Friday, January 18, 2008

Death Of An Eccentric

Former world chess champion Bobby Fischer has died in Iceland at the age of 64. The American-born Fischer, who was granted Icelandic citizenship in 2005 so he could avoid deportation to his homeland, had apparently been seriously ill for some time. The US authorities will now never get the chance to question him about a match he played in Yugoslavia in 1992, in defiance of UN sanctions against the then wartorn country.

Thirty-six years ago, Bobby Fischer was one of the most famous people in the world. He seized the world chess title from the Soviet Boris Spassky in an epic match (held in Iceland, where he was always fondly regarded, hence the citizenship offer) that seemed to personify the Cold War, just as that year's controversial Olympic basketball final in Munich did. In those days politics and sport mixed as they rarely did before or have since, because sport was just about the only arena in which the US and USSR encountered each other directly. That's why Fischer's stunning victory made him, and for that matter the game of chess itself, so popular for a while.

But that's all a long time ago now. The famously truculent Bobby Fischer didn't deal with the spotlight at all well. He never defended his title, refusing to play a different Soviet challenger, and giving up his championship as a result. He spent most of the last three decades as an eccentric recluse, his occasional public appearances giving the impression his once-brilliant mind had become unhinged. He trained some young female Hungarian chess prodigies in a slightly unnerving way, went on radio in the Philippines after 9/11 to describe the attacks as "wonderful" and ended up in custody in Japan before the Icelandic government saved him from facing the law back in the US. There were also repeated rumours, always denied, that he was playing and beating other top grandmasters over the internet using assumed names.

In the end it's a sad old story. In a way, Bobby Fischer's a victim of the Cold War, a conflict in which, for a time at least, a chess player rather than soldiers went into battle for the US.

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