It appears that the greatest avatar of chess mastery that the world has ever known (and that, perhaps, it will ever know), the man with an intelligence quotient that dwarfed Albert Einstein's, the indigent Brooklyn-prodigy-turned-unlikely-Cold-War-hero, former world chess champion Robert James Fischer "crossed the Tiber" and converted to Catholicism in the final days of his life.
The story of Bobby Fischer's remarkable rise, enigmatic disappearance and tragic fall is one that has, for decades, captivated chess fans and chess muggles alike. It's an epic that continues to vex the world because of its sheer inimitability: There's simply nothing like the Fischer story anywhere to be found in the annals of sporting history. And now, it looks as if the legend of Fischer, once widely supposed to have resolved in bitter ignominy, ended on a note of utmost felicity — with his dying in the bosom of God's one true Church.
Perhaps the primary reason that so many sympathize with Fischer's story (aside from their admiration for his unparalleled genius on the chessboard and his lasting contributions to the theory of the game) is that, despite the disadvantageous circumstances that he was born into, he seemed to be — even during the periods of his life in which he proved to be loudly and painfully misguided (and there were many) — a sincere seeker of truth and a stickler for principle.
Fischer was born to a communist-sympathizing single mother of Jewish heritage who rated pursuing a career in medicine above caring for him and his sister, Joan. Resultantly, a palpable coldness, the wages of de facto abandonment and isolation, hung over Fischer's childhood and formative years like an albatross. Fischer, perhaps the archetypal latchkey kid, is said to have yearned for a maternal presence and, being deprived thereof, found himself robbed of the sense of security that is a child's by right. The fact that he was additionally bereft of a father figure left him — in keeping with Pope John Paul II's admonition that "the absence of a father causes psychological and moral imbalance" (Familiaris Consortio, § 25) — a wounded and vulnerable soul, a child suffering from the inarticulable pangs of unrequited filial love. Fischer, in his adult years, would confirm this himself, soulfully musing, "Children who miss a parent become wolves." And so chess would ultimately supplant family as the especial object of Fischer's love. (Perhaps this is why he would go on to pursue the game with such a fiendish and monomaniacal devotion.)
Serendipitous was Fischer's foray into the chess world. When his sister Joan bought a $1 plastic chess set at the neighborhood candy store to pass the time with 6-year-old Bobby, no one, least of all the Fischer kids, could have reckoned the magnitude of the consequences. While at first, chess was but another game to Bobby, he soon became infatuated with it, thinking of virtually nothing else. He immersed himself in chess, playing against any opponent he could find (including against himself) and devouring any chess books he could get his hands on. Such was his mania for the game that he would go on to teach himself several languages so he could read chess literature from around the world.
In the years following his exposure to chess, Fischer experienced what many have described as a "meteoric" rise in playing strength. In 1956, when he was just 13 years old, he captured the U.S. Junior Chess Championship. Later that same year, Fischer placed a respectable fourth in the U.S. Open Chess Championship, edging out some of the nation's most cunning adult players. Between '56 and '57, at age 14, Fischer, by virtue of his sky-high rating, earned the title of chess master — becoming, at the time, the youngest ever American player to achieve said status. In August 1957, Fischer improved on his previous year's efforts and won the U.S. Open Chess Championship in Cleveland, thereby becoming the first person to ever hold the U.S. Open and Junior crowns concurrently. Since sensation stirred in the press and the U.S. chess fraternity regarding the budding savant's play, Bobby received an invitation to participate in the 1957–1958 Lessing J. Rosenwald Tournament for the United States chess championship. He accepted the invitation and starched the competition with eight wins, five draws and no losses, becoming, in the process, the U.S. champion and, at the same time, an international master.
Fischer's stateside success elevated him to new heights in the chess world and allowed him access to international competition — this was particularly important for Fischer's development because the United States was (and still is) utterly bereft of a chess culture, and Europe, particularly the then-Soviet Union, dominated the professional chess scene.
In 1958, Fischer played among an elite crop at the Portorož Interzonal, an important step in qualifying for the world chess championship. (Indeed, the top six finishers at the interzonal would earn a place in the Candidates tournament — the contest that ultimately determines who will challenge the reigning world champion.) At the interzonal, Fischer won six games, lost two, and drew twelve, tying for fifth/sixth place and garnering a slot at the upcoming Candidates Tournament. He was the youngest person ever to qualify for the premier event. With his luminous performance, Fischer also was awarded the most distinguished honorific in the chess world: the title of grandmaster. At 15 years and 6 months old, Fischer could boast of being the youngest "GM" in history.
