Brilliant chess child prodigy Bobby Fischer was beaten by his eccentricities

Troy Lennon, History Writer, The Daily Telegraph
October 16, 2016 9:11pm

THEY called it the game of the century. It was not football, tennis or any of the other sports that normally draw millions of viewers and attract multimillion-dollar sponsors. This was a battle of wits between a 29-year-old chess master Donald Byrne and a 13-year-old upstart named Bobby Fischer.

Byrne had won the US Open Chess championship in 1953, so he was expected to do well at the chess tournament held in New York, and Fischer was just a pubescent boy who had shown a lot of promise. But on October 17, 1956, 60 years ago today, the teenager showed more than promise.

His win against the older champion marked the start of a brilliant but marred career as a chess champion. His eccentricities drew more public attention to the game but often for the wrong reasons. He spent his final years as an exile from the US and the game he became obsessed with.

He was born Robert James Fischer in March 1943 in Chicago. His mother was brilliant Swiss-born medical graduate Regina Wender, who had Polish-Jewish heritage. At the time of Bobby’s birth she was married to German-born biophysicist Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, who is listed on the birth certificate as the father. But FBI records kept on Wender, when she was suspected of being a communist, later identified Hungarian physicist Paul Nemenyi as Fischer’s biological father. Regina and Hans-Gerhardt had met in Moscow and married in 1938 but the marriage had failed and she fled to the US in 1942, where she had an affair with Nemenyi.

She divorced Hans-Gerhardt in 1945 and raised Bobby and his older sister Joan on her own, with help from child support payments from Nemenyi.

When he was five, Regina moved the family to Brooklyn. At the age of six, Fischer and his sister bought a cheap chess set and together they learnt to play. He soon became very good but also obsessed. It annoyed his mother who wished he would focus more on school work than chess.

Regina took her son to psychologists and chess masters to see if they could sort him out, but one psychologist who was also a chess master encouraged his fascination with the game. In 1951 he tried his hand against chess master Max Pavey, who was playing exhibition games against challengers in Brooklyn. Fischer put up a fight for 15 minutes but lost. But Brooklyn Chess Club president Carmine Nigro saw the boy’s talent and mentored him. Nigro introduced Fischer to William Lombardy, who was six years older and had won the New York State Championship in 1954. Lombardy coached Fischer and by 1956 he was holding his own simultaneous exhibition games. In July that year he won the US Junior Chess Championship, netting him an invitation to play in the Lessing J. Rosenwald Trophy Tournament in New York City. He was matched against Byrne, the 1953 US Champion, a man almost 13 years his senior. Organisers expected an interesting game but what they got was something sublime.

Bobby Fischer (left) and Russian grand master Tigran Petrosian play a practice game at Moscow’s Central Chess Club in 1958.

Dressed in a striped T-shirt, and often biting his nails, Fischer looked every inch a normal child but played with a boldness and creativity that belied his youth. He made several sacrifices of pieces, including the queen, to draw Byrne into a hopeless situation and eventually forced Byrne into a checkmate.

Throughout the match cries of “brilliant” and “impossible” were heard from the audience. When a reporter asked Fischer how he managed such a feat, he replied: “I just made the moves I thought were best. I was just lucky.”

The tournament was won by Polish-born master Samuel Reshevsky. However, it is hardly ever mentioned. The real winner was Fischer. The game launched his professional chess career. By 1958, aged 15, he was acclaimed as a grand master, the youngest in history.

Chess champion Bobby Fischer in London in 1963.

His meteoric rise helped popularise chess, with games broadcast on TV.

In 1972 Fischer became the first American to become World Champion after he defeated Boris Spassky in Reykjavik. But he became increasingly erratic and forfeited his title when he refused the challenge of Soviet player Anatoly Karpov.

He then disappeared from the chess world only to re-emerge briefly to defeat Spassky in a 1992 rematch in Yugoslavia. US authorities charged Fischer with violating sanctions against Yugoslavia and he became a fugitive living in exile. He was mostly only heard of thereafter when he was reported making anti-semitic and anti-American comments. He died in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 2008.