While missing, Bobby Fischer took on a messianic mystique. For chess geeks and for all of us who loved the game, the gawky American kid who won a world championship, who defied the Russian-lock on the game of kings, was a hero.
Bobby Fischer was the greatest. He played brilliantly, making even old masters see the game all over again. He was a genius and then he disappeared.
Missing, letting his title go by refusing to play a game, he took on the aura of one who was waiting, hiding, planning his return.
I, of course, wasn't born when this all happened, but learning the game as a kid, Fischer was talked about like that. I met a grand master at a coffee shop outside the community college and I played him and he talked about Bobby Fischer that way. He gave me Fischer's book (the third copy I was given) and he told me about the time he'd seen Bobby Fischer play and how Fischer was a genius, about how Fischer was out there, somewhere, still playing.
When Bobby Fischer disappeared, it wasn't for the chess world, like losing him. It was like waiting for the resurrection. He was out there, and that was enough. Losing Fischer made him more mythic. Finding him destroyed all that. He wasn't really lost until he was found. It made all of us who loved the game wish he'd stayed lost, because when he came back he was a crazy man with an end-of-the-world beard, with conspiracies, vile anti-Semitic and anti-American things to say, and a lust for violence.
Robert James Fischer died last week, in Iceland. He was 64. His heart was filled with hatred and his kidneys failed. He had nothing, and the obits all traced the arc: Chess genius gone mad.
The obits and everything I read, last week, all seemed to say it was expected, like everyone always knew this would happen. They took a knowing tone, as if anti-Semitic insanity is across a fine line from expertise in the Ruy Lopez opening, just like corruption is a fine line from politics.
I kept asking, "Why?" I couldn't believe that the end was obvious from the beginning, that a Jewish kid learning to play chess in a Brooklyn walkup should be expected to turn out as an old man spouting conspiracy-filled filth on a Malaysian radio station.
There are explanations floating around out there. There's a Freudian, mother-hating theory. There's a idiot-savaant theory and a mental instability theory. There's one about how Bobby Fischer was teased by Jewish kids. But none of that makes sense to me. It's all too easy, too simplistically self-assured, too formulaic.
If you listen to Fischer, reading over the transcripts of his diatribes, like I did, Friday night, you would think his hatred came from being ripped off. Fischer said he had memorabilia stashed in a storage unit in Pasadena, Calif., and the landlord took his stuff and sold it to pay for overdue rent.
Fischer, talking about how he hates Jews, goes repeatedly to his stolen stuff. He vomits hate and he mentions the theft and in his mind the theft grows and grows until it's an international conspiracy and the prime example of supposed Jewish evil. Someone finally asks him, "Bobby, what all did they take?" and he gives a list.
The list broke my heart.
He says they took a statue of three horses, that he was given as a trophy. They took a bust of his head. They took an autographed book by Richard Nixon. They took his racy Mexican comics.
In the end, this was Bobby Fischer's treasure. A stack of left-over garage-sale junk. This is the chess genius, this is the idol of geeky, gawky kids learning to open with the king's pawn.
I read all the explanations I could find and I still don't know why Bobby Fischer ended so tragically. I know he wandered around in Pasadena, for a while, fascinated by an apocalyptic church and, for a while, distributed racist leaflets. I know he has a daughter, in Asia somewhere. I know he stopped playing chess. I don't know why, but as I read over what was written, I found one thing that stuck. One burr that bothers.
From the beginning, from high school even, Bobby Fischer despised anyone who was weak. He threw people out of his life, sacrificed his relationships with his mother and sister. Arrogant and selfish, he wanted everything conformed to his will and he told a friend, reportedly, that he admired Hitler for his force of will. The root of his anti-Semitism might be right there, not in racism, originally, but in arrogance and the absence of empathy.
I think this is the answer to my question: Bobby Fischer was willing to give up everything, in pursuit of some win. Nothing was so sacred it couldn't be sacrificed. He lacked empathy, imagining himself as the king on the board.
When Bobby Fischer died, he had nothing. He had no title, no friends, no family, no country, no chess memorabilia. He had a name he didn't use anymore and a little grace, which he threw away.
I hope he finds peace, in death, because his life was a heartbreaking tragedy.
Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.