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Bobby Fischer: the childhood of the little devil (I)

Translated to English, from E J Rodríguez

Mid-fifties. A couple of kids walk through the streets of New York. In the middle of the urban hustle no one noticed his presence. The passers-by, the policemen, the workers of public works; anyone who crosses paths with them sees only two teenagers – because that's what they are, only two thirteen-year-olds – but little can they suspect that one of them will become, over the course of a couple of years, one of the most famous individuals in the country. And after a few more years, one of the biggest celebrities in the entire world. He is very slender, with brown hair, humble clothes and slightly disheveled appearance. His name is Robert James Fischer and he is about to break into history before he is old enough to shave; the world, in fact, will know him forever with the diminutive of “Bobby”.

The two children who roam together through the crowded sidewalks are friends and share a common passion: chess. They have became known for participating in various youth tournaments and whenever they meet they usually spend a lot of time together. One of them has just moved from California to New York, because it is the chess mecca of the United States. The other, Bobby, has grown up in this same city, where he is already a regular in chess clubs. In fact, he usually skips school classes to participate in tournaments.

This day, one spring day in 1956, they head to the south of Manhattan. New York is an immense metropolis, but the world of the two youngsters –the microcosm of chess– is relatively small, spread out over a few streets. Near 5th Avenue, almost camouflaged in a quiet semi-basement entrance, is the Marshall Chess Club, one of the most important chess clubs in the city, which is where they are heading today. A few streets away from the club is the Washington Square Park, where chess players of all kinds gather for outdoor games; also young Bobby has been seen there quite often. A couple blocks away, practically in view of the park, there are several legendary chess stores, such as the Chess Forum, which is probably one of the most beautiful shops in the world if only for what it contains behind its cozy windows; or the Village Chess Shop, where sometimes we can see people playing at tables located next to the door of the place as if it were the terrace of a cafe. The two schoolchildren go through, then, the authentic heart of New York chess. They walk in silence. Suddenly, one of them – who has been reflecting for a while – seems to have a moment of revelation about his future. His game has been improving in recent months in a considerable way, yes, but now his eyes go further and he feels that before him a new door has opened. He has not yet turned fourteen but he can feel it: He is made for greatness. This is what his childhood companion and friend Ron Gross remembered:

“Bobby and I became friends. We used to wander around the city together. Sometimes we went to the Marshall club to play a fast-game tournament, things like that. One day we were heading to Manhattan together because we both participated in a small thematic tournament about the opening of Ruy Lopez. Suddenly, Bobby said:

– You know what? I can beat all those guys.

I thought he was talking about the people of the tournament we were participating in and I thought what he was saying was a truism. It was not a very strong tournament and in fact both of us had won all our games so far. But he did not mean that. He meant that he could beat anyone in the United States. And at the end of that same year, that is precisely what he did.”

The son of a nurse

Regina Fischer, mother of Bobby, was an extremely intelligent woman and of quite difficult character.

Regina Fischer was a very particular woman. She was born in Switzerland, although her family later emigrated to the United States, where she became a US citizen. Very intelligent and restless, she studied medicine in the Soviet Union – in addition to English, she spoke fluent Russian, German, French, Spanish and Portuguese… let it be known – and while living in Europe she married the German physicist Hans Gerhardt Fischer, with who had a daughter, Joan. When Hans left her, Regina returned to the United States to work teaching or as a nurse; little given to monotony, she used to change residence often. When her second child was born she was in Chicago and as we know today she no longer lived with Hans, although he was officially her husband and because of that for many years the fatherhood of Bobby was attributed to the German. By then, in reality, Regina was in a relationship with another physicist, the Hungarian Paul Nemenyi, a communist sympathizer who used to stun those who crossed his path by his prodigious intelligence. Nemenyi had won the national mathematics medal as a teenager in Hungary, apparently had a photographic memory and was especially outstanding in spatial reasoning measurement tests, curiously one of the basic qualities for a good chess player. In 1942, when the future phenomenon Bobby came into the world, Nemenyi was Regina Fischer's partner. This was even witnessed by the FBI: the police kept an eye on the woman because she was an enthusiastic activist of the left, which was suspected – without foundation, really – that she could work as a spy for the Russians. [See additional translation notes. (2)]

