Life is not a board game
From the Philadelphia Inquirer
Feb 8th, 2003
On Sept. 11, 2001, if Americans had not been too shaken to notice, they would have found Bobby Fischer at last.
The reclusive chess champion emerged to deliver a message, his voice crackling over the airwaves of an obscure Philippine radio station.
"This is wonderful news," said Fischer, who turns 60 on March 9. "It's time for the (([expletive))] U.S. to get its head kicked in."
Then he called for a military coup in the United States and a rounding up of Jews.
It was awful and sad, all at once. Three decades ago, Fischer wrested the world chess title from the Soviets, single-handedly winning one of the great cultural battles of the Cold War.
His name became part of the popular vocabulary - a kind of shorthand for brilliance. In chess clubs, young players wanted to be like Bobby. And why not?
Over the black-and-white board, Fischer's genius was unmatched. He could play two dozen opponents in high-speed games and then recite every move from memory - hundreds of moves in total. He racked up unprecedented strings of victories against top grandmaster competitors. Where prudent players settled for draws, he fought to win every time.
To this day, chess enthusiasts study Fischer's games with the loving intensity of art historians examining the impressionists' brush strokes. American chess has spent decades hunting for a worthy heir, its obsession captured in the 1993 movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. No one has come close.
"There's nobody out there," says Jerry Hanken, a chess journalist.
The grade school prodigy featured in Searching, Josh Waitzkin, "was going to be the next Bobby Fischer," Hanken says. "Well, Josh Waitzkin is a hell of a good player, but. . . ."
But Fischer's personal life and family history have been largely concealed; even the identity of Fischer's real father was kept secret. That biography gives insight into both his genius and his disturbance.
He comes from a family that included towering intellectuals and self-defeating iconoclasts, who were swept up in major currents of 20th-century history: the rise of fascism; the exodus of Jewish intellectuals from Europe; the Cold War sleuthing of an FBI determined to flush out Soviet spies.
Paul F. Nemenyi - Fischer's father, though not listed on the birth certificate - was a Hungarian scientist with a gift for spatial relations, a gift that was clearly passed on to his son.
Fischer's mother, Regina, spoke six languages and had studied medicine in Moscow during the Stalin era. A psychiatrist once diagnosed her as paranoid.
This is a story about who Fischer really is, about his parents, his origins, his life. The story begins with two Jewish immigrants. They would meet. They would have an affair. Together, they would produce a troubled little boy who would become the best chess player who ever lived.
She was the mother of a 5-year-old girl, and she was alone.
Her husband, Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, was thousands of miles away in Santiago, Chile, barred by immigration authorities from entering the U.S.
Into the void stepped Paul Nemenyi.
To Nemenyi, Regina would have had obvious appeal. She was dark-haired, with a face that could appear boyishly sexy or plain and serious. There was no intellectual subject she couldn't master.
Nemenyi himself was no heartthrob. He was 47, a Hungarian refugee and a theoretical engineer teaching at a nearby college. He made $165 a month and shuffled when he walked. An animal-rights supporter, he refused to wear wool to keep warm. Instead, he walked around in winter with his pajamas poking out from beneath his clothes.
Still, he had a compelling mind. "He was smart, very, very smart," recalls Charlotte Truesdell, who worked at a research laboratory with Nemenyi in the '40s. "He had a strange kind of memory. He remembered things by their shapes."
Regina and Nemenyi would have had much to talk about.
Regina, daughter of a Polish dress-cutter, had moved to the United States with her family as a baby, but returned to Europe as a young adult and studied medicine. Like Nemenyi, she lived in Berlin in the early '30s, when Hitler was coming to power. It was there that she met Fischer, with whom she moved to Moscow, where they lived for several years under Stalin.
In Colorado in 1942, Regina and Nemenyi were perhaps drawn together by their political beliefs. Nemenyi had told colleagues he preferred communism to capitalism; the FBI suspected Regina of communist sympathies.
Regina didn't share the story of what happened between them even with some members of her family. But it seems clear that in the summer of '42 a romance bloomed. The next year, Bobby was born.
There is a terse account of the liaison in the 900-page file that the FBI eventually compiled on Regina. The investigation began in 1942, when a baby-sitter found what she believed to be pro-communist letters belonging to Regina and turned them over to the FBI.
Nemenyi told one FBI informant, a social worker, that he met Regina at the University of Denver. But whatever follows in the file, as released under the Freedom of Information Act, is censored by the FBI. When the narrative again picks up, suddenly Bobby is in the picture. The file says, "He ((Nemenyi)) advised he helped support the boy."
