Bobby Fischer's strangest endgame

Arguably the greatest chess player of all time (and one of the weirdest human beings) is detained in Japan, wanted by the U.S. Will he escape an ignominious fool's mate?

Published July 24, 2004 7:35PM (EDT)

Lost in last week's wall-to-wall Martha news cycle was an extraordinary item about the world's most famous chess player. Reports were conflicting and details vague, but this much was certain: Bobby Fischer was being held in a Tokyo jail cell, where he awaited possible deportation to the United States to face criminal charges.

For most people, whose recollection of Fischer begins and ends with his victory in Iceland over Boris Spassky during the 1972 Cold War soap opera officially known as the 11th World Chess Championship, this was an astonishing revelation. It was as if a forgotten film star, someone long assumed dead because they hadn't been seen on television in ages, had suddenly and quite unexpectedly materialized. It's the type of twisted American tragedy that Hollywood director Billy Wilder would have savored. The movie pitch practically writes itself: "'Sunset Boulevard' meets 'Searching for Bobby Fischer' -- Norma Desmond, with enough chess smarts to slay the Soviets and Deep Blue. It'll open huge in Reykjavik!"

Unlike Norma, Bobby isn't starry-eyed and longing for his beloved close-up. Instead he's in a state of extreme mental anguish, convinced he'll be murdered "accidentally on purpose" if deported to the United States to face charges he violated U.S. economic sanctions by performing in a 1992 rematch with Spassky in the former Yugoslavia. To trot out the hoary cliché, the great chess master has finally reached his own endgame. And, while there are moves yet to play, the outcome appears bleak.

But it's much more than a story of a kooky grandmaster fugitive finally being brought to justice after cunningly evading the authorities for 12 years, the treatment the story has received stateside. In fact, when arguably the greatest chess player in history was detained last week at Tokyo's Narita International Airport on a passport violation, he became an unwitting pawn in a game of geopolitics between North Korea, Japan and the United States. It's a story of real diplomatic intrigue. And now Robert James Fischer, an enigmatic recluse who used to guard his privacy as fervently as he did his king on the chess board, is about to be thrust into public view for all of the world to gawk at. To quote Eugene Torre, a Filipino Grandmaster and longtime friend of Fischer's, "Poor Bobby."

To understand how a Cold War hero and a man once celebrated as an American icon ended up in a jail cell half-way around the world, one must trace Fischer's harrowing character arc. Fischer was raised in four-story walk-up apartment in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. His mother Regina, recently divorced but without alimony payments or child support, worked as a practical nurse, and double and weekend shifts resulted in her being absent much of the time. Even so, finances were a constant strain. Young Bobby wore shoes patched with scraps of leather. When his sister, Joan, graduated from nursing school, she didn't attend graduation ceremonies because the cap and gown rental was deemed a luxury the family budget couldn't absorb.

As a child, Bobby was intelligent but performed poorly in grade school. More disturbing was his moodiness and violent outbursts, which invariably were directed at teachers. Inadequately socialized, he was shunned by his peers -- a problem child to be sure, but hardly in need of psychiatric help.

Despite his lackluster academic performance, what was evident from the beginning was that Bobby possessed a preternatural ability to discern and memorize intricate spatial relationships. Regina bought Bobby puzzles to occupy his time spent alone in the apartment with Joan. When he was 6, Joan brought home a $1 plastic chess set. The following year, he joined the Brooklyn Chess Club and soon began competing in local tournaments.

His progress was steady but hardly awe-inspiring, until he played a game in 1956 at New York's Rosenwald Memorial Tournament against Donald Byrne, one of the top U.S. chess players at the time. The game was of such complexity and originality that it was immediately hailed in "Chess Review" magazine as the "Game of the Century." Former Russian world champion Mikhail Tal was so humbled by Bobby's extraordinary prowess he praised him as "the greatest genius to descend from the chess heavens." He was only 13.

Within a year, Fischer was indisputably the best chess player in the country. At 16, he fulfilled his promise, dropping out of high school to pursue international competition against the best players in the world -- the Soviet grandmasters. But lack of experience and an unwillingness to placate the very chess patrons and United States Chess Federation officials who were in a position to help him hindered his advancement. Complicating matters, he insisted on improved playing conditions (better lighting and less noise were constant themes) and more prize money. He did much to improve tournament play for his peers, but was labeled a malcontent in the process.

