On this day in 1943, Bobby Fischer is born in Chicago, Illinois. Fischer went on to become the only American ever to win the chess world championship. He also became well-known for his strange behavior, which paranoia and anti-Semitic and anti-American rants, in spite of his Jewish background and American upbringing.
Raised in Brooklyn, New York, by his mother, Fischer was introduced to chess at the age of six. By the time he was a teenager, he was known as the wunderkind of American chess and in 1956, he won the U.S. chess championship at the age of 14, making him the youngest champion in American history. At 15, he became the youngest international grandmaster in chess history when he placed in the top six of the 1958 Portoroz Interzonal tournament.
In Fischer’s day, FIDE, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs, or World Chess Federation, hosted Candidates tournaments to determine the challengers for the World Chess Championship. After the 1962 Candidates, Fischer accused the Russian players of collusion and then withdrew from the next World Championship series. For the next several years, Fischer sabotaged himself in competition with his anti-social behavior. In 1972, the U.S. Chess Federation intervened, forcing other top qualifiers for that year’s Candidates to resign so that Fischer could play for the World Championship. Once there, Fischer completely outclassed his opponents. After a winning streak of 20 matches, he defeated former World Champion Tigran Petrosian to face Boris Spassky for the World Championship.
The match, however, almost didn’t take place. Fischer made enormous demands of the tournament’s Icelandic hosts. He insisted on receiving the lions’ share of the gate proceeds and a larger prize than Spassky if he won, all while accusing the hosts of being puppets of the Soviet chess team, whom he branded communists. When the championship finally began, Fischer played uncharacteristically poorly and dropped the first two games to Spassky, only rebounding after convincing his opponent to play the remaining matches in a back room, away from the cameras. Fischer’s eventual win made him an instant celebrity, marking a watershed moment for chess in America, where he was portrayed as a typical American boy making good over the impersonal, communist Soviet juggernaut.
When the time came to defend his championship three years later, Fischer forfeited the match after FIDE refused to meet yet another string of his riduclous demands. Though he was clearly the dominant player in the world, and had attained the highest chess or Elo rating (determining a player’s skill) in history, he was forced to retire from international competition in 1975. Fischer’s behavior became increasingly erratic and bizarre in subsequent years: In 1984, he wrote to the publishers of Encyclopedia Judaica and asked that his name be removed from their digest. After September 11, 2001, Fischer went on the radio and announced that the World Trade Center attacks were merely comeuppance for George Bush’s regime.
Fischer’s last public match, again against Spassky, was held in Yugoslavia in 1992 in spite of a United Nations embargo against sporting events in that country. Fischer defeated Spassky for a more than $2 million prize. He then became a wanted man on his native soil for tax evasion, and in 2000 he publicly denounced his American citizenship. On January 17, 2008, Fischer died at age 64, in Iceland.