World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer Dies at 64
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2008; 8:25 AM
Bobby Fischer, the chess genius who careened during his life from Cold War hero to eccentric international exile, died Thursday at his home in Iceland. He was 64.
Fischer's spokesman, Gardar Sverrisson, told wire services that the former world chess champion died at a Reykjavik hospital. No cause of death was given.
A solitary and combative figure, Fischer was born in Chicago, grew up in Brooklyn, and by age 15 had attained the rank of grandmaster. He thrilled Americans in 1972 when he dethroned Russian grandmaster and then-world champion Boris Spassky in a 24-game match held in the Icelandic capital.
Erratic in his behavior -- late to arrive for games and quick to complain about lighting, television cameras and other annoyances -- Fischer, 29 at the time, stood as an iconic figure, a go-it-alone American battling the top product of the Soviet Union's Communist-party controlled chess bureaucracy.
When Spassky resigned in the middle of the 21st game, having lost seven games outright to Fischer while winning only three and battling to a draw in the rest, it was seen as a triumph of U.S. individualism and spunk. In the midst of an era characterized by racial tension and malaise over the Vietnam war, it seemed to reaffirm the country's potential to produce winners -- similar to a later U.S. victory over the Soviet Union in ice hockey.
But for the individual involved, the glory was short-lived.
In 1975 Fischer surrendered his world chess title to Soviet contender Anatoly Karpov. The two never met over the board: Fischer contested the ground rules set by the International Chess Federation for the match, and was stripped of his title for his refusal to comply with them.
He lived in relative obscurity for years after that. When he reemerged in public, it was to a controversy that would last the rest of is life.
In 1992, he agreed to a rematch with Spassky, scheduled to be held in Yugoslavia and carrying a prize in excess of $3 million. The match -- which Fischer won -- was a high-profile violation of U.S. sanctions imposed on the Yugoslavian government of Slobodan Milosevic. U.S. officials issued a warrant for his arrest.
The warrant -- and rage against the country that once hailed him -- dogged Fischer for a decade. Known as much in later years for his ideological tirades -- against Jews, in praise of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- he was arrested in 2004 in Japan where he was traveling on an invalid U.S. passport.
He spent nine months in jail during a battle over whether he should be extradited, released only as he renounced his U.S. citizenship and accepted an offer to reside in Iceland, site of the 1972 title match.
Former Russian chess champion Gary Kasparov told the Associated Press that Fischer's rise in the chess world was potentially "revolutionary" for the game, stoking interest in a country where it was considered an obscure, intellectual pastime.
But his behavior following the championship may have done more harm than good.
His idiosyncratic image was reflected in the 1993 film "Searching for Bobby Fischer," in which a child prodigy purposefully loses a key match, and in doing so chooses a normal life over the rigors of competitive chess.
"The tragedy is that he left this world too early, and his extravagant life and scandalous statements did not contribute to the popularity of chess," Kasparov told the wire service.