But by the time of Bobby's birth, Regina had moved to Chicago, while Nemenyi was teaching in Rhode Island. She gave birth to her son alone, in a clinic for poor single mothers. And on the birth certificate, she listed Fischer as the father. She briefly considered putting her newborn son up for adoption. But in talking to a social worker - who would later share the story with the FBI - she broke down and cried, unable to go through with it.
Regina then moved into a Chicago home for fatherless families. Ever the nonconformist, she led a rebellion among the other mothers, encouraging them to question the institution's rules.
The home called the police, and Regina was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. She was acquitted.
A court-ordered psychological exam found her to be "paranoid" and "querulous."
Anyone can play chess. Few can play it well. The aim is simple: Put your opponent's king in check - under attack - in a spot where it can't escape. Checkmate.
At the highest levels, the game calls for enormous powers of memory and calculation. No luck is involved. Talented players can look at a 64-square board crammed with a couple of dozen black and white pieces that move in different ways and can visualize how things might look 10 and 20 moves later (knight takes pawn; bishop to bishop-five; rook to king-one, check; king to bishop-one; bishop to king-three; bishop takes queen . . .). Fischer didn't even need a board to play. He could glance at a score sheet of a completed game, play out the moves in his head, and then demonstrate a swifter way to win.
That's a different level of intelligence, a special sort of mind. A mind perhaps capable of overload.
Some of history's greatest players suffered disabling breakdowns. Paul Morphy, a 19th-century New Orleanian of immense natural talent, could play multiple opponents "blindfolded" - without sight of a board. He kept each game in his head and called out the moves.
Toward the end of his life, Morphy unraveled. He was often seen walking down Canal Street muttering to himself. He imagined that his father's estate was being drained by a relative, and would talk of little else. In an obituary, a newspaper speculated that his brain had overdosed on blindfold chess.
There is no known clinical diagnosis of Fischer. But a disturbance seems indisputable.
But in the late '50s, the club's board of governors held an unusual meeting. The subject was Bobby Fischer. He had moved to Brooklyn with his family in 1949, at the age of 6, the same year he learned the game from his sister, Joan.
At 11, by his own reckoning, he "just got good." His mother was often working double shifts as a private-duty nurse. Bobby spent countless hours at the home of Jack Collins, a chess teacher and mentor, whom he would even visit during his school lunch hour.
"Joan was there, but mostly Bobby was just on his own and Regina was working, working, working all the time," says Allen Kaufman, a New York chess master and childhood friend of Fischer's. "She would work 24 hours at a time, and so Bobby was left rattling around, mostly on his own."
At the Marshall Chess Club, no one doubted the teenager's talent. But his prickly behavior was alienating some of the wealthy sponsors whose support he would need to rise to the top.
"Some of what he did was so outrageous it was decided maybe he had emotional problems," says Kaufman, who attended the meeting. What to do? Board members talked about finding a psychiatrist. They considered Reuben Fine, himself one of the giants of the game. Then someone raised a question: What if therapy worked? What if treatment sapped Fischer's drive to win, depriving the United States of its first homegrown world champ?
Meeting adjourned. No one, Kaufman recalls, wanted to tamper with that finely tuned brain.
When Bobby was 3, Nemenyi visited a social worker to complain about the way Regina was raising him. By then, he and Regina had split, and he was living in Washington. Regina was "mentally upset," and Bobby was an "upset child," he told the caseworker, apparently without results. Two years later, Nemenyi sought help again, telling a social worker that his son was "not being brought up in desirable circumstances, due to the instability of the mother."
Regina herself sought the help of social workers when Bobby was 14. She described him as "temperamental, unable to get along with others, without friends his age, and without any interests other than chess."
But this was not just another kid absorbed in a hobby. This was the best chess player in the country. Bobby won the U.S. chess championship in 1957 - the same year Regina complained of his obsession - edging out 46-year-old Samuel Reshevsky, one of the greatest players the game has seen.
A year earlier, Bobby had played a game of such depth and originality that it was dubbed "the game of the century." At 15, he would become a grandmaster, the youngest ever, and the best hope for dethroning the Soviets.
Social workers offered guidance, but Regina wouldn't take it, preferring to work things out her own way.
She did not succeed. Her relationship with Bobby got so bad that they could not live together. In 1960, she moved out, leaving her teenage son alone in a Brooklyn apartment that soon grew filthy - clogged tubs, roaches, dirty dishes.
