Friday, January 18, 2008

Brooklyn-Raised Chess Icon Bobby Fischer Dead at Age 64

Brooklyn-raised, Chicago-born chess icon Bobby Fischer, who became a Cold War symbol when he defeated Soviet Union's Boris Spassky as world champion in 1972, has died at age 64.

In May 1949, the six-year-old Fischer learned how to play chess from instructions found in a chess set that his sister had bought at a candy store below their Brooklyn apartment. He saw his first chess book a month later. For over a year he played chess on his own. At age seven, he joined the Brooklyn Chess Club and was taught by its president, Carmine Nigro.

Bobby Fischer attended Erasmus Hall High School together with Barbra Streisand, though he later dropped out in 1959 when he turned 16. Many teachers remembered him as difficult. When his chess feats mounted, the student council of Erasmus Hall awarded him a gold medal for his chess achievements.

Icon or avatar of a complex game, Bobby Fischer, perhaps like Ezra Pound, Charles Lindbergh, or other artists, geniuses, or heroes whose talent and exploits were overshadowed by their public and political views, leaves behind an enormous reputation in the annals of modern chess.

--Brooklyn Beat

Fischer died Thursday in a Reykjavik, Iceland, hospital, according to spokesman Gardar Sverrisson. There was no immediate word on the cause of death.

Born in Chicago and raised in Brooklyn, Robert James Fischer was a U.S. chess champion at age 14, becoming a grand master at 15. When he beat Spassky in a series of games in Reykjavik, he claimed the U.S.A.'s first world chess championship in more than a century.

The event was given tremendous symbolic importance, pitting the intensely individualistic young American against Spassky who ws presented at home as a product of the grim and soulless Soviet Union.

The match also was marked by Bobby Fischer's somewhat peculiar behavior - possibly calculated psychological warfare against Spassky - including Fischer's arriving two days late to complaining about the lighting, TV cameras, the spectators, even the shine on the table.

Spassky said in a brief phone call from France, where he lives, that he was "very sorry" to hear of Fischer's death.

Fischer's reputation as a genius of chess soon was eclipsed by his idiosyncrasies.

Fischer was world champion until 1975, when he forfeited the title and withdrew from competition because conditions he demanded proved unacceptable to the International Chess Federation.

After that, he lived in secret outside the United States. He emerged in 1992 to confront Spassky again, in a highly publicized match in Yugoslavia. Fischer beat Spassky 10-5 to win $3.35 million.

The U.S. government said Fischer's playing the match violated U.N. sanctions against Yugoslavia, imposed for Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic's role in fomenting war in the Balkans.

Former Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov said Fischer's ascent of the chess world in the 1960s was "a revolutionary breakthrough" for the game.

"The tragedy is that he [Fischer] left this world too early, and his extravagant life and scandalous statements did not contribute to the popularity of chess," Kasparov told The Associated Press.

Over the years, Fischer gave occasional interviews with a radio station in the Philippines, often digressing into anti-Semitic rants and accusing American officials of hounding him.

He praised the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying America should be "wiped out," and described Jews as "thieving, lying bastards." Fischer's mother was Jewish.

He also announced he had abandoned chess in 1996 and launched a new version in Argentina, "Fischerandom," a computerized shuffler that randomly distributes chess pieces on the back row of the board at the start of each game.

Fischer claimed it would bring the fun back into the game and rid it of cheats.

He renounced his American citizenship and moved in 2005 to Iceland, accepting an offer of citizenship from the country still grateful for its role as the site of his most famous match.

Fischer had been detained for nine months detention in Japan for trying to leave the country using an invalid U.S. passport. Japan agreed to release him after he accepted Iceland's offer of citizenship.

Fischer told reporters that year that he was finished with a chess world he regarded as corrupt, and sparred with U.S. journalists who asked about his anti-American tirades.

"The United States is evil. There's this axis of evil. What about the allies of evil - the United States, England, Japan, Australia? These are the evildoers," Fischer said. --Various news sources

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