Despite his golden resume and seemingly limitless potential, Fischer still needed a good deal of professional refinement: He finished the Candidates Tournament in a disappointing fifth place (out of eight). However, buoyed by his not-unsuccessful foray into the rarified air of hyper-elite chess, Fischer continued to hone his mastery of the game. Dropping out of school at age 16, Bobby began devoting all his intellectual energies — not just the majority — to chess.
Fischer set his sights on becoming world champion and, throughout the 1960s, embarked on a miraculous ascent in strength that would culminate in his achieving a world-No. 1 Elo rating of 2720 by the end of 1970 — a rating 50 points above that of then-reigning world champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union. Such was Fischer's brilliance that from age 23 till the end of his life, he would win every match or tournament that he completed. From 1970–1971, leading up to the 1972 world chess championship, according to analyst Jeff Sonas, Fischer "dominated his contemporaries to an extent never seen before or since."
In the 1971 Candidates cycle, Fischer decimated strong Soviet grandmaster Mark Taimanov in a head-to-head match with a score of six wins, zero draws and zero losses. Such a lopsided result was (and is) almost unimaginable at the highest levels of the game (indeed, approximately 60% of modern grandmaster games result in draws). Thus, many in the chess world wrote off the Fischer-Taimanov results as a mere fluke, prognosticating that Fischer would descend back down to earth in his next match against Danish super-grandmaster and No. 4-ranked player in the world, Bent Larsen. These Fischer detractors would be unceremoniously served a cold slab of humble pie though, as Fischer steamrolled over Larsen the same way he had Taimanov, posting an unprecedented 6–0 obliteration of "the Great Dane." Grandmaster Robert Byrne marveled at the results:
To a certain extent I could grasp the Taimanov match as a kind of curiosity — almost a freak, a strange chess occurrence that would never occur again. But now I am at a loss for anything whatever to say. So it is out of the question for me to explain how Bobby, how anyone, could win six games in a row from such a genius of the game as Bent Larsen.
In his next Candidates match, Fischer was slated to take on former world chess champion Tigran Petrosian, ubiquitously known for being one of the most difficult players to beat due to his methodical style. Fischer crushed Petrosian by a score of 6 1/2 to 2 1/2 (five wins, one loss, three draws), earning Fischer (1) the right to challenge Soviet juggernaut Boris Spassky for the world championship (2) an Elo rating of 2785, which was the highest ever achieved at that time and which towered over Spassky's own rating of 2660. Incidentally, until his one loss to Petrosian, Fischer had amassed a streak of 20 straight wins against the finest players in the world. The difficulty and improbability of such a feat simply cannot be emphasized enough: It's been compared to pitching back-to-back no-hitters in baseball.
Here, we must take a step back to underscore the precarious historical milieu in which Fischer was playing. The 1960s and 1970s perhaps represented the zenith of Cold War tensions between the free world and the Soviet Union. The Soviets had held the world chess crown during the entirety of the post–World War II era, and this was no accident. The communist government used chess as a weapon of war, pointing to the nation's dominance in the game as proof of a "superior" Russian intellect.
The well-oiled chess machine of the Soviet Union was not to be underestimated. In those days, the communist government subsidized its players and provided them housing for study and retreats. Playing chess was required in Russian elementary schools and in after-school recreation. The most talented students were handpicked to receive tutelage from celebrated grandmasters, grooming them for future careers in the game. Professional chess players were treated as glitterati, carrying with them prestige analogous to that of contemporary American movie stars. The Soviet Chess Federation boasted, at the time, 4 million members (which, needless to say, compared favorably to the paltry 3,000 members of the anemic United States Chess Federation).
So to say that the impending Fischer-Spassky match came with serious Cold War implications would be a gross understatement. It was the solitary genius representing the indomitable fighting spirit of the individualist American people versus the Drago-esque product of collectivist intellectual collusion representing the Soviets.
So keen was the American government on winning the high noon showdown with the perfidious communists that Henry Kissinger, President Nixon's top foreign policy advisor (who would later become secretary of state) personally called Fischer to encourage him in the days leading up to the match. And Fischer, who had a deep-seated hatred of communism (in part because his mother's absenteeism was fueled by her fetishization of a medical career that went hand in hand with her communist worldview and its upside-down conception of women's place in the world), was himself not unaware of the sociopolitical ramifications of the match. He wanted to win the championship for himself, but he also viewed the task as a labor of love for country. Reflecting on the event, a patriotic Fischer stated that he felt a sense of "mission" to win the championship since it was "against the Russians."
