"The revolution will not be televised." So Gil Scott-Heron asserted in 1970. In the case of Bobby Fischer, though, the revolution was televised.
Considered by many to be the greatest chess player who ever lived and certainly the most celebrated, Fischer (1943 – 2008) first entered America's teleconsciousness as a T-shirt-wearing 14-year-old kid — the youngest U.S. champion and grandmaster in chess history — playing two dozen simultaneous games. Some 14 years later, when his epochal championship match with the Soviet Union's Boris Spassky was televised live, Fischer was by some accounts the best-known man in the world.
He was obsessed with chess from the age of 6 and was never more than half-socialized — or educated. Already a champ, he dropped out of Erasmus High, where his classmates included Barbra Streisand. Virtually unbeatable during his reign as U.S. champ, Fischer finally got his chance in 1972 to play for the world title monopolized by the Soviets since the end of World War II.
Director Liz Garbus, who debuted Bobby Fischer Against the World earlier this year on HBO, devotes most of her movie's first hour to the Spassky match — an event for which Fischer trained like an athlete. However fiercely confident, Fischer was also neurotically skittish. He pushed back his flight to Reykjavik, Iceland, where the match was held, until the last minute. Once there, he forfeited his first game, complained about the noise of the TV cameras, and accused the Soviets of spying.
The pressure, external as well as internal, was unprecedented. Fischer was cast as a cold warrior, and Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, gave him a pep talk. At the time, though, it was unclear whether Fischer was a master psych-out artist or a total nut job. In either case, his "strategy" worked. Fischer played so brilliantly that even Spassky applauded after his opponent won the sixth game to lead the match.
Fischer declined to defend his title and lost it by default in 1975. He broke from the televangelical Worldwide Church of God, which he had been associated with since the late '60s; his anti-Soviet conspiracies gave way to a virulent anti-Semitism (he was Jewish) and, after the U.S. penalized him for ignoring sanctions to play a 1992 rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia, a rabid anti-Americanism. Fischer's gloating over 9/11 got him briefly back in the news.
Garbus handles this decline with tact. The sorry spectacle of the ranting codger never effaces the image of the boy concentrating his entire being over a chessboard. You have to love that kid and pity him.