It wouldn't be until 1972 that Fischer would finally reach the pinnacle of chess. By beating Spassky in the historic "Match of the Century" in Reykjavik, he became the first American to be officially crowned the World Chess Champion, breaking what amounted to a 105-year losing streak for the United States. After this titanic battle of wits, he was asked by an interviewer how long he could continue to dominate chess, Fischer replied matter-of-factly, "I figure I can keep the title for 30 years."

As predictions go, this was wildly off the mark. Fischer was about to enter the dormant phase of his career, referred to morosely by chess historians as the "wilderness years." He moved to Los Angeles, joined an apocalyptic religious cult (to which he tithed much of his prize money from Reykjavik), and dropped out of competitive chess entirely. Two decades later, he was broke and virtually homeless. Making matters worse, his mental health had deteriorated. He suffered from acute paranoia, convinced there was a Jewish conspiracy to destroy him. His treasured Russian chess journals were neglected in favor of such anti-Semitic screeds as "Mein Kampf "and "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

As a teenager, Fischer was always quick to point out that he was only half Jewish (on his mother's side). But now he denied his Jewish heritage altogether, stressing that his father was a brilliant German physicist.

Then, as abruptly as he had vanished from the chess scene, Fischer miraculously reappeared in 1992, ready to play his old rival, Boris Spassky, again. The $5 million chess match, promoted by a Serbian arms dealer, was to take place in war-torn Yugoslavia, which at the time was under U.N. sanctions and a U.S. embargo. To discourage Fischer from playing a high-profile sporting event in a country rife with ethnic cleansing, the Department of the Treasury sent a cease-and-desist letter, warning that if he played in Yugoslavia, the penalty would be a $250,000 fine, 10 years in prison, or both.

Undaunted, Fischer held a press conference and, with the cameras rolling, pulled the warning letter from his briefcase and proceeded to spit on it. He then rattled off a series of astonishing proclamations: He hadn't paid his taxes since 1976 (and wasn't about to start now); he was going to write a book that would prove that Russian grandmasters ("some of the lowest dogs around") had "destroyed chess" through "immoral, unethical, prearranged games"; he really wasn't an anti-Semite, because he was pro-Arab, and Arabs are Semites too. His assertion that Soviet communism was "basically a mask for Bolshevism, which is a mask for Judaism" elicited the most quizzical expressions.

After the pre-match pyrotechnics were concluded, play got underway. When Fischer performed beautifully in the first game, the excitement within the chess community was palpable -- Bobby was back! But between occasional flashes of brilliance were long stretches of uninspired play. This was understandable. Bobby hadn't played a competitive game of chess in public since the 1972 world championship in Reykjavik and Spassky was rated 101st in the world, the chess equivalent of road kill. Fischer-Spassky II dragged on for almost six weeks before Bobby was finally declared the victor, with 10 wins, five losses, and 15 draws. He collected a steamer trunk full of tax-free cash and has been living abroad ever since as a free man, primarily in Budapest, Hungary; Baguio City, Philippines; and Tokyo, with stints in Germany and Yugoslavia.

That all changed when Fischer was stopped in Tokyo while trying to board a Japan Airlines flight for the Philippines. The dragnet was set in motion last December, when the consul of the United States of America sent a letter at the urging of the Department of State to Fischer, care of the U.S. Embassy in Manila, a country Fischer is known to visit frequently. The letter warned Fischer that his U.S. passport had been revoked based on a violation of the "Code of Federal Regulations"; in short, preventing anyone with an outstanding federal warrant to possess a U.S. passport. Fischer never received the letter because the U.S. Embassy in Manila had no forwarding address for Bobby. (Of course, if the U.S. government had bothered to call the United States Chess Federation -- or any chess club in the country for that matter -- it would have been advised to send all Fischer correspondence to the Japan Chess Association.) When he was handcuffed and led away for processing, nobody could have been more surprised than Fischer himself. It seemed that the 61-year-old Fischer was finally going to pay the price for that unseemly spitting incident 12 years before.

