Bobby Fischer: from prodigy to pariah

In 1999, I spent three days sitting in a variety of thermal baths dotted around Budapest. As grand and attractive as the Hungarian capital’s spas are, I wasn’t stewing myself for therapeutic or leisure purposes. Instead, I was waiting for someone I’d been told frequented the baths, someone who was said to be a genius and a paranoid obsessive, the greatest chess player who ever lived and an obnoxious crackpot. I was looking for Bobby Fischer.

For the last four decades of his life, that’s what people did with Fischer – they looked for him. Fans, journalists, biographers, friends, they all tried to find this mythical creature, either in person or in that fabulous abstract realm that he continued to haunt: chess. He had ventured deep into the alternate world of this most intellectually demanding of games, a daunting contest of infinite possibilities, and succeeded in becoming world champion. Like some chequerboard version of Conrad’s Kurtz, the experience seemed to leave him in a state of dread. Then he vanished.

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