friendships and offers of help.
Surprisingly, we don’t hear from Miyoko Watai, who Fischer married late in life while in his Japanese exile. Watai may, of course, have declined to take part, but she appears in the background of some clips and the opportunity must have existed. Something, too, might have been said about the role of the late Ed Edmondson (colonel USAF, retd.), without whom Fischer might never have got into and completed the 1969–71 world championship qualification series and who seemed to me, at the time, to have been a friend as well as an essentially selfless and devoted “servant” to Fischer’s cause.
But more than anything else, I would have liked much more penetration into Fischer’s lengthy relationship with the Christian fundamentalist, Pasadena-based, Worldwide Church of God (now known as Grace Communion International in the US). Fischer had been influenced by the views of this somewhat secretive sect from the mid-1960s. Although some facts are sketchy, after his 1972 triumph Fischer seems to have fairly quickly become a “co-worker”, paid a third of his Reykjavik prize money over to the church, obtained a tied apartment and a minder and become much more worryingly in thrall to an organisation that proscribed all board games.
Fischer broke from the church in 1977 with considerable acrimony. How did all this prey on his mind?
It is a peculiar coincidence that the only two de facto world chess champions who retired from chess at the height of their fame and subsequently suffered from long-term withdrawal into themselves and patent mental decline were both American. Paul Morphy (1837–84) conquered the Old World in 1858–59 but thereafter refused to come back seriously to the chess board. He was first clearly diagnosed with delusional issues in 1875, precisely 100 years before Fischer walked away from Karpov.
Why America? Might this be the theme for the film’s sequel?
● Bobby Fischer Against the World will be available on DVD from 12 September.
– Craig Pritchett is an international master and a former Scottish chess champion.