That's the morality tale being reported by many news organizations. Consider this action-adventure blurb of a lead, pulled from a Fischer story in last Saturday's Los Angeles Times: "For 12 years he has stayed one move ahead of the U.S. government he despises, always in motion, hard to corner. But U.S. justice may have finally caught up with Bobby Fischer."

"Hard to corner?" Fischer has his own Web site. Fans send him e-mail. He has appeared on 21 live radio interviews in the past five years. Even his private cellphone number has been listed on the Internet. A fifth-grader with a rudimentary knowledge of Google could track down America's notorious grandmaster fugitive in 50 keystrokes or less.

"One move ahead of the U.S. government"? In 1997, four years after the federal warrant for his arrest was signed, he applied for a new passport and the U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, issued him one. Moreover, he has traveled exclusively to countries that maintain extradition treaties with the United States. Since his self-imposed exile in 1992, he has visited the Philippines (where his girlfriend and daughter live), Switzerland (where he maintains a United Bank of Switzerland account), Hungary and Iceland (where he has appeared on radio programs to spout his vile brand of anti-Semitic and anti-American drivel) and Germany (which he claimed as his father's homeland).

Asked during a radio interview in 2002 if he was fearful of being caught by the U.S. customs agents, Fischer merely chuckled, boasting that "the U.S. hasn't got the guts to catch me." Considering Washington's lack of interest in Fischer up to now, such colossal hubris was understandable. All of this begs the question: If finding Fischer was such a simple task all along, why has it taken 12 years to finally apprehend him?

After stuttering profusely and asking the question to be repeated, Dean Boyd, a spokesperson for United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sheepishly said he'd get right back with an answer. When he did, he seemed much more confident. "We can't just swoop down and grab people anywhere around the globe willy-nilly," he said. "We don't have that authority. It would cause an international incident." Then he adroitly switched the onus to Japanese authorities, adding, "Right now, it's Japan's call whether to deport him or not because he's in their custody."

And Japan has made that call. Last Tuesday, immigration officials in Tokyo announced that the procedure to deport Fischer to the United States had already begun. Japanese officials were quick to point out, however, that Fischer was legally entitled to challenge the deportation.

Why is this happening now? Miyoko Watai, the president of the Japan Chess Association and Fischer's designated spokesperson, claims it's because of his unpopular political views, which are featured prominently on his infamous live radio appearances, usually broadcast from Baguio City. Exhibit A: When the twin towers were ablaze, Fischer was watching the tragic event play out in real time on a television screen and could barely contain his delight. "This is all wonderful news," he said excitedly, as if he were watching his favorite team pulling off an unprecedented upset. "It is time to finish off the U.S. once and for all."

Russell Targ, a physicist in Palo Alto, Calif., who was married to Fischer's late sister, Joan, concurs with this analysis. He maintains that his famous brother-in-law's latest legal plight is merely a smokescreen orchestrated by the Bush administration to distract from growing foreign and domestic problems. "What Bobby's accused of is playing chess 12 years ago in Yugoslavia," he says bitterly. "It's just a distraction from 900 dead American soldiers in Iraq and the floundering economy. They can't find bin Laden, so they got Bobby."

The U.S. maintains that Fischer's radio appearances, incendiary though they may be, have absolutely nothing to do with his detention in Tokyo. They insist that it was his 90-day visa to visit Japan (a document snagged by a vigilant paper pusher in Washington, no doubt) that finally placed Fischer on their radar and set the wheels of justice in motion.

A more likely explanation is that Bobby is being proffered as a bargaining chip by Japan so that it can hold onto its very own celebrity American expatriate, a 64-year-old U.S. Army sergeant named Charles Jenkins. The North Carolina native allegedly fled to North Korea while patrolling the demilitarized zone between North and South in 1965 (Jenkins claims he was abducted). Then, after spending almost four decades as Kim Jong Il's prized mantelpiece trophy, Jenkins finally arrived in Tokyo this week, just several days after Japanese immigration officials nabbed Fischer. The timing of these two pending extradition cases is enough to give pause to even the most somnambulant Fox News viewer.