And win it, he would. When he finally sat (in Iceland) for the long-anticipated title match with Spassky — a contest Time Magazine dubbed "The Russian Bear vs. the Brooklyn Wolf" — Fischer put on an absolute clinic for the entire civilized world to see. So compelling was Fischer's play that, after a brilliant game six (played over the Tartakower Defense line of the Queen's Gambit Declined), Spassky joined the audience in applauding his opponent's dashing performance. Despite hiccups in the first two games (the first was lost by a mistake that can be chalked up to nerves and the second, by forfeit), Bobby would go on to unleash an inexorable campaign of arresting performances (games that would be compared to Mozart symphonies by attendant grandmaster Miguel Najdorf) to decisively capture the championship with a final score of 7 wins, 3 losses and 11 draws.
Despite beaming with pride on the inside over his accomplishment, Fischer was not one for ceremony. Two days after the completion of the championship match, a sumptuous banquet — complete with suckling pig and an orchestra — was held in his honor. Fischer arrived late and left early, and whiled away much of his time at the event seated with Spassky, together analyzing the final game of the tournament on a pocket chess set. And then, walking out into the night, in the immortal words of a film that represents a staple of chess pop-canon, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Fischer "made the most original and unexpected move of all: He disappeared."
After living an arduous and austere life in an "almost monastic pursuit of the world championship" (to quote Fischer biographer Frank Brady), Bobby wanted to pursue his religious studies — he was a member of a fundamentalist church, the Worldwide Church of God, which he had given $60,000 of his world championship purse — and to meet a girl and fall in love (Frank Brady, Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall — From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (New York: Crown Publishing, 2011), 205).
So Bobby resolved to forsake, at least for a time, the public life and the competitive chess circuit. An Associated Press headline from that time said it all: "Bobby Fischer Turns Down Fame, Fortune; Goes Into Seclusion." Indeed, Fischer would not play another public game of competitive chess until 1992, when he would come out of seclusion to vanquish, one last time, his old rival (then friend) Boris Spassky.
Fischer made good on his inclination to pursue faith and romance. Living up to Life Magazine's tongue-in-cheek claim that he's "almost as serious about religion as he is about chess," Fischer made good use of his time away from the board and enrolled in a rigorous course on the Bible, studied the teachings of his denomination, offered up a continuing tithe and dedicated at least an hour a day to prayer. He also went on a series of dates with eligible bachelorettes — although nothing serious came of these dalliances.
While he began his chess sabbatical with the high-minded ideals of growing in faith and seeking vocation, such noble intentions were soon derailed by the harsh realities of life in a post-edenic world. Bobby had long proudly carried the banner of the Worldwide Church of God, observing its tenets, bankrolling its coffers, even speaking frequently of the impending "Rapture" per its queer doctrines. But his faith in his church was irreparably damaged when "prophecies" about a 1972 second coming of Christ made by the church's founder, Herbert W. Armstrong, proved to be false. Fischer, realizing that he had been hoodwinked, delivered a searing invective:
The real proof for me were those prophecies ... that show to me that [Armstrong] is an outright huckster. ... I thought, "This doesn't seem right. I gave all my money. Everybody has been telling me this [about apocalyptic events that were to unfold in 1972] for years. And now, he's half-denying he ever said it, even when I remember him saying it a hundred times." … If you talk about fulfillment of prophecy, he is a fulfillment of Elmer Gantry. If Elmer Gantry was the Elijah, Armstrong's the Christ of religious hucksters. There is no way he could truly be God's prophet. Either God is a masochist and likes to be made a fool of, or else Herbert Armstrong is a false prophet.
So Fischer, disenchanted with the version of Christianity he long supposed to be true, began groping for meaning elsewhere, eventually straying into irreligion altogether. Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum.
A jilted believer, Bobby devolved into anti-Christianity, going so far as to remark that the notion of the Incarnation, the idea that God took on human flesh within the confines of space-time, was "incredible and illogical." The quickening of Fischer's atheism also coincided with his descent into antisemitism and racism. At some point, Fischer stumbled upon and read the notoriously malignant archpropaganda The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent text that purports to identify a Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination. He also became smitten with Count Cherep-Spiridovich's The Secret World Government, a book connecting Jews with satanism and, again, devices for global power. These screeds and others of the same ilk proved formative for Fischer's invidious new worldview.
G.K. Chesterton once observed, "Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess players do." And this quip has proven true on many occasions, with early world champion Paul Morphy famously lapsing into paranoia and reputedly dying in a bathtub surrounded by women's shoes. Chesterton's words certainly had applicability to Fischer.
Fischer's time in isolation turned out to be more of a slow descent into madness than anything else. Turning away from the world, Bobby spurned an estimated $10 million in business offers meant to capitalize on his worldwide stardom, including a million-dollar offer from Warner Bros. to make instructional records on playing chess. Fischer declared of the hoopla, "People are trying to exploit me. Nobody is going to make a nickel off of me!"
