Exploring Bobby Fischer's Maniacal, Racist Genius
The new Hollywood biopic, 'Pawn Sacrifice,' fails to portray the chaotic fuckery of a life lived by Bobby Fischer, the century's greatest chess player and one of American history's most unwieldy oddballs.
Bobby Fischer, the most compelling chess player of the last century by a great margin, stumbled through a chaotic fuckery of an existence. The apex was his decisive victory in the 1972 World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik against the reserved Soviet Boris Spassky, an event that continues to gain in significance the longer it remains the only time an American has gotten anywhere near the game's top prize. The various nadirs include nine months in a Japanese prison, two destitute decades shuffling around Southern California, and a lifetime of hatred and vicious antisemitism.
Posterity has cracked his biography into two halves, the break coming when he finally became world champion six months after his 29th birthday. It's a natural distinction. The first part is marked by the smooth, sweeping movements of a Brooklyn child who is devoted to chess, transitioning into a chess prodigy, then becoming a chess champion. This half fits snugly into a traditional Joseph Campbell molding of heroics and mythology and comes to a comfortable and logical conclusion. That he won amidst the obvious political tensions of the era, against a nation whose chess infrastructure supremely exceeded his own, and with a temperament that could be most favorably described as "smugly eccentric" continue to add to his legend. As is, his achievements on the chessboard cannot be understated, and his championship performance remains one of the most singular triumphs in recent American memory. He is our Mozart—at least until someone better comes along.
Fischer had an IQ of 181 and a devastatingly beautiful sensibility over a chessboard, but he was also a creep and a Holocaust denier who kept boxes of Nazi propaganda.
Pawn Sacrifice, a new film directed by Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai , Blood Diamond) and featuring Tobey Maguire as Fischer, carefully draws out that initial trajectory, hitting the familiar beats of his prodigy and uneven psychosis, culminating with the win in Iceland. It's a tidy distillation, and not entirely bad in a good sports-movie kind of way, but ultimately Pawn Sacrifice refuses to engage with the deeper weirdness that colors the discourse on American Hero Bobby Fischer, the stickier parts that don't really go anywhere but in a sad circle.
In the 30 some years following Reykjavik, Fischer played only one competitive match, winning again versus Spassky, this time in Yugoslavia for five million dollars, in 1992. He lived for large chunks first in Los Angeles and Pasadena, by all accounts out of a series of one-room apartments and shopping carts, before making his way to Serbia for his professional comeback. His participation in the match, which took place during the heart of the Bosnian war and violated US sanctions, led to a lifelong exile from America for fear of prosecution. As a result, he wandered the world in various increments, largely residing in Budapest and Tokyo. After a nine-month incarceration in Japan for attempting to use an invalid passport, he went back to Iceland, the place of his much earlier coronation and the only country that would offer him political asylum. He died there of kidney failure in January 2008.
It's hard to argue that Bobby Fischer was not a creep, because Bobby Fischer was a creep, and alienated virtually any friend, associate, or family member with a ceaseless combination of egregiously selfish behavior and an irrational antisemitism that bordered on maniacal. He was a Holocaust denier, kept boxes of Nazi propaganda, and on 9/11 he took this to the airwaves, via a public broadcast in the Philippines: "I say death to President Bush! I say death to the United States! Fuck the Jews! The Jews are a criminal people. They mutilate their children. They're murderous, criminal, thieving, lying bastards. They made up the Holocaust. There's not a word of truth to it... This is a wonderful day. Fuck the United States. Cry, you crybabies! Whine, you bastards! Now, your time is coming."
Fischer had an IQ of 181 and a devastatingly beautiful sensibility over a chessboard, but it's pretty impossible to get past vile shit like that. And yet—he's still hard to dismiss, partially because even those who knew and loathed him characterize his hate as confused and misguided as opposed to malicious. It's as if his anger was directed more toward the sun and the stars than to any actual people and partially because, oh yeah, he's a human being, not a revolting chess-playing robot.
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According to Frank Brady's recent Fischer biography Endgame, Fischer had four serious relationships with women, all relatively late in life, and all unsurprisingly bizarre in their own way. The first was a young woman named Petra Stadler, introduced to him by Boris Spassky in 1988. They were involved for much of 1990; two years later she married Russian grandmaster Rustem Dautov, and in 1995 she wrote a book, published in Germany as Bobby Fischer—Wie er wirklich ist—Ein Jahr mit dem Schachgenie (Fischer as He Really Is: A Year with a Chess Genius).
The second was with a young Hungarian chess player named Zita Rajcsanyi, who sent a letter to Bobby in 1991, when she was 17. They began to correspond, and at some point in the next three years, he fell into a love that was ultimately unrequited. He proposed to her at least twice, even after she had a child with another man. There is nothing more humanizing than heartbreak, and it is hard to not feel a twang of empathy upon this 1994 note of apology, written to Zita after what one imagines a typically awful night: "Please forgive all of the prideful mistakes I have made regarding you, I am now paying for everyone a thousandfold. I still hope to win you back someday soon and if I do I'll never let you go, to be sure. I'm sorry I behaved like such an ass with your sister. I never seem to learn. That's why I'm such a loser in the game of life."
In 2000, he appeared to have had a child with a young Filipina named Justine Ong (although his name was recorded on the birth certificate as the father, a posthumous DNA test overturned his paternity), and for the last decade of his life he maintained a relationship with a Japanese woman named Miyoko Watai, president of the Japanese Chess Association. In 2004, Time Magazine ran a piece about Fischer's Tokyo detainment—the lede read, "To the average lonely heart, Bobby Fischer, erstwhile chess champion, virulent anti-Semite, and fugitive from the US justice system might not sound like Mr. Right. But to hear Miyoko Watai tell it, he's a dreamboat." Fischer, displeased with his characterization as anything but an ideal lover, lashed back in an interview with a Philippine radio station. "I wear size-14-wide shoes, just keep that in mind when they say I'm not a dreamboat, or not Mr. Right," he said, before relating an anecdote which ended with two old men gesturing emphatically about the size of his cock in a Japanese bathhouse.
None of this makes its way into the film, and that feels like a missed opportunity to explore an extremely complex interior life, even at the risk of running into some structural dead ends. Recent films like Love & Mercy (Beach Boy Brian Wilson) and The End of the Tour (David Foster Wallace) have grappled with the natural difficulties of portraying the tortured genius through experimenting with time, either by drastically shortening it, as with EOTT, or by disintegrating it, as in L&M. Both efforts feel aesthetically fresh, looking their subjects square in the eye, and the net effect is surprising and humanizing. Here, Fischer is elevated to the point that he's lost in the clouds, and Pawn Sacrifice is exactly what one would have expected this movie to be and could easily have been predicted 40 years ago as America's freshly minted chess prince cut through a European sky en route back to his home in New York City.
There was no precision to the procession of Bobby Fischer's life, and it's only now that it's all over that any part of it even begins to make sense. It never will, not really, but everything is more digestible under history's widening lens. Of course there is no single line, no tangle of yarn gracefully unspooling from Iceland back to a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, but it's easier to make a movie that way, to simplify the chaos of his life into a beginning, a middle, an ending; an opening, a middlegame, an endgame. In truth, Fischer's existence was more like an explosion than anything resembling order, a game of chess, or a Hollywood biopic.
Cody Wiewandt lives in Brooklyn.
Pawn Sacrifice opens in theaters nationwide tomorrow.