Like Fischer, Jenkins faces serious criminal charges back home. Unlike Fischer, however, Jenkins has been wanted by American officials for years. For allegedly deserting his military post, yes. But also because he made numerous anti-American propaganda films and radio broadcasts while living in Pyongyang, with a captive audience surely more receptive to propaganda than Fischer's radio listeners in the Philippines. The U.S. Army does not want to send the message during wartime that military deserters will be tolerated.

But Japan's Prime Minister Koizumi is understandably reluctant to deport Jenkins to the U.S. because he is married to Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman who was abducted by North Korean spies in 1978. Soga was just one of hundreds of Japanese citizens kidnapped by the North Korean government over the years. Jenkins met Soga and they eventually married; the couple raised two daughters together and made their home in Pyongyang, but the family was separated two years ago when a softening of relations between North and South allowed Soga to return home as a repatriated Japanese citizen. Fearful he would be deported to the U.S. to face criminal charges for desertion if he accompanied his wife back to Japan, Jenkins remained behind with his two children.

In the process, Soga's thwarted romance with Jenkins has become a media sensation in Japan. Two weeks ago in a Jakarta hotel room the estranged family was finally reunited in Indonesia -- and it was covered live on prime-time television. (Note to Bobby: Unlike Japan, Indonesia does not have a bilateral extradition treaty with the United States.) This profound gesture of compassion was no doubt expedited when Koizumi met with Kim Jong Il during a 90-minute summit in May and agreed to inject 250,000 tons of food and $10 million worth of medical supplies and humanitarian aid into the anemic communist state. "In other words," a story in Japan Today concludes, "the Soga family reunion was orchestrated as a 'present' from Kim Jong Il to prop up Koizumi."

It was a gift-wrapped bauble that Korea was only too happy to part with. With increasing tensions between Pyongyang and Washington concerning nuclear proliferation, the tiny tyrant's attachment to Jenkins has ebbed appreciably. When the opportunity presented itself, he was glad to send Tokyo both Jenkins and the sticky matter of his unresolved deportation. And considering that Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party did poorly in the election for parliament's upper house, held earlier this month, is it any wonder that he would try to cut a Fischer-for-Jenkins swap? Likewise, it makes perfect sense politically for the U.S. to extradite and prosecute Bobby. Suffice it to say that saving face isn't exclusively an Asian concept.

Meanwhile, media executives are gearing up for their very own version of the three-ring Milosevic trial. Those familiar with Fischer's courtroom manners know all too well that United States of America vs. Robert James Fischer will make for great theater. Before fleeing his homeland, Bobby was no stranger to litigation. In each instance, he dismissed his lawyers, convinced they were working against his best interests (i.e. they were either Jews, FBI spies, commies or some combination thereof), and represented himself, in propria persona, though none of these cases progressed past the preliminary stages. When a judge in one case set the deposition time at 10 a.m., Bobby interjected, "No, that's too early. I'll still be sleeping at 10. Make it later."

An attorney who represented Fischer for six months said Fischer is ill-equipped to function in a courtroom setting: "Bobby absolutely refuses to answer questions he doesn't want to answer, whether they're relevant or not," he says. "He's going to do it his way, and he's going to lose."

With each passing day the story just gets stranger. A posting on Fischer's Web site, written at Fischer's behest by Watai, the president of the Japanese Chess Association and Bobby's unofficial spokesperson, claims that he was "viciously attacked brutalized seriously injured and very nearly killed" while in custody at Narita. Allegedly the beefy 6-foot-2-inch Fischer put up a struggle and had to be restrained by several Japanese security guards.

The posting goes on to say that Fischer has vowed to fight the extradition and is reaching out to "friendly third countries" for political asylum because he "does not wish to return to the Jew-Controlled USA where he faces a kangaroo court" or "remain in a hostile brutal and corrupt U.S.-controlled Japan." The posting concludes, "This is a matter of life and death for Bobby. Thank you!" In an effort to secure his freedom, Fischer has even procured legal counsel, a Japanese attorney who hasn't the slightest idea what lunacy awaits him.

The latest brainstorm, contributed by a member of Fischer's support group, involves him claiming German citizenship, based on Regina's marriage to a German at the time of Bobby's conception. This would theoretically provide Bobby with dual citizenship retroactively. Once he was officially declared a bona fide German, the hope is that Bobby could immediately book the next Lufthansa flight out of Tokyo.