When 1975 rolled around, it was time for Fischer to defend his world chess crown against young Soviet standout Anatoly Karpov. Yet, rather than add to his legacy and deal another crushing blow to the Russians, Fischer voluntarily relinquished the title (becoming the first sitting world champion to do so) and forfeited what would be an opulent $5 million prize fund because the International Chess Federation (FIDE) would not agree to the terms he, as champion, proposed for the match. Having depleted much of his prior winnings and savings on the demands of day-to-day life, Bobby sank into near poverty. And there he would remain for many long years, as mad as he was impecunious.
In 1992, Fischer emerged from his self-imposed exile to meet Boris Spassky a final time on the 64 squares. However, this contest, held in war-beleaguered Belgrade, earned him the ire of the U.S. government and, ultimately, an arrest warrant, since President George H.W. Bush had issued an executive order banning economic activity in Yugoslavia. When the dust from his victory over Spassky settled, the reality of Fischer's being a wanted man on the lam set in. Fischer — seething with contempt for the United States, his fatherland — lived the rest of his days abroad, eventually settling in Iceland. But not all was lost for the disgraced luminary.
In these later expatriate days (perhaps moved by a more acute awareness of his own mortality and frailty), by the grace of God, Fischer began outgrowing his irreligion. A burgeoning friendship with Icelandic political scientist Gardar Sverrisson became the forum for many a talk about politics, philosophy and religion. When Fischer pressed Gardar on his religious background, Gardar told him he was Catholic. Ever an inquisitive soul, Fischer continued to probe, asking Gardar about the finer points of Catholic theology (Brady, Endgame, 290).
It turns out that Fischer was entering into similar dialogues about Catholicism with other members of his coterie around the same time. His attorney, Richard Vattuone, gifted Fischer a copy of G.K. Chesterton survey The Apostle of Common Sense, which he read, at least partially (ibid.). This appears to have stoked the flame of Fischer's interest in Catholicism, giving rise to further conversations with Vattuone about the religion.
In the days to come, Fischer would persist in his exploration of Catholicism. Engaging once more with his friend Gardar, Bobby "began to ask him questions about the Liturgy, the adoration of saints, the theological mysteries and other aspects of the religion" (ibid., 315). When it seemed to Fischer that he had exhausted Gardar's wellspring of knowledge about the Faith, Fischer took the liberty of buying his chum-turned-spiritual-advisor a copy of the Basic Catechism: Creed, Sacraments, Morality, Prayer by the Daughters of St. Paul so that Gardar could explain the doctrines of the Church better in their discussions (ibid.). Later, "delving through books, [Fischer] discovered the writings of Catholic theologians, and he became intrigued with the religion" (ibid.). Eventually, Bobby confessed to Gardar, "The only hope for the world is through Catholicism" (ibid.).
In October, 2007, the twilight of Fischer's life gave way to nighttide. He fell critically ill with kidney disease and a blocked urinary tract and was admitted to Landspítali Hospital in Reykjavík. Over the next few months, Fischer's condition deteriorated. On Jan. 17, 2008, Fischer's mortal sojourn came to a halcyon end — in what was perhaps a godwink, he was 64 years old when he died, a year for every square on the chessboard.
However, in his final days, Fischer played one last gambit, a curious move that seems to suggest that — maybe, just maybe — he found his way back home to the Barque of Peter: Fischer requested, according to officials from the Catholic Church of Iceland, that he be "buried as a Catholic." On Monday, Jan. 21, 2008, under the unrelenting blackness of the northern winter sky, Bobby Fischer's broken body was lowered into the frozen earth, in a funeral attended by five people. In accord with his last wishes, a French Catholic priest, Fr. Jakob Rolland, presided over the humble ceremony, commending Fischer's soul to its Maker and, hopefully, to the eternal light of the beatific vision.
While we may never definitively know if Fischer officially became Catholic, he, at the very least, fit the bill for a baptism of desire. While God binds Himself to His sacraments, He is not bound by the sacraments, and He can confer salvation — by means understood by the Divine Mind alone — on those who, by no fault of their own, die without formal incorporation into the Church. The illustrious St. Thomas Aquinas himself tells us that "when a man wishes to be baptized but by some ill chance he is forestalled by death before receiving baptism," he "can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire."
If I were a betting man (and I am), I'd wager that Fischer found his way, at long last, into the one true Church. And, if that's the case, the patroness of chess, St. Teresa of Avila, better watch out: There's a pretty daunting new act in town.