Bobby's true ancestry, then, was always a confusing affair. He received the surname Fischer and on his passport the German Gerhardt was regarded as his legal father. If Paul Nemenyi was his father, as seems likely by the circumstances – and even by particular physical resemblance between the two – Regina Fischer never openly declared it and kept that information secret. It should be remembered that we are speaking about the 1940's and she probably thought that it was more appropriate to register the child as son of a legitimately recognized married couple, not as the natural son of a Hungarian communist sympathizer with whom she was not married. Who was Bobby Fischer's father? Perhaps we will never know with complete certainty and the only conclusive proof would be genetics. Anyway, it's hard to think that he was not Paul Nemenyi's biological son, because of everything we know about Regina Fischer's life. What we will never find out for sure is whether Bobby himself knew the truth about who his true biological father was. Probably, but during his life he rarely spoke about his personal affairs and less about the difficult family and economic circumstances of his childhood. The only public statement about it that he did make was limited to a brief summary of the official version:

My father abandoned my mother when I was two years old. I have never seen him. My mother only told me that his name was Gerhardt and that he was of German descent.

Neither he, nor his mother, nor even his sister Joan ever shed much light on this subject. There are contradictory versions that come from various sources related to the family, but it is difficult to know with certainty how much truth there is in each of them. What we do know is that when Bobby was five years old, Regina, always restless, left Chicago and moved with her children to New York … alone, which indicates that she had ended her relationship with Nemenyi. If we try to compose a complete picture of what all these versions affirm – although they sometimes clash with each other – it seems that Paul Nemenyi could not only be the father, but perhaps even sent money to Regina Fischer regularly, as alimony. Unofficially (legally he was not obliged, of course) because he considered himself the father of the child. It also seems, if we pay attention to other testimonies close to Nemenyi, that the physicist occasionally visited little Bobby, taking him out for a walk like a kind of adoptive uncle, but without letting him know that he was his biological father. Others claim that the Hungarian was very concerned about the way Regina Fischer was educating his son, and that he even shed tears because he could not see him more often or have an authentic paternal relationship with Bobby. There have also been people close to the home environment, who say that Joan, Bobby's older sister, once said “Bobby and I have different fathers.” All this information, often difficult to verify but which more or less fits into the same framework – the paternity of Nemenyi – builds a scenario incompatible with the official version of the Fischer family, in which Paul Nemenyi was ignored and Hans Gerhardt Fischer was publicly acknowledged as the biological father of the famous chess player.

And according to others, when Nemenyi died –Bobby was nine years old– the boy asked about his prolonged absence and that's when his mother supposedly answered him: “Did you not know? He was your father?

There is no doubt that Bobby Fischer has been one of the most psychoanalyzed characters – at a distance, of course – of the entire twentieth century and possibly in all of history, so it has often been supposed about what could have been, in consideration of the absence of a father figure. During his years of glory, the sixties and seventies, there was still no idea that the absence of a father is not necessarily determinative for a child, and that there are other factors more important in child development. Be that as it may, it is undeniable that the whole matter of his familial origin hurt him; Bobby Fischer always refused to talk about everything that had traumatized him during his early years and the issue of his ancestry was no exception. [See additional translation notes.]

Bobby Fischer (left) and Paul Nemenyi (right). Although he was never legally recognized as Bobby's father, people have not stopped observing striking similarities.

Bobby was born in Chicago but then, grew up as a New Yorker, in a small apartment in Brooklyn where his mother, his older sister and he lived together. The child was soon highlighted by keen intelligence and we know that his mother did not really know what to do with it. She was a woman who loved her children and fought to keep them out of the way, and was probably unprepared for the emotional demands of motherhood. Frequently described as possessing a conflictive character, effectively cold and with a tendency toward paranoia – perhaps explained by the fact that she had been under FBI surveillance because of her political views – she may not have been a model mother. In addition, she used to spend the whole day working to push things forward at home, something that was managed under difficult financial restraints. The Fischers were a weakly structured family whose existence borderlined into poverty.

