Bobby Fischer, the iconoclastic genius who was one of the greatest chess players the world has ever seen, has died, a close family friend, Gardar Sverrisson, confirmed Friday.
He was 64 and died on Thursday in a hospital in Reykjavik, Iceland. No cause of death was given, but he had suffered for some time from an unspecified illness.
Sverrisson, who lived in the same apartment building in Reykjavik as Fischer, said: "He was a close family friend and we all miss him very much."
Fischer, the most powerful American player in history, had moved to Iceland in 2005. He had emerged briefly in 1992 from a mysterious seclusion that had lasted two decades and defied an American ban on conducting business in war-torn Yugoslavia to play a match against his old nemesis, the Russian-born grandmaster Boris Spassky.
After he won handily, he dropped out of sight again, living alone. He avoided arrest on American charges over his Yugoslavia appearance and stayed in touch with his few friends in the United States by telephone, compelling them to keep his secrets or risk his rejection.
He lived in Budapest, Hungary and possibly the Philippines and Switzerland and emerged now and then on radio stations in Iceland, Hungary and the Philippines to rant in increasingly belligerent terms against the United States and against Jews.
Fischer's 1992 victory against Spassky was a sad reprise of his most glorious triumph. It was in summer 1972, in a match played in Reykjavik, that Fischer wrested the world championship from Spassky, becoming the first and as yet only American to win the title, which Russian-born players had held for more than four decades.
"It was Bobby Fischer who had, single-handedly, made the world recognize that chess on its highest level was as competitive as football, as thrilling as a duel to the death, as esthetically satisfying as a fine work of art, as intellectually demanding as any form of human activity," wrote Harold C. Schonberg, who reported on the Reykjavik match for The New York Times, in his 1973 book, "Grandmasters of Chess."
In July 2004, he was seized by the Japanese authorities when he tried to board a plane from Japan to Manila and was accused of trying to leave the country on an invalid passport. He was detained in prison for nine months while the various governments, as well as a staunch group of supporters in the chess world, tried to resolve the
In 1999, in a series of telephone interviews he gave to a radio station in the Philippines, he rambled angrily and profanely about an international Jewish conspiracy, which he said was bent on destroying him personally and the world generally.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he told a radio talk-show host in Baguio, the Philippines, that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were "wonderful news," adding he was wishing for a scenario "where the country will be taken over by the military, they'll close down all the synagogues, arrest all the Jews and secure hundreds of thousands of Jewish ringleaders."
The world championship match against the elegant Spassky was an unforgettable spectacle, the Cold War fought with chess pieces in an out-of-the-way place. Fischer's characteristic petulance, loutishness and sense of outrage were the stuff of front-page headlines all over the globe. Incensed by the conditions under which the match was to be played he was particularly offended by the whirr of television cameras in the hall he lost the first game, then forfeited the second and insisted the remaining games be played in an isolated room the size of a janitor's closet. There, he roared back from what, in chess, is a sizable deficit, trouncing Spassky, 12 1/2 to 8 1/2. (In championship chess, a victory is worth one point, a draw a half-point for each player.) In all, Fischer won 7 games, lost 3 (including the forfeit) and drew 11.
Through July and most of August, the attention of the world was riveted on the Spassky-Fischer match. Americans who didn't know a Ruy Lopez from a Poisoned Pawn watched a hitherto unknown commentator named Shelby Lyman explain each game on public television. All this was Fischer's doing.
Fischer, Chicago born and Brooklyn raised, a rebel, a tantrum-thrower, an uncompromising savage of the chess board, had captured the imagination of the world. Because of him, for the first time in the United States, the game, with all its arcana and intimations of nerdiness, was cool. And when it was over, he walked away with a winner's purse of $250,000, a sum that staggered anyone ever associated with chess. When Spassky won the world championship, his prize was $1,400.
Fischer's victory was widely seen as a symbolic triumph for Democracy over Communism, and it turned the new champion into an unlikely American hero. He was invited to the White House by President Richard M. Nixon, interviewed on television, hounded by journalists, wooed unsuccessfully by commercial interests. Sales of chess sets skyrocketed; so did fees for chess lessons, as scores of poverty-stricken chess players benefited from the cachet that Fischer had conferred on them.
"That's really how chess teaching began," recalled Bruce Pandolfini, whose career as a teacher and writer was launched after he appeared with Lyman on public television. "Chess teachers didn't really exist before 1972, not in any real numbers, but people started calling in to PBS, and they gave me a list of names, about 300 people. I charged $15 an hour and I encouraged others to do the same. I went from shelving books at the Strand bookstore to being a well-paid chess teacher."
But Fischer was incapable of sustaining himself in the limelight, and by the beginning of 1973, he had withdrawn into the weird, contrarian solitude he more or less maintained for the remainder of his life. Over the years, he turned down huge financial offers to play, among them a bid of $1.4 million from the Hilton Corp. to defend his title in Las Vegas and even larger sums from dictators like Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and the Shah of Iran to compete in their countries. He said the money wasn't enough.