The move would usher in one of the most productive periods in Regina's life. She remarried, and she at last got her medical degree, in East Germany. She used that degree to altruistic purpose, providing medical care on American Indian reservations in the Southwest and working as an emergency-room physician in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
To Bobby, her departure was a relief. In a 1962 interview with Harper's magazine, he complained that his mother was a "square." "I don't like people in my hair, so I had to get rid of her," he said.
There may have been friction, but there was also love. The same year Regina moved out, she went to Washington on a mission. Outside the wrought-iron gates of the White House, she staged a solitary five-hour protest, urging President Dwight D. Eisenhower to help send a U.S team to the chess olympics in East Germany.
Bobby would wind up leading a U.S. team to the tournament in Leipzig.
"She was a fierce lawyer and supporter and protagonist of Bobby," Kaufman says. "And in the beginning, that was very valuable. And then eventually it embarrassed Bobby. For that and other reasons, he broke with her."
By the end of her life, mother and son had reconciled. Susan Polgar, a Hungarian grandmaster whose family befriended Bobby in the early '90s, said at the time that the two were speaking regularly by phone.
Regina died in 1997, at 84, near her daughter in Palo Alto, Calif. (The FBI had closed her case years before, concluding she was not a spy. Agents never seemed quite sure of what to make of her.)
The complexity of the mother-son relationship emerged in the 1962 Harper's interview. At one point Bobby displayed the anti-Semitism that would become his fixation in middle age.
He said chess was peopled with too many Jews, who dressed poorly and detracted from the "class of the game."
The interviewer asked, "You're Jewish, aren't you?"
"Part Jewish. My mother is Jewish."
Actually, both parents were Jews.
Still, Nemenyi would lose his university teaching job the following week, when Hitler purged the civil service of Jews.
Nemenyi, then 37, had already fled fascism in his homeland, Hungary, where anti-Semitic laws had been enacted. Now he would have to run again. He was being uprooted at a promising point in his career, having just published a groundbreaking textbook on mechanics that would be required reading in German universities.
Some of the other Hungarian refugees living in Berlin at the time would flee to America and become some of the most prominent scientists of the 20th century.
Nemenyi knew the giants, and they knew him, though he would never be as accomplished. They were all part of an elite intellectual circle being hounded out of Europe.
Nemenyi fled first to Denmark, then to Britain. In the fall of 1938, he sailed to the United States to find a job.
He headed to Princeton to consult with Albert Einstein. Nemenyi also gave his resume to the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, a New York organization that tried to find work for the hundreds of academics fleeing Europe.
But his personality got in the way. "He is an unstable and undesirable person," one note in the committee's files reads.
Nemenyi finally found a job working for Einstein's son, Hans-Albert, at the University of Iowa's hydrology lab. It was the first in a string of short-term teaching jobs around the country.
Assimilation was rocky.
Nemenyi's fellow Hungarian, the great aeronautical scientist Theodore von Karman, proclaimed him a misfit.
"When he came to this country, he went to scientific meetings in an open shirt without a tie and was very much disappointed as I advised him to dress as anyone else," von Karman wrote of Nemenyi in one letter. "He told me that he thought this is a country of freedom, and the man is only judged according to his internal values and not his external appearance."
Life in America remained something of a disappointment. Nemenyi never landed a job at the most prestigious schools, never wrote the book he had planned on fluid mechanics.
He was a physicist and a theoretician. But when he met Regina in 1942, he had a temporary job teaching freshman math at the University of Colorado.
The Encyclopedia Britannica commissioned - and then rejected - an article from him on theoretical mechanics. Nemenyi would have the last word, though. One of his last published works was a 1951 review of the encyclopedia in the New Republic. He panned it as out-of-date.
On March 1, 1952, Nemenyi was living in Washington and working at the U.S. Naval Research Lab. He felt fine that morning. As was his habit, he went to the library to work.
Then he stopped in at a dance at the International Student House in Washington. There, he dropped dead of a heart attack. He was 56.
Nemenyi had with him an envelope full of letters, which police later turned over to the FBI. One letter from a female friend cautioned him not to spend too much time worrying about Peter - his older son, from an early marriage - and Bobby. "I am sorry that you have so many sorrows with your children," she wrote.
The father would never know what his children would go on to achieve or how sad their lives would become.
Regina wrote to Peter Nemenyi, who was then getting his doctorate in math at Princeton. She asked if any money had been set aside for Bobby.
