Victim of His Own Success: The Tragedy of Bobby Fischer
January 22, 2008; Page D8
Wall Street Journal

In his day, he was the best chess player in the world, maybe the best the world had ever seen. For fans of the game, the tragedy is that his day passed all too quickly. And for the last 30-odd years of his life, Bobby Fischer was the chess world’s mad uncle, an embarrassment to be apologized for, belittled or ignored. He died last week at the evocative age of 64.

For most of the second half of his life, Fischer considered himself the undefeated world champion of chess. That he had been stripped of his title in 1975 for refusing to defend it against challenger Anatoly Karpov, that he had not played in a competitive tournament since before he won the championship against Boris Spassky in 1972 — those were mere details. Or worse, they were merely evidence that the forces arrayed against him had succeeded in driving him from the game — because the only way to beat him, he believed, was to cheat, or to keep him from playing at all.

…Chess players never gave up hoping that he would snap out of it, come back to the board and treat the world to more brilliant chess. Susan Polgar, the former women’s world chess champion, remarked to me that his death was a tragedy because we’d never have another game from Bobby Fischer. When it was pointed out that he’d barely played in 35 years, she said, “But hope was never lost.” Ms. Polgar had known Fischer from his time in Budapest in the 1990s, and she said that even then he was as genial personally as his views were “extreme” politically. She claimed to have been in talks with him even recently to negotiate his return to the game.

That was never likely. Having beaten Mr. Spassky in 1972, he had nothing left to prove — except that, just possibly, he was beatable after all. Over a chess board, unlike in political debate, you can be proved wrong. And unlike the pianist Mark Taimanov, Bobby Fischer had nothing to fall back on if he came up short in chess. It is hard not to detect a bit of cowardice in his retreat from the world and the chess board after 1972. The tragedy was that, at his best, he was as good as he thought himself to be.

Mr. Carney is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.

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