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Chess legend still intrigues people

| Monday, May 9, 2005

About a month ago, the story of an early seventies media “darling” began making headlines. It was a peculiar story, one, unless you investigated, would probably have been very miniscule.

“Chess legend Bobby Fischer drops San Diego lawsuit against U.S.”, “Iceland won't tip off U.S. if Bobby Fischer travels”, “Japanese release Bobby Fischer”. These were some of the headlines from various newspapers over the last month.

It wasn't always this way for the one-time chess champion of the world, but for Bobby Fischer, the mop-topped kid from Brooklyn, who possessed an IQ that rivaled Einstein's, the last twenty years have been nothing short of a life shrouded with ambiguity and quandary.

“Peck's Bad Boy”, Robert James Fischer, chess's “John McEnroe”, was born in Chicago in 1943, but raised in the New York suburb after his mother moved there following her divorce from Bobby's father. At the time, Bobby was a mere two. He learned to play chess by the age of six and in consecutive years from the ages of thirteen through fifteen became the youngest National Junior Chess champion, the youngest Senior U.S. Champion, and the youngest Grandmaster in the history of the game.

It was at this same time that legendary reporter Dick Schaap befriended the teenager, taking him, to amongst other things, New York Knicks games.

By 1972, Fischer, not only upset, but destroyed, the heavily favored Russian, Boris Spassky, in Game 6 of their championship match, that was held in Reykavik, Iceland. This also came at the height of the “Cold War” and was a championship that the Russians held in high esteem.

That all ended in 1975 when the FIDE (Federation of Internationale des Echecs- the World Chess Federation) refused to support Fischer's conditions for a match against Soviet, Anatoly Karpov. Fischer refused to play, the FIDE awarded the title to Karpov, and Fischer virtually disappeared from the public scene.

He first moved to the Los Angeles area and joined a cult, in which he ceased interacting with people and became a recluse. It was also during that time, that he began to condemn his country and the Jewish people, even though his mother was of that ancestry. Eventually, he moved to Europe and launched a new game titled “Fischerandom Chess”, in which the pieces behind the pawns are randomly shuffled.

The sixty-two year old chess icon is wanted on charges of violating international sanctions. In 1992, Fischer reportedly received $3.5 million in a chess re-match against Spasky in the one-time Yugoslavia and bragged that he didn't intend to pay any income tax on his winnings. But more importantly, he violated NATO economic sanctions against the country that were imposed over the Boznia Herzegovina conflict, in the process, ignoring authorities. At a time-related press conference, Fischer spat upon the document that was issued to him by the U.S.

It was also during this time that he began to also deplore the game that had made him so celebrated-chess.

Following 911, Fischer publicly denounced his country in a radio interview, saying that the catastrophe that had occurred served the U.S. right and that what comes around, goes around. Some three months later, Dick Schaap passed away.

Last July, Fischer spent eight months in a Japanese detention facility for trying to leave the country with an invalid U.S. passport. It was there that Fischer claimed he was frequently placed in solitary confinement and assaulted and beaten.

It was during that time that Fischer filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. government, claiming that he was illegally detained for those eight months. According to Fischer, the consul general at the American embassy instructed Japanese authorities to treat Fischer callously, hoping to force Bobby to give up his legal rights under international U.S. law and have him to agree to deportation. That suit has since been dropped.

After being released this past March, Fischer applied and was granted Icelandic citizenship. Upon his arrival in Iceland, pictures of the former chess champion resembled those of Ernest Hemingway's fabled character, “The Old Man and the Sea.”- sans the tan.

Fischer, some fifty to one-hundred pounds heavier than in his championship days, was dressed in a blue work-shirt and jeans and had a full beard, which along with his hair, were both snow white. It was no wonder that Jeremy Schaap, a reporter for ESPN for the last dozen years and the son of Dick, was there to meet him on that March 24th day.

“I was excited,” Schaap said, of his anticipation of speaking with Fischer. “Here's someone who was so elusive for years and no Western reporters had the chance to talk with him in thirty plus years. I thought, wow, this is a great story anyway you look at it.”

Schaap met the car that carried Fischer to the nearby hotel, and yelled to Bobby through the window, explaining who he was. “I didn't think he heard me because he was cupping his hand behind his ear,” said Schaap. “It was crowded and it was an airport. I figured he was disoriented after having spent twenty-hours flying here. He looked disheveled, like a madman.”

But on the very next day, at the press conference, which, was held at the Loftleidir Hotel (the same hotel he (Fischer) stayed during his 1972 championship chess match), Schaap's excitement would turn to disbelief, anger, and sadness.

Moments into the conference, for which Fischer was about a half-hour late, Bobby looked over and asked Jeremy what his name was. Upon finding out that he was the son of the late Dick Schaap, Fischer attacked, “Your father was Dick Schaap. He rapped me very hard when he said I don't have a sane bone in my body. It was very mean. He was Jewish, right”,”

Upon Jeremy's confirmation, Fischer continued his attack somewhat later in the conference. “I hate to rap people personally, but his father many, many years ago befriended me. Kinda acted like a father figure and then later like a typical Jewish snake. He had the most vicious things to say about me.”

Schaap recalled that he had a lot of questions to ask Fischer that had nothing to do with his father, but when Bobby made it personal, he was put in a position in which he had to respond.

“I never expected him to be talking about my father,” said Schaap, who just recently released a book, “Cinderalla Man”, a story about legendary fighter James Braddock. “This was a man who looked deranged. I assumed that somehow it had affected his memory.”

Schaap continued to say that there was a lot of history between his father and Bobby, but that he wasn't aware of its extent. “When he said father-figure, that part of the relationship I didn't know about,” said Schaap. “Those words had never been associated with the relationship between them,”

As Fischer verbally pushed Schaap to respond to his question if Jeremy had ever read the article in which his father had reportedly deprecated him, Jeremy said, “Honestly, I'm not sure if I read it, but I know that he said it, and I don't know that you've done much here today to really disprove anything he said.”

With that, Schaap stared at Fischer for about ten seconds, turned his back, and excited the room in front of a stunned and silenced crowd. As he exited the room, the camera followed him. Schaap didn't realize until he returned from Reykavik that Fischer's eyes had followed him as he departed.

“I was more sad, than angry,” said Schaap regarding the outcome of his interview. “It's hard to be angry at someone who seems to be so challenged, mentally.”

This saga has taken some strange twists over the last thirty-three years, culminating with a gifted twenty-nine year old from Brooklyn, who had trouble finding his way from one place to another, and concluding with a vile filled sixty-two year old rebel, fugitive, and an enemy of his own country.

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