Analyze This: The tragic endgame of a self-hating Fischer king

In memory of the most famous Jewish Chess player Bobby Fischer.

Bobby Fischer  224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Bobby Fischer 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
In 1901, The New York Times published an articled titled "Jews and Chess" that began: "No player has yet made a fortune out of chess, and many of the great masters find it difficult to make even a mere living from the game. That makes it all the more remarkable that such a large percentage of the most famous players are Jews." The most famous Jewish player, of course - the most famous, period - was Bobby Fischer, who died Thursday at 64. This eccentric genius who became a Cold War hero when he checkmated the Soviet champion Boris Spassky in an historic showdown in 1972 made much more than a living, and had lost it several times over by the time of his reclusive, impoverished death in Iceland, scene of his greatest triumph. That this child of a Jewish mother (and possibly a Jewish father) went to his grave spouting anti-Semitic notions far more extreme than the one cited above makes his story even remarkable. Although already well known within the chess world as a brilliant prodigy, it was only when he took on Spassky and became the only American (still) to be recognized as world champion that Fischer - and perhaps the game itself - entered the public consciousness. Since no player or match has subsequently come close to matching the publicity and genuine interest that the Reykjavik showdown generated, it is likely difficult for anyone who wasn't around at the time to understand just how important it seemed. This wasn't just a chess match, or even a sporting event - it was a clash in which a thoroughly individual (if odd) spirit of the free West triumphed over a manufactured talent of the Soviet totalitarian system. Although Jews certainly took pride in having one of their own as the torchbearer of freedom in this epic contest, even then Fischer was never a "Jewish hero" in the sense of someone like Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, another champion competitor of 1972. Fischer made no claim to his maternal heritage, and was already known back then for having been associated with some of the more esoteric branches of fundamentalist Christianity. But the fact that both he and Spassky were born to Jewish mothers increased the sense at the time of some long-standing Jewish claim on this most cerebral of games. That too was exaggerated - a game of Indo-Persian origin, chess was derided for centuries as a waste of time and worse by leading rabbis, including the Rambam (Maimonides). It was only in the 19th century, when the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) enabled Jewish minds to ponder subjects outside the range of the Talmud, that chess became one of several abstract intellectual pursuits (music, math, philosophy) in which Jews demonstrated an exceptional aptitude. Bobby Fischer was never "one of ours" - indeed, he was too much the loner to ever be one of anybody's - and in 1984 he sent a letter to the Encyclopedia Judaica asking he not be included in its pages (pointing out, among other things, that he was uncircumcised). Still, it was a shock when in the 1990s he began to publicly spout truly vicious and hoary anti-Semitic nonsense - including that the Jews had committed mass murder of Christian children, fabricated the Holocaust as a "money-making invention," and, of course, were behind a plot to persecute him personally. Fischer's anti-Semitism was all of a piece with what appears to have been a clinical case of paranoid schizophrenia that eventually overcame his towering mental gifts. The specific roots of his ethnic self-hatred, though, appear to lie in a tangled familial history. His mother, Regina Wender, was an assimilated American Jew of German descent with far-left political views who supposedly gave birth to her son after a brief marriage to a German-Gentile scientist, Hans-Gerhadt Fischer, whom Bobby never knew and who may have assisted in the Nazi war effort. A few years ago, researchers uncovered evidence that suggests his biological father was actually Paul Nemenyi, a Hungarian-Jewish physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. Out of this convoluted parentage he clearly inherited both an advanced IQ (rated as 181) and perhaps also the seeds of incipient madness. One might draw on Fischer's twisted Jewish obsessions as an indicator that even in this day and age, anti-Semitism remains a particular form of madness that can overwhelm even the keenest mind. Yet despite the Jewish angle, there is surely more tragic irony in the fact that the man whom Americans rallied around as their champion at the height of the Cold War eventually turned against his country to the extent that he celebrated the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by declaring: "This is wonderful news. It is time to finish off the US once and for all." Despite Fischer's final pathetic decades, several chess experts still rate him as the game's greatest player. It is fitting, though, that the one player many others rank higher is Garry Kasparov, another player of partial Jewish descent, who in recent years has also became a symbol of the fight for freedom against a resurgent Russian authoritarianism. The difference is that there is nothing inadvertent about Kasparov's heroism, and he is no less admirable when he steps away from the chessboard. Though Bobby Fischer's strange case was the most extreme example yet of the phenomenon dubbed "chess madness," Garry Kasparov reminds us that in life, as in chess, no endgame is predetermined.