A genius’s descent into madness.
This is the story of Bobby Fischer. The chess grand-master, the genius, the Icelander and the paranoid recluse who rose to the top of the world before falling from grace with as much force as he could possibly muster. The man who was born in Chicago, raised in Brooklyn and now lies buried in Selfoss.
‘Pawn Sacrifice’ deals primarily with his childhood, early chess-playing years and the lead up to and the playing of the 1972 World Chess Championship in my hometown of Reykjavík. A championship that Fischer had to come back from 2-0 down to finally win 12 ½ - 8 ½ in one of the oddest and most remarkable achievements in world sport. The film documents the very early stages of his chess career as he was discovered in New York as a rather difficult but ridiculously talented youngster. He went on to become the American youth champion and then the youngest ever adult champion with the competitions only ever recorded perfect score. His fiery ambition and palpable arrogance drove him on to want to take on his Russian counterparts as they were considered to be the very best in the world. And he wanted to beat them all. As this was the time of the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict there was soon interest in his challenge for the world title from political quarters. Something that would later fuel his paranoia to frightening levels. He said that he wasn’t very interested in politics but unfortunately due to the times he played in politics soon became interested in him.
It has been said that good chess players can see up to four moves ahead as they try to anticipate their opponent’s next move and then their own counter moves. Bobby Fischer was reportedly able to ‘see’ seven or eight moves into the future as he tried to come up with a strategy to combat every possible move that his foes might make. It appears that this gift was as much of a curse for him as it was a blessing. His ability to imagine such a myriad of outcomes in any given situation gave rise to him putting together scenarios in his head that all sorts of people were getting up to all manner of things that would adversely affect him. He began to live in a dangerous world of make-believe. His paranoid delusions gave rise to theories that the KGB, CIA and any number of other government agencies around the world were tracking his every move, following him and recording him on camera through television sets and by using listening devices that he continually checked for in hotel rooms everywhere. He was also convinced that there was some sort of Jewish plot against him which was wild speculation indeed considering that he was Jewish himself.
He was extremely sensitive to noise and easily distracted by anyone coughing or fidgeting in the same room as he was trying to play. In Reykjavík his demands for silence involved the moving of television cameras, the changing of the chess board to a wooden one and eventually the match being moved to a basement recreation room which he found sufficiently quiet. After losing the opening game of the tournament he forfeited the second game by not showing up for it giving his opponent Boris Spassky what many considered to be an unassailable 2 -0 lead. When Spassky surprisingly agreed to play in the basement Fischer came back to level the scores and then allowed the remaining games to be played upstairs in the original auditorium. In the pivotal sixth game he played brilliant and inspired chess in what is still regarded as one of the greatest games in the sport’s history.
Even before he showed up late in Iceland to play Spassky he seemed determined to sabotage his chances of winning. Some people thought he was afraid of being humiliated by the Russian and that was why he came up with lists of ridiculous demands time and time again. Such was his inner belief that he would beat Spassky and win the title though it would appear that he may have in fact been more worried about what would happen when he won. Although not covered in the film the story of what was to come after the famous victory in Iceland proved to be an even more unsettling tale.
When the time came for him to defend his crown he gave the governing body yet another set of demands. This time they were non-negotiable and he stated that if they weren’t met he wouldn’t play. As the list contained changes to the rules that the tournament was played by including the number of games played and the number of wins required to take the title his demands were not met and he forfeited the tournament and the title to Anatoly Karpov. After this he entered a twenty year period of self-imposed exile from the game and didn’t play again competitively until 1992 when he agreed to give Spassky a rematch of their famous tie. He won the rematch but this was the beginning of a much more serious set of problems than he had ever encountered before and they allowed the already wild conspiracy theories in his head to flourish unabated. As the match took place in the former Yugoslavia during the time of United Nations trade sanctions the US Government warned him that he would have a warrant put out for his arrest if he went ahead with his plans and that any winnings would be confiscated. He played Spassky anyway and the US made good on both promises.
After seeking refuge in Japan Fischer was living there in 2001 when the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York shocked America to its core. He was then filmed on Japanese television as he ranted and railed against the US Government that he felt had wronged him. He said that they had finally got exactly what they deserved and that the whole thing had been a Zionist conspiracy. This angered US President George W. Bush so much that he cancelled Fischer’s passport and insisted that Japan hand him over to them much as they have done much more recently with Edward Snowden. The Japanese refused but placed him in a detention centre and eventually told him that he would have to leave Japan. They would fly him anywhere he wanted just so long as the country he chose would take him. The only people Bobby could think of to turn to for help were the ones who had befriended him in the Icelandic capital thirty-three years earlier. An application for asylum was put before the Alþingi in Reykjavík and granted. Fischer was granted Icelandic citizenship and flown to Keflavík airport.
Once in Iceland he became ever more reclusive spending his days wandering around town and reading in the second-hand book shop Bókin on Hverfisgata just one block from where I have just watched ‘Pawn Sacrifice’.
He spent three years in Reykjavík before getting a urinary tract infection. He refused treatment in the Landspítali hospital which led to him contracting a blood infection. When he was told that he would require a blood transfusion or else he would die he refused that also and passed away in 2008.
He now lies in rest in a small cemetery at the Selfoss Catharose Church fifty kilometres outside of Reykjavík.
His last words were said to have been, "Nothing is as healing as the human touch". And so ended the life of one of the most startlingly brilliant and ultimately troubled talents the world has ever seen. The thing that sets people like Bobby Fischer apart from the rest of us is so often the thing that becomes their undoing. A sad end to what was a captivating if rather strange life.
Watch the ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFHvH9FtACg