Joan and Bobby spent a lot of time alone in that tiny Brooklyn apartment. Since Joan was four years older and there was no money to hire a responsible caregiver for both children, it was Joan herself who was responsible for caring for and entertaining her little brother. Which was not easy, since Bobby's brain was growing at an accelerated pace, there were not many distractions available for economic reasons and any activity seemed to be short of the bright little one. One fine day, when Bobby was six years old, Joan came home with a box of “assembled games” that she brought from the candy store which included toys located in the same building (sometimes Joan is said to have bought it with money that had been given to her by her mother, and sometimes it is said that she received it as a gift from the owner of the store, who had sympathized with the poor condition of the two children). Among other entertainment, that game box contained a small chess board with a booklet that explained the most basic rules of the game. Both children played a few games, but what for Joan was only a fleeting hobby, for Bobby became a real obsession. It was customary for many child chess prodigies to learn the game under the influence of adults, whether watching them play with each other or being introduced to the practice by their parents and relatives. But Bobby Fischer, in a circumstance that sums up his future career to perfection, discovered chess for himself.

The girl soon tired of trying to keep up with her little brother and stopped playing with him. Not because she was not smart, in fact she ended up becoming a pioneer of computer education at Stanford University. There was no fool among the Fischers. But Bobby remained absorbed by the sixty-four squares, only now alone because his sister preferred to do other things, too, like any normal girl. In fact, Bobby's fixation on chess acquired almost pathological proportions. Or so his mother feared, observing the behavior and became quite concerned, and even consulted with a psychiatrist. The doctor told her, plain and simple, that “chess is not the worst thing that a child can obsess,” a half-truth that, as we know, can often hide the worst of lies. Perhaps it would have been opportune to try to moderate that obsession. But, apart from Regina Fischer's lack of skill as a mother, at that time there were not too many educational or psychiatric guidelines to guide children to a more normal childhood with these peculiar characteristics. Bobby Fischer was not only a gifted child but stood out even among children with that condition: when his intellectual capacity was measured in school he surpassed all the records filed in the center. During his life, and apart from the intelligence tests he used to tear through, Bobby Fischer was never psychiatrically diagnosed. We do know from his behavior that he suffered a certain degree of paranoia in his maturity – a paranoia that perhaps was, like his mother's, partially justified by the persecution he was being subjected to – and above all he is often cited as a paradigmatic example of Asperger's Syndrome. This syndrome, a mild form of autism, seems to fit with what we know of his character, but once again all conjectures are made at a distance and there are other features that could contradict this risky diagnosis. During his early youth, many people around him commented on Bobby's rarity of sympathy – or with antipathy, as the case may be – but nobody ever went beyond considering him a guy with an extremely strong personality, who used to show some extravagance, which was not surprising either, knowing how peculiar his education had been. The only thing certain, what we do know without a doubt, is that that early obsession with the sixty-four squares would not leave him, at least, until becoming the world champion at twenty-nine. [See additional translation notes.]

The child who cried when he lost a game

“At twelve, I just became good”

Little Bobby only seemed interested in chess or in people who played chess, and almost any other entertainment or social relationship seemed to be indifferent to him. That does not mean that he did not have hobbies of other children. He lived in Brooklyn, near the baseball stadium, so he ended up enjoying that sport a lot. Apparently on occasion, he went to some other party and was always a good fan. We also know that he was attracted to the fashion of rock & roll and that in later years he also developed a fondness for jazz. For his activity as an adult – he liked to swim, play tennis, bowling, pinball, etc. – we could deduce that he was also interested in these things as a child… as long as they did not come between him and the Chessboard. The board absorbed most of his time and he played against himself again and again, never seeming to exhaust from it. [See additional translation notes.]

When Bobby was eight years old, Regina Fischer –seeing that she could not find a way to get her son away from chess— decided to try to find some other children of the same age who shared that intense fixation, so that Bobby, at least, was not always playing alone. She wrote a small note asking if any other mother in the area had a child with similar conditions and sent it to the ad section of a local newspaper in Brooklyn. When they received the note in the newsroom, they did not publish it, because they did not know in which section to include it, but the workers of the newspaper – quite surprised by the strange announcement – put the beleaguered mother in contact with people from the world of chess. Thus, Regina Fischer knew that Master Max Pavey was going to offer a simultaneous games session in the city and that he would play against any fan who wanted to register regardless of age; maybe there Bobby would meet some other child with whom to share his hobby.