This legal strategy may fulfill Bobby's Aryan fantasy, but how would it play in the courts? The German Foreign Office in Berlin was contacted on Wednesday by the Fischer camp and it has confirmed that Germany's "blood law" stipulates that if documents can be produced that prove that Regina's husband was German (which he was) and that Bobby was born before his parents were divorced (also true), he would be issued a German passport. Bobby's passport, birth certificate and Regina's divorce papers have already been located in various parts of the world and are on the way to Tokyo.

The one flaw in this master plan is that the identity of Bobby's biological father is a subject of dispute. While the name "Hans-Gerhardt Fischer" is listed on Bobby's birth certificate, there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that Fischer's real father was Paul Felix Nemenyi, a Jewish Hungarian engineer Regina met in the U.S. while separated from her husband. Beyond that, it seems unlikely that Germany, a country where neo-Nazism still percolates just beneath the surface of society, would provide safe haven for a world-class anti-Semite like Fischer. This fantastic plot to liberate Bobby has been confirmed by the indefatigable Watai, and Russell Targ, who was quick to add that while he didn't endorse the hateful rhetoric that his famous brother-in-law espouses, he felt compelled to assist in this improbable jail break because he was a card-carrying member of the ACLU. But even if Berlin does issue Bobby a new passport, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder would still have to agree to grant asylum to his freshly minted countryman. If he doesn't, Fischer will probably take his grievance to The Hague.

The legal maneuverings alone could drag on for months. Yesterday, Japan's justice minister announced that Fischer could be in detention up to 60 days while authorities decide whether or not to complete the extradition process. Asked if it was likely that Fischer would eventually be handed off to American authorities, an immigration official at Narita airport hinted that such a scenario was likely: "[Fischer] was taken into our custody in violation of immigration laws. Generally, the consequence of that is deportation." Listen carefully. The sound you hear is a roomful of Court TV producers salivating.

If only Fischer had listened to his mother. Regina died in 1997, but a letter she wrote to her son 46 years ago is eerily prescient. In the missive, she dispenses the kind of prudent advice that Fischer would have done well to heed later on in life.

The letter, dated July 9, 1958, was written to the 15-year-old Bobby when he was in Europe, waiting for the Interzonal chess tournament in Porotoz, Yugoslavia, to begin. If he did well at Porotoz, he would qualify for the next step on the way to the world title, a feat unprecedented for a player his age. The letter was a response to an incident that occurred in Brussels, in which Fischer enraged Belgium chess officials by refusing to play a scheduled exhibition and acting like an all-around ugly American. Bobby behaved badly in Moscow too -- so badly, in fact, that Russian officials asked him to leave the country before his scheduled departure. The old-guard Soviets dismissed him as "nyekulturni" -- uncultured, the Russian equivalent of trailer park trash.

The U.S. Department of State received an official complaint from Brussels, which notified the United States Chess Federation and informed them that it was opposed to Bobby playing in any chess tournaments abroad. Hearing the news, Regina panicked and dashed off a two-page typed letter informing Bobby that there was new legislation in Congress that proposed greater discretion in revoking the passports of any U.S. citizens whose presence abroad might reflect poorly on the country.

Regina goes to great lengths not to upset her son's mercurial disposition by directly criticizing him. "Please don't think I am just trying to scare you," she writes. "Far from it. Don't think it can't happen to you." She instructs Bobby to be on his best behavior for the rest of the trip. "Play whatever matches they propose -- regardless of financial gain or not. Be as pleasant and friendly as possible. Bend over backwards if necessary. If this is not physically or mentally possible for you, leave the country at once."

"If this is not possible for you to agree to, if you just don't want to and are set to cut your own throat just to prove you are right, at least think it over and come home on your own power before you get kicked out by them or the State Dept. pulls your passport and you have no other choice. If none of these alternatives suit you, remember something has got to give -- three strikes and you are out. I sympathize with you and love you regardless of how wrong you are, or even how right you are and how much harm you do to yourself in trying to prove it."

By Rene Chun

Rene Chun wrote Bobby Fischers Pathetic Endgame for the Atlantic Monthly, and is completing the first Fischer biography for Viking.


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