Searching for Fischer's Legacy
By FM Mike Klein   
January 19, 2008
fischerlead.jpgThe clock has stopped on the life of Bobby Fischer. After 64 years of battles, both over the chess board and in life, Fischer succumbed to kidney failure Thursday night in Iceland. Where do chess players go from here?
    Will his legacy be lasting, and will it be positive? Must writings about the man involve asterisks and conversations include, “Yes, but…”? How do we reconcile his genius and vitriol?
    GM Art Bisguier has had plenty of time to ruminate on the questions. He has witnessed Fischer’s inspiration and his divisiveness. Bisguier was besieged by phone calls Friday, but he said he has really been answering for Fischer for the last 30 years. Having seen the young prodigy grow into a man and then a World Champion, Bisguier spent a lot of personal time with the late grandmaster. He traveled with Fischer, competed against him, and accompanied him as his second to tournaments all over the Western hemisphere.
    “Chess players will be able to separate the chess from the sickness,” Bisguier said, referring to the prevailing belief that Fischer suffered from mental illness.
    Bisguier said he began to distance himself from Fischer when he witnessed the early signs of paranoia. In 1961 he made his first public statements despising Jews. Then after the Curacao Candidates Tournament in 1962, Fischer leveled charges against the Soviets of match-fixing (recently declassified documents show that he may have been right). The public conundrum began.
    That “sickness” continued with more famous Fischer incidents. His 1972 World Championship Match with Boris Spassky featured the original “Spygate” camera scandal, culminating in Fischer’s forfeiture of round two (despite his contractual agreement allowing their use). For his part, Spassky, ever grateful for becoming a household name, remained a staunch supporter of Fischer up until his death, proving that untangling Fischer’s life is very much a personal decision.
    After refusing to defend his title in 1975, he spent many years off the grid until a 1981 letter railed against the Jewish owners of his California storage unit, fomenting more invective diatribes in the coming decades. Fischer’s 1992 press conference hacked away even more public admiration, and his radio remarks on the evening of September 11, 2001 eviscerated any remaining personal fondness.
    Neither the man nor his anti-Semitic views ever found much of a home after that.
    “Chess was his only thing,” Bisguier explained, restating a popular belief that after the competitions were over, Fischer’s illness would manifest. For the “Dean of American Chess,” here is the rub – Bisguier credits Fischer with his career in chess.
    “He changed many of our lives,” Bisguier said. “I would have never become a chess professional without him.” Bisguier, who became a grandmaster in 1957, gave up a promising career as a computer programmer to work for the USCF as a chess promoter, all in the wake of Fischer’s success.
    He alluded to modern-day millionaire grandmasters like Garry Kasparov and Vaselin Topalov owing their financial comfort to Fischer’s grandstanding.
    “He made it feel like it was something we could have,” Bisguier said.
    GM Susan Polgar, whose generational gap meant she only knew the Fischer that stayed with her family in Hungary in the 1990s, remains sanguine about his legacy.
    “He will primarily be remembered for what he did on the chess board,” she said. “He was the king of chess and that’s how he should be remembered.”
    Polgar added that despite his latent bigotry, Fischer treated her family well. “He was always kind and respectful to me as a chess player,” she explained, admitting that because she knew his beliefs, she tried to steer their conversations into neutral subjects and was left with “mostly good memories.”
    Polgar suggested he had the ability to change some of his radical views. Referencing his provocative offer in 1961 to give any woman in the world knight odds, she said he later recognized many strong female players and gave them their due respect.
    David Shenk, author of the recent book The Immortal Game, insists his own copious research still leaves him outside the chess world. Necessarily, his regard for the historical importance of Fischer centers on his place in political history.
    “I don’t think you had to be very much of a chess player to appreciate a lot of his significance and just the things that went on,” Shenk said of the Cold War overtures of his battles with the Soviet hegemony.
    “I was useful because of there was a Cold War, right?” Fischer rhetorically surmised several years ago. “But now I’m not useful any more.”
    Despite this, Shenk did not attempt to interview Fischer for his book. He explained that reprinting the ramblings of a man with mental illness would not serve a benefit, it would simply be reporting on a man’s illness. Shenk insisted that the man is beyond eccentric, which is how he is commonly labeled. A person with dementia is more than just strange.
Fischer on the cover of the September 2004 Chess Life

    For his part, Fischer regarded himself as the antithesis of his public persona.     “They constantly use the words eccentric, eccentric, eccentric, weird. I am boring! I am boring!” Fischer addressed on the radio in 2001.
    Shenk said one important unintentional contribution by Fischer was the idea of self-reflection by today’s devotees of chess.
    “The more time I spend with really serious chess players, the more I hear from them completely unprompted that they think about this subject a lot – a life of virtual full-time chess and what that can do to the mind.”
