Sunday, January 20, 2008

One odd life

Who says American lives only have one act?

The life of Bobby Fischer is proof that they can have two. And in Fischer's case, the second act deserved to close before opening night.

Fischer, who recently died, was a bigger mixture of genius and evil than anyone you know. He served as the poster boy for the concept of child prodigy, winning the U.S. junior championship at 13 and the U.S. championship at 14. He seemed destined to win the world's championship, and in the "match of the century" in Iceland in 1972, he did. Fischer knocked off Boris Spassky, downing the Russians in their own game.

In hindsight, it's tough to believe the commotion Fischer caused with that win. When the match was on the verge of not taking place, Henry Kissinger personally called Fischer to ask him to make it all work. Fischer was on the cover of news magazines. The matches, analyzed move by move, were recreated on some public television stations. That's right -- chess ... on television. Fischer's bizarre antics, such as clearing the hall of spectators at one point, somehow only served to create more interest.

Once victorious, Fischer was supposed to lead a chess boom in America, but his behavior got in the way. He made outrageous financial demands for a title defense, was stripped of the championship, and was essentially rarely heard in chess circles again. There was another match against Spassky in Yugoslavia, which earned Fischer some money and outlaw status due to U.S. sanctions against the host country.

Fischer disappeared again until a memorable article appeared in The Atlantic a few years ago. It repeated Fischer's remarks made on radio that the Sept. 11 attacks on America were great news ("It is time to finish off the U.S. once and for all), and a devastating blow to the Jewish conspiracy. Odd stuff for someone who grew up in New York with a Jewish mother. The story appeared in a collection of the best sports articles of the year, and deservedly so.

After a time without a country, Fischer was admitted to Iceland. He was still raging at everything during his news conference there, our last public sighting of him.

He leaves as maybe the shining example for unrealized potential. He probably was the best chess player ever -- at least in the top few -- and had a chance to single-handedly create a chess boom in the Free World. Instead, he turned inwards, let his demons consume him, and spent the last 35 years raging at unknown and unseen enemies.

There always a little sadness in "what might have been" stories. But there's no way to generate any sympathy for this tormented genius.

Rest in peace? Yeah, sure.