Regina enrolled her son in the simultaneous session. Little Bobby arrived, took his place and lost a few plays. He cried bitterly for the quick and withering defeat. In fact, he always vividly remembered that moment as an incentive, an impulse to want to improve. That day they did not meet any children of the same age as Regina intended, but the simultaneous session did not end in vain: the unusual presence of Bobby did not go unnoticed among the people of the scene and the president of the Brooklyn Chess Club, Carmine Nigro, with regard to the attitude of Bobby, believed to detect special conditions in the child. He spoke with Regina Fischer and invited Bobby to sign up at his club, where he could practice under supervision, meet other young male chess players, have access to books, etc. He happily accepted the possibility of enrolling in a real chess club and Carmine Nigro became the first coach of Bobby Fischer's life, although in essence it can be said that the player was always fundamentally self-taught. [See additional translation notes.]

Nigro believed in the talent of his new pupil and was not the only one, although before the age of thirteen Bobby did not stand out particularly in competitions, not even among the group of players his age. Moreover, until he turned twelve he was never considered the greatest promise of his generation of young chess players, far from it. He was not a particularly brilliant child prodigy and his learning curve was initially relatively slow, more so if we consider his immense circumstances. However, in the course of just over a couple of years, Bobby Fischer went from not drawing attention among other kids of his age to directly being among the best chess players in the world.

1956 was the year in which Fischer's game exploded practically from nowhere and began to make appearance for the first time in specialized chess magazines not only of his country but of the entire world. And the cause was one of his brightest games, which today is usually remembered as “the game of the century.” When he turned twelve his game began to progress spectacularly. His friend Ron Gross, who almost always usually had beaten him when they played (“Bobby was not a bad loser, he only put the pieces back on the board in silence, he was a born fighter”) he spent a few months without seeing him and getting back together both were surprised that it was now Bobby who easily beat him. Little Fischer began to climb rapidly in the rankings and suddenly became a promise to keep in mind. First, recently becoming the youth champion of the United States at age thirteen, being the youngest to achieve it until then … and no other player has since achieved it at such an early age. He ravaged the competition with a result of + 8 = 1-1, that is, losing only one game against players who were all older than himself.

Then, given his emergence as a new talent, he was able to participate in a couple of adult competitions of sufficient magnitude, the Open tournaments of the USA and Canada. In both he obtained discrete positions in the middle of the classification, but they were quite impressive if we take into account his age (his final scores were 8'5 over 10 and 8'5 over 12, not bad for an amateur at thirteenth!). Naturally, his presence in these events aroused the curiosity of other participants and fans who had come to follow the games. Not yet at the point of turning his image into an object of popular fascination, because it was not the first time – nor would it be the last – in which very young promises of chess were invited to these tournaments of a certain category. The presence of a teenager in these tournaments did not necessarily mean something special: many “prodigy children” who had passed as guests in similar tournaments had not evolved adequately and then disappeared without a trace in adult chess. However, it was noted that Fischer's game was, although still immature, appreciably more solid than usual.

Little Fischer became the attraction of any tournament he set foot on

Fischer also called attention to his image. He was a thin boy, looking restless but rather quiet, who as he sat at the chessboard used to fidget nervously with a medical identification medal, that his mother used to wear, around his neck; that habit of turning the metal plate between his fingers accentuated when he was losing or was in a complicated position. His hair was cut by scissors, evidently not by any professional hairdresser, and he wore visibly cheap and worn clothes. His humble origin was obvious and that was something that, as we later learned, embarrassed him a lot. In the future, Bobby, unlike other celebrities who like to brag – often too much – of their harsh beginnings, was very reluctant to talk about the rather precarious conditions in which he and his sister had grown up. But people around him have said he was not unaware of the experience of going to sleep without having barely anything to eat. In the buoyant America of the fifties, the image of that disheveled and humble boy in Brooklyn aroused intense sympathy among tournament attendees. His poverty, together with his immense talent, made him a legendary character. [See additional translation notes, (2).]

After his more than adequate passage through the US Open and Canada, his position in the rankings was growing by leaps and bounds which lead to an invitation in an even more powerful tournament: the Rosenwald Trophy Tournament, which theoretically only permitted the twelve best placed chess players in the country. Fischer's score did not place him in that privileged group yet, but he was progressing so fast that the organizers decided to make an exception and send him a special invitation to attend the event. It was an unmistakable sign that now he was beginning to be considered more than a typical promising teenager. He was beginning to be seen as a bit of a phenomenon. And he was going to respond to that image, and in what way.