    Polgar and Shenk both guess that his legacy will be lasting and will improve over time.
    “I have no way of knowing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if 100 or 200 years from now this would be a part of American history,” Shenk said. “It so well crystallizes some of the elements of world history at the time it was being made. I personally love it because it is one of the many, many moments where chess represents culture.”
    He regarded the latter years as “more of a footnote in his life.”
    To give historical context of public mindset from events two centuries ago, GM Yury Shulman alluded to another complicated historical figure.
    “Look at Napoleon – he lost his final battles and is still treated like a hero,” Shulman said. Though battles with Russia were Napoleon’s nadir but Fischer’s zenith, in the end both were exiled to islands. Shulman found a more artistic metaphor. “[Fischer] reminds me of Salvador Dali – crazy and genius! I think his last years should not be remembered more than his best ones.”
    He added things would not have been so complicated if Fischer had disappeared forever. “He should have stopped giving interviews 20 years ago,” Shulman said.
    Polgar and Shulman agree that a chess student’s questions about Fischer’s personal life should be answered with balance and directness.
    “He was a brilliant chess player, but had a hard time communicating with people,” would be Shulman’s response to an inquisitive student.
    Polgar’s take: “I certainly would not ignore it and I would emphasize his chess accomplishments. I would use it as an example of learning from mistakes.”
    One young chess player summed up how his generation may come to know the man.
    “I learned about Bobby Fischer from the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer,” said ten-year-old Seth Taylor-Brill, “and at first I thought he was pretty cool. Then I started hearing stories about him that made me lose respect for him. He clearly had problems and I feel bad for him because of that, but I still don’t admire him.”
    Besides Bisguier, another prominent chess figure who owes his early notoriety to Fischer is Bruce Pandolfini, whose post-collegiate career got a jump start after his wildly popular broadcast coverage of the 1972 Fischer-Spassky World Championship Match. Students have been contacting him for lessons ever since.
    Pandolfini’s protégés, often some of the most talented in the country, will be given honest treatment of his career from their teacher; to do otherwise would be disingenuous. Today’s chess teachers will become the stewards of Fischer’s legacy to the next generation of chess enthusiasts.
    “Chess is about truth,” Pandolfini said, “so it goes against the grain of the game to distort it."
    Fischer's legacy is omnipresent in chess culture, so there is no doubt that students will be asking about him for years to come. Consider: “Game of the Century," The Fischer Generation, Fischer Fear, Fischer Clock, Fischer Random Chess, Fischer Attack and Fischer Defense (versus the Sicilian and King’s Gambit, respectively).
    Pandolfini echoed Polgar – both had generally propitious personal interactions with Fischer, with some exceptions.
    “He was actually very polite,” Pandolfini said. “I can remember him sitting with 1400 players analyzing as if they were equals, simply because he was intrigued by the variations they were looking at.
    “I’d have to say on an individual level I found him, at times, diffidently charming.”
    Still, Pandolfini concedes that the man was a mystery. “I won’t pretend to understand who Bobby Fischer was. I didn’t know him well enough, though I question whether those who were closer to him knew him very well either.”
    Fischer phoned an Icelandic television station in late 2006 to offer his analysis of the recent broadcast of a chess game. Who knows how many more secrets will be buried with him?
    Pandolfini lamented the loss of “many glorious and pleasing works of chess art” that the world never got to see.
    “Above all he was an artist, who loved to create for the sake of the art. If you don’t admire that about him, you’re not a chess player.”
    For many players, the chance to meet Fischer always remained, however unlikely. Like a stalemate trap in an otherwise hopeless endgame, there was always that faint possibility that Fischer would covertly reappear like Bisguier claimed he did at a U.S. Open many years ago. It would be the final time Bisguier spoke with Fischer. Thanks to passport issues and an executive order, he would never again touch American soil.
    Fischer lived out his final years in an apartment in Reykjavik. For many, their final mental picture of Fischer will be the man who lost his boyish charm, grew an unkempt beard, and evinced a complete disregard for his physical or cultural appearance.     His mother died in 1997 and his sister shortly after. He was unable to attend either funeral service. There is some debate as to who his biological father was – his mother’s husband left when he was two in any case. There are no reports about his Japanese fiancée being with him during his sickness, and while Fischer probably had a young daughter, she is being raised in absentia.
    In the end, the task of announcing Fischer’s death fell to a spokesman. In the end, he was alone.
    “He was only 64 and I am 78,” Bisguier said. “I never thought he would predecease me.”
    Fischer once said, “Our mind is all we've got. Not that it won't lead us astray sometimes, but we still have to analyze things out within ourselves.”
    Perhaps he will find some answers in the post-mortem.