"Bobby has not had a decent meal at home this past month and was sick two days with fever and sore throat, and of course a doctor or medicine was out of the question," she wrote. "I don't think Paul would have wanted to leave Bobby this way and would ask you most urgently to let me know if Paul left anything for Bobby."
It is unclear what Bobby knew at that point about his relationship to Paul Nemenyi. It is clear that they knew each other. Regina told Peter in her letter, "Bobby is still expecting Paul."
Regina didn't want to be the one to tell Bobby of Nemenyi's death. She hoped Peter would do it. But Peter was uncomfortable with that, so he wrote to a family doctor for advice.
"I take it you know that Paul was Bobby Fischer's father," he wrote, saying that he didn't feel "qualified" to break the news, having met the boy only a couple of times.
"The matter is further complicated by the false pretenses about Bobby's identity and the parents' differences of opinion over this question," Peter wrote.
Bobby's paternity would remain a family secret until The Inquirer reported details of the FBI's file on Regina Fischer in November.
Friends within the small circle of people who were aware say that as Bobby's celebrity grew, Peter became embarrassed by his half-brother. The author of a respected textbook on statistics, Peter exhibited the family gift for logical thinking. But the similarities with Bobby stopped there.
Peter Nemenyi fought to defend minority rights. In the 1960s he was beaten and arrested while integrating coffee shops and helping black voters in Mississippi.
His end was unhappy. Sick with prostate cancer, he killed himself last year. He had been living alone in a Durham, N.C., apartment crammed with statistics papers. Friends say they often spotted him pushing a collection of shopping baskets around town, wearing oven mitts for gloves.
Peter Nemenyi stored his personal papers in a Wisconsin state archive. The files include statistics papers, address books, tax returns, and memorabilia from his civil rights days.
His papers include a lone newspaper clipping about Bobby, one that proved prophetic. It was an article from 1959 about his half-brother's threat to boycott the U.S. championship in a disagreement over the pairings.
That was an early example of what would become a destructive pattern in Bobby's life - the escalation of a minor dispute into a crisis that threatened to pull him away from the board.
He dropped out of high school and stayed in New York for a time, later moving to Los Angeles. He never held a job, instead becoming a professional chess player in a country where top tournament prizes were a few hundred dollars at best. He relied on friends and got money from his mother.
There was brilliant play, but there were also unexplained disappearances and a persistent fear of being cheated. Fischer played only one tournament game in 1964, and again only one in 1969 - long absences for a chess player in his prime. In 1967, he entered a tournament that was a stepping-stone to the world championship. He was in first place midway through, but then dropped out in a dispute with the organizers.
Still, when he was in top form he was dazzling. He hated the quick draws that are so common in chess. When he played, he played to win. He took the 1963-64 U.S. championship with a perfect 11-0 score. No one had done that before, and no one has since.
"When he was at the board playing, it was like God was playing," says Shelby Lyman, who narrated the eventual, inevitable world championship match for public television. "The purity of his thought, the search for truth, the ability to go to the core of a problem. Bobby never looked for an easy move that would blow away his opponent. He looked for the truth in chess."
He was hard to figure: friendly at times, rude at others. In the Harper's interview, he described women as "stupid."
But Lyman remembers a warmer Fischer in New York chess circles in the '60s.
The Chess and Checker Club on Times Square was like a set from Guys and Dolls. No guns, but lots of betting. Bobby was a regular. Sometimes he would go in and play a quick game just to win money to buy a movie ticket.
One day he took on a talented young player, spotting him a pawn and giving him twice as much time on the clock to complete his moves. A couple of dozen people gathered. Wagers were flying. Fischer handled the action himself. He won game after game, Lyman says, sticking his money in "six different pockets." Finally, his opponent won one - "and you should have seen Bobby go through those pockets to pay everyone off. He was practically looking in his fly. But he did it so good-humoredly."
Lyman recalls spending an afternoon with Fischer in 1965, after Fischer drew a tournament game he was playing by teletype at the Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan. Fischer's opponent was in Havana.
Fischer and Lyman then sat down at a board and played back the moves.
"He was very diplomatic. He listened to what I said, and he agreed. Then he asked, 'Would you like to get coffee?' I said sure."
They left the old brownstone and walked through Greenwich Village.
"I thought, 'This guy was the luckiest guy in the world,' " Lyman says. "He was young, handsome and going to be world champion. He had everything.
"He asked me all these naive questions. He was very enthusiastic. He asked me if he should go to college. People were stupidly pushing him to go. I said, 'Don't be ridiculous. Win the world championship.' And he asked me about dancing. 'Was it just for girls?' Things like that. He had the naivete of a genius. He looked at everything freshly."