Fischer did not score too high in that tournament, which was logical given the high average level of the participants. The kid only won two games and some draws, a result that is more than worthy if we take into account the rest of the names of the squad. There was the Great Master Samuel Reshevsky, a former child prodigy in Poland who had fled to the United States to dominate American chess and who had been one of the very few western players – albeit western-of-adoption – who had been able to create some minimum restlessness among the all-powerful Soviet chess players. Reshevsky belonged to the world elite in his own right. There were also other very powerful players like Arthur Bisguier, Edmar Mednis or Donald Byrne, who together with Reshevsky dominated American chess. Seeing a thirteen-year-old boy in front of that constellation of great national chess players was quite a spectacle and, naturally, Bobby became the attraction during the celebration of the games: around his table, other players met, who frequently went to check his progression. All this fascinating novelty skyrocketed and became an incredible amazement thanks to one of the games played by the young Fischer, the game that pronounced the true magnitude of his talent and that still today remains one of the most widespread and cited in the history of chess.

In the eighth round, Fischer faced Donald Byrne, International Master and brother of Grandmaster Robert Byrne. As usual, there was a lot of expectation around Bobby, because even when he lost, it was obvious that he had exceptional ability. The Brooklyn kid occupied one of the last positions of the chart, as expected, but the relative solidity of his game –at least considering his age and his inexperience– had already aroused many highly favorable comments behind the scenes. They knew that the boy was a diamond in the rough, but nobody could predict something entirely new, they would witness that day.

Transcription of the plays of the game against Byrne, the handwriting of Bobby himself, and a diagram with the bishop's movement that earned him immortality at thirteen years of age.

Byrne, playing white, began to maneuver his pieces and for a few moves played with some joy, showing condescension toward his childhood rival, something that frankly was difficult to blame him. The master resigned to castle, leaving his king in the open, clearly trusting that given his experience could resolve any small difficulty on the fly, that his young rival could raise on the board. A reckless but understandable attitude given the circumstances … and for which he would end up paying a high price. He was to become the first of a long list of future victims of Hurricane Fischer. As we said, the first ten plays of the game did not bring anything particular except this detail of the self-confidence of a consecrated teacher in front of a schoolboy who still wore a medical medal.

The unexpected surprises began with the eleventh move. Fischer left a defenseless horse at one end of the board, on what at first glance looked like a gift for nothing. Byrne, however, saw that he could not capture the piece, because after analyzing the strange “gift” he realized that if he did, he risked disaster. That horse sacrifice that Byrne could not accept would later be described by world champion Mihail Botvinnik as a “stunning and sensational movement” and by the famous chess journalist Fred Reinfeld as “one of the most powerful moves in the history of chess”. Fischer's maneuver, unbecoming of a child, caused the game to acquire a sudden added interest. They had just started playing and strange things were already happening on that board. That boy knew how to set up demonic traps as intricate as those of an adult teacher. Fischer's talent was brewing his own Big Bang.

In the following plays, Fischer began to organize an attack that for the spectators of the game seemed as disconnected and uncertain as intriguing. The boy achieved his initial goal of preventing Byrne from recruiting safeguard over his king. If the eleventh move, that sacrifice of a horse, had already aroused astonishment and had given those present a spectacular moment worthy of Hollywood, what was about to happen was going to overwhelm the possible expectations no longer of simply the tournament attendees, but the entire world of chess. As the game progressed, Byrne found himself confronting unexpected problems, of a nature he did not quite understand, Byrne struggled to defend himself against the disarming but threatening plan of his insignificant adversary. Fischer's threatened lady, thinking – as everyone thought in the room – that any player, and especially an amateur so young, would do anything to save the most valuable of their offensive pieces.

But with his queen in danger before a consecrated teacher, the chess player who was still in school, did something that at that moment no one except him could understand. Failure to save his lady as would have been expected, he moved a bishop in a move that at first sight did not make much sense, initiating one of the most famous combinations in the history of chess (considering who this came from and what his age was, also one of the coolest). The depth of the play was such that not even the masters who watched the game could catch it at the first moment. The players present exchanged looks of perplexity and disappointment: what a pity! The kid had been doing great but finally had succumbed to pressure and had made a mistake, handing over his queen in exchange for a rather uncertain attack. Now, all Donald Byrne had to do, was to capture the queen and take advantage of mastery over the pieces.

