Long before he won the title of chess champion of the world—and then became a fugitive , a raving anti-Semite and anti-American, and secluded in Iceland, Bobby Fischer was a part of my childhood. Starting in 1958, when Bobby became the youngest grandmaster in history at age 14 (he was about four years older than I), he was frequently in the news and in magazines and on TV.
Then, in 1972, with his showdown against Boris Spassky, he became an international superstar, challenging Muhammad Ali as the most famous person on the planet. That was his high point, but he remained in the public eye for years after, almost as well known for his failure to defend his crown (his mental health, and confidence, rapidly slipping) as he was in winning it.
The paranoid rantings began, and when he finally met Spassky again it was in Bosnia, defying an international ban—earning a US indictment and making him a wanted man. Hence: evading arrests in a return to Iceland, where he had defeated Spassky, forever, until his death in 2008 at the age of 64. .
Now, an excellent full-length film about his wild life, Bobby Fischer Against the World, directed by Liz Garbus, comes to HBO on June 6, with four more air dates after that. It unearths dozens of clips of Fischer over the years, from gawky prodigy to international man of mystery to sad geezer maniac, with a special focus on the epic 1972 match, complete with references to George McGovern and a soundtrack of musical hits from that year (when was the last time you heard Blood, Sweat and Tears?).
This becomes a geopolitical tale, a cold war thriller, as the eccentric American takes on the wily Russian. I was not aware that a Russian had always held the title in the modern era making this a possible propaganda victory for the USA. Henry Kissinger recalls that he practically demanded that Fischer play, and humble, Spassky. It would be, in a way, Moon Landing II.
Yes, his mother and father, in Brooklyn, were Jewish. Mom was a leftwing activist (possibly a Communist). The man Bobby thought was his father was not. In any case, he hardly had a childhood, so fanatical was his devotion to chess. He was, in a sense, checkmated early in life. The anti-Semitism: that’s another story.
Garbus has also directed the Oscar-nominated The Farm:Angola, USA and Emmy-winning Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, among other films. Among those interviewed in the new documentary: Malcolm Gladwell, Dick Cavett, famed photographer Harry Benson and various chess champs, including Gary Kasparov.
Greg Mitchell’s latest books are The Age of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning: Truth and Consequences, also available as e-books at Amazon.