Fischer had been eyeing the world championship since he was a teenager. But when the chance came in 1972, he did everything he could to spoil it. On a night when he was supposed to leave for the contest in Reykjavik, he abruptly fled JFK Airport, the press on his heels.
Once in Iceland, he complained about the lighting and the crowd noise. After throwing away an easy draw in the first game, he forfeited the second in a dispute over the cameras. The third game was played in a tiny Ping-Pong room off the main stage. There he staged his comeback, springing an opening surprise and beating Spassky for the first time. The Russian never recovered.
The world was riveted that summer, a remarkable time that saw the Watergate break-in, the nomination of George McGovern by the Democrats, the renomination of Richard M. Nixon, the withdrawal of the last U.S. ground forces from Vietnam, the horror of the Munich Olympics. And the peculiar son of Regina Fischer and Paul Nemenyi transforming chess.
In the United States, interest in the game boomed. "Chess was the thing," says Steve Doyle, a national tournament director. "It was the hula hoop of its day. The pet rock. Everyone was buying coffee-table books on chess and onyx chess sets. It was everywhere. And in a couple of years, the whole fad passed."
As did Fischer.
"Assuming he won the match, he would have won $50 million in today's dollars," says Leroy Dubeck, a past president of the U.S. Chess Federation and a physics professor at Temple University.
But Dubeck says no amount of money would have lured Fischer to the board, because "he simply didn't want to play."
Stripped of his title, Fischer disappeared. He lived a secretive life in Southern California under the pseudonym Robert James (using his middle name for his last).
He had led U.S. chess out of obscurity. Players were desperate for the messiah's reappearance.
"As it is, he changed the face of chess," says Kaufman, the New York chess master who knew Fischer as a teen. "Imagine if he had played another 10 years. Imagine if Mozart had lived to 46. It would have changed things enormously. Thousands and thousands of more chess players. More money in chess. More clubs and organizations."
"Those of us who were his contemporaries see it as one of the great sadnesses of our lives," Kaufman says. "Not even bitterness. Just profound sadness."
Alex Yermolinsky, a San Francisco grandmaster, calls Fischer's abrupt retirement "probably the worst thing that could happen to chess."
"I can't say chess started dying after this," Yermolinsky says, "but something was lost."
What? Maybe 1,000 or more Bobby Fischer tournament games, new contributions he could have made to chess theory, and the prestige of having an American as world champion. No one has risen to succeed him. Waitzkin, the prodigy in Searching for Bobby Fischer, never even became a grandmaster.
Just last month, the U.S. championship was played to no great notice, and was won by a Latvian-born Pittsburgh resident, Alexander Shabalov, who is probably destined to a life of continued obscurity; the prize was a modest $25,000.
In 1992, Fischer surfaced. He was 49 - past his prime. He and Spassky played an exhibition match in Yugoslavia that drew worldwide attention. Fischer won again, though he was clearly off form.
The United States alleged that Fischer, in playing the match, was violating a presidential order imposing sanctions against Yugoslavia. He was indicted. He became a fugitive and has never returned to face the charges, which still stand. In recent years, he has hopscotched between Japan, Hungary and the Philippines.
Within minutes of greeting the host, Fischer uncorked this thought: "Filthy bastards, they're trying to take over the world. . . . They invented the Holocaust. . . . They're a filthy, lying bastard people."
Bobby Ang, a former friend of Fischer's from the Philippines, sighs: "You ask Bobby about chess, he answers about Jews."
In his deepening isolation, Fischer has broken with friends. He has even broken with chess. He refuses to play the game in its classic form. Instead, he is pushing a variation in which the pieces are arranged randomly in the back row.
There are eerie parallels in the lives of Fischer and his chess forebear Paul Morphy, including claims of persecution and reclusiveness.
Toward the end of his life, Morphy, too, renounced chess. He refused even to let friends speak of the game in his presence.
In 1879, the American Chess Journal quoted one of Morphy's acquaintances: "The least encouragement will result in being compelled to listen for hours to the same old story that everybody knows by heart - that relating to his father's estate. He talks of nothing else and apparently thinks of nothing else."
The great minds that could produce such artistic compositions over the board would ultimately prove their undoing.
"It's a double tragedy," Kaufman says. "It's a tragedy for American chess and a tragedy for Bobby Fischer. He could have been on top of the world."
|© 2003 Academic Chess - All rights reserved|