For a talented boy to win against a teacher in a careless manner, was within the boundary of possibility. But that he did it with plays worthy of genius was simply unthinkable.

That was the wrong judgment pronounced at first sight for those who were observers. Donald Byrne, Bobby's rival, did not respond quickly to that play. In fact, he spent more time than expected thinking about his next move, his face contorted in a grimace of intense concentration. The master was astonished: when looking for the implications of Fischer's extravagant movement – a movement so unexpected that it had forced him to re-analyze the entire board – he had also seen it. It is difficult to imagine what an important chess player felt in that unreal moment when, before his own eyes, a thirteen-year-old boy displayed an attack plan no longer worthy of a great player, but simply a genius, with capital letters. After that bishop move, the board seemed to have been completely tinted black in the eyes of an astonished Donald Byrne.

The International Master discovered that accepting the unusual queen sacrifice of his very young rival, was a bad idea, but to reject it was an even worse idea! Almost inexplicably, a prestigious player found that he had no good escape in front of a schoolboy who, miraculously, was not wearing shorts. Byrne, after much meditating, opted for the least bad option, that is, to capture the queen that his rival offered him. But by then there was no remedy: Fischer, not caring that he had lost his most important piece, started a series of consecutive moves with which he decimated his opponent's defenses, while observers watched in utter disbelief at the spectacle, realizing that this game had escaped all pre-established conceptions. Byrne, still understanding that he was going to lose, did not give up and kept playing, probably so that young Bobby could show off getting to the final checkmate, which he inevitably did.

At the end of the game, a vibrant excitement hung in the room. Everyone was aware of having witnessed a unique moment; They could already understand that what the devilish Bobby Fischer had just done on a board had historical overtones. They made him play the game before the cameras and in fact end up winning the prize for the brightest game of the tournament (not that it was one of the most beautiful of that competition, it is one of the most beautiful in history!). The next day, the chess analyst from a New York newspaper titled his chronicle as The Game of the Century, the name by which it is known today. Not only because of the magic of his game – obviously, throughout the twentieth century there are many other candidates for that title – but for the fact that it was not a Grand Master but a thirteen-year-old brat who was the author of such chess symphony.

During the following weeks, different analyses of the game began to circulate through specialized chess publications around the world. It was the first time the name Bobby Fischer was widely publicized in the scene: although winning the national junior championship at thirteen had been a remarkable achievement, it had not been something worthy of causing worldwide resonance. However, who at his age could have devised a deep strategy against a high level player was already another matter. That was the demonstration of immense potential and the best understood understood it instantly.

In the USSR they received the first news about the game with skepticism. Knowing the desperation of the western chess circles to break the hegemony of the Soviet masters, they thought at first that everything could be a simple “hype”. The typical case of a teacher who played too carelessly and lost to young and promising player. The matter of being entrusted to a brilliant kid and ending up losing can happen to anyone, even to a prominent professional. Perhaps thirteen years it is a very young age, but in chess a mistake is a mistake and can lead to a defeat even before a child, as long as he has moderately mastered the game. However, when the Russians read the transcript of the game they were as amazed as the Americans themselves. That game was a real gem, something comparable to the most legendary creations of the past, something that nobody could produce by chance: a donkey can blow a flute by mere coincidence, but the coincidence will not allow him to compose an opera. The ability to analyze and the level of depth of the plan used by Fischer went far beyond the simple anecdote of a young player who had beaten a careless teacher. This was necessarily the work of a genius. The display of vision and depth demonstrated in those plays was not characteristic of an adolescent, but for the majority of professional players in the world.

As the Soviet Grand Master Yuri Averbach said in recounting his impressions after reading and analyzing Fischer's “Immortal”, any skepticism was completely nullified: “When I saw the game, I knew that Fischer had a truly diabolic talent.” Bobby Fischer had just entered the grand doorway of chess history, or rather like an elephant in china shop, giving a spectacularly hard slam. But it would not be the last of his blows. In the months that followed, the son of an independent nurse, the Brooklyn prodigy who had learned chess from a pamphlet of “assembled games,” was going to establish trademarks that would take decades to be rivaled and in some cases may never be.