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Bobby Fischer: Genius and Idiot

Notes of a Fringe-Watcher

Martin Gardner

Volume 33.5, September / October 2009

Is it possible for someone to be extremely intelligent and creative in a certain field and at the same time, in other respects, to be simple minded? The answer is yes.

Consider Isaac Newton. He was certainly a genius in the fields of mathematics and physics. On the other hand he devoted most of his life to studying the prophecies of the Bible, calculating the year in which God created the entire universe in six days, and determining the probable year that Jesus would return!

Consider Arthur Conan Doyle. He was a brilliant writer, creator of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, yet he firmly believed in the reality of fairies. He even wrote an entire book defending the authenticity of several crude photographs of the tiny winged fairies taken by two little girls.

My third example is Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, certainly the best known. I have written elsewhere about Newton and Doyle. Here I will tell briefly the sad story of Fischer.

Robert James Fischer was born in Chicago in 1943 the illegitimate son of Jewish parents. His Polish mother, Regina, was an active Communist and a great admirer of the Soviet Union. She had a brief affair with Bobby’s German father.

Bobby grew up in Brooklyn. At age six he became captivated by chess. At fourteen he was the U.S. chess champion. The following year he was declared a grandmaster. In 1972 he became world champion by defeating Boris Spassky at a tournament in Iceland. There is not the slightest doubt that Bobby was a genius, with a mind that could have made him a great mathematician had events in his childhood taken a different turn.

Aside from chess, Fischer came close to being a moron. I once thought his refusal to play chess on Saturday was because he was Jewish. No, it was because he had become a convert to the Worldwide Church of God, a strange sect founded by former Seventh-day Adventist Herbert W. Armstrong. Like the Adventists, Armstrong believed that Saturday is still the God-appointed Sabbath. In 1972 Bobby gave $61,000 to Armstrong, part of the prize money he had won by defeating Spassky.

The Worldwide Church of God was soon scandalized by the womanizing of Herbert’s son Garner Ted. After being excommunicated by his father, Ted moved to Tyler, Texas, where he continued to preach his father’s doctrines. Disenchanted by this rift in the Worldwide Church—and on one occasion physically assaulting a lady official of the church—Fischer left the fold to become an ardent admirer of Hitler and the Nazis!

Fischer’s hatred of Jews turned paranoid. Pictures of Hitler decorated his lodgings. He denied the Holocaust. America, he was convinced, had fallen into the hands of “stinking Jews.” When the September 11, 2001, attacks occurred, he called it “wonderful news.” Wanted by the U.S. government for violating an order not to play a return match with Spassky in Yugoslavia, Fischer renounced his U.S. citizenship and settled in Iceland.

In 1972, in Helsinki, Bobby Fischer broke twenty-four years of Soviet dominance by defeating Boris Spassky.

In 1972, in Helsinki, Bobby Fischer broke twenty-four years of Soviet dominance by defeating Boris Spassky.

Fischer died of kidney failure in 2008. His Japanese wife, Myoko Wakai, flew to Iceland for the funeral. A devout Buddhist and the woman’s chess champion of Japan, she and Fischer were legally married after living together for a short period. Presumably she will inherit Fischer’s sizeable fortune.

John Carlin, in an article titled “The End Game of Bobby Fischer” in the Observer/Guardian (February 10, 2008), described Fischer, during his final years, as looking like a homeless bum. “His teeth were rotten, and his white hair and beard were long and unkempt.” Bobby had a low opinion of doctors and dentists. He had all the metal fillings in his teeth removed because he thought radiation from them was injuring his health, or perhaps American or Russian enemies were causing the harmful radiation from his molars. Fischer seldom changed his clothes or removed his baseball cap. After his death in 2008 at age sixty-four, he was buried late one night near a tiny church in Iceland. A brief, shabby funeral was attended by a Catholic priest he had never known.

Fischer had an older sister, Joan, who died a few years earlier. She was the wife of Russell Targ, the physicist and parapsychologist whose chief claim to fame is having validated the psychic powers of Uri Geller.

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner is author of more than seventy books, most recently The Jinn from Hyperspace and When You Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish, and Other Speculations About This and That.