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

Translated from EJ Rodríguez

“At school, Bobby was always quiet and uninterested in the classes. From time to time he would take out his little pocket board and start playing some games. Invariably he was discovered by the teacher, who said: ‘Fischer, I can not make you listen to the lesson and I can not prevent you from playing chess, but do it for me, please leave the board.’ Bobby, politely, set the board aside and sat in stony silence. And we all knew, including the teacher, that he was still playing chess in his head.” [See additional translation notes.]

His world was chess. Little Bobby felt ready to dedicate his life to chess and focus all his efforts on the future. Although before the age of twelve he had not been a child prodigy as such, at least not one especially bright, between thirteen and fifteen he experienced an eruption of chess skill completely unheard of in an adolescent of that age.

After word of his spectacular game against the master Donald Byrne had traveled throughout the world in specialized publications, making his robust talent enthusiastically recognized by several of the most important teachers even from the Soviet Union, the reserved child thought it was time to make the final leap to adult competition. Not just as a special guest at another tournament, but as a full-fledged participant. It was not just an impetuous desire for the ever competitive Bobby, but that his rise in the rankings began to support that decision. He did not want to continue playing chess for children. Because, in fact, he did not play chess for children.

1957 was the year in which that leap took place. Although, of course, he began participating once again in the Junior Championship of the USA, where, as everyone expected, he devastated without any hesitation. The organization of the championship committed the slip of offering the same prize as the previous year: a typewriter. A detail that, as Pablo Morán humorously recalled in one of his books, did not make Bobby very happy, who now had two of exactly the same typewriter. That would be the last time Fischer would be seen in a youth competition. Youth competitions had been small, plain and simple.

After that second junior title he began to focus solely on adult tournaments. He returned to the US Open, where the previous year he had obtained an acceptable score, although this time he exceeded expectations and was ranked first. It was his first victory in an adult tournament. By then he had begun to receive invitations from abroad – for example, he moved briefly to Cuba for an exhibition tournament – but declined registation for the first time in the United States Championship, where he would face the twelve best players of the country, something to which he was already entitled thanks to his rapid advance in the ranks. He had not finished school and was already competing for the national crown.

Bobby with Jack Collins, with whose family he spent a lot of time. Collins was one of the people closest to Bobby during his life.

For years, the American championship had been dominated by a small handful of names, the real living forces of American chess: Larry Evans, Arthur Bisguier, Arnold Denker and especially the veteran Grand Master Samuel Reshevsky, main dominator of the American chessboard, one of the biggest names in the world and one of the very few western players who had been able to create some uneasiness for the almighty Soviets. All those great players were going to be present at the 1957 US Championship. Now Bobby would no longer be surrounded by juveniles – although, even among juniors, he had been the youngest – but by established champions who in some cases had even a worldwide reputation. However, as would be apparent many times in the future, this was something that worried him rather little. Facing the status quo was never something that intimidated him even at such an early age. He had already proved to himself that he could beat established chess players; He had been knocking down walls for eight years to try to be better and those prestigious names were only new walls to try to knock down. So, far from developing his first major complex or cowering from competition, the skinny boy from Brooklyn was full of self-confidence.

The predictions about his role anticipated a “discreet” performance, parallel with the one he had obtained during the Rosenwald Trophy tournament the previous year, the only event he had attended that had been more or less comparable in magnitude. For example, one of his impending rivals, Arthur Bisguier (who had won the national title a couple of years before to lose it again to Reshevsky) predicted predicted: “Bobby should finish slightly above the middle of the chart. He is, quite possibly, the most gifted of all the players in the championship, but even so he does not have enough experience in tournaments of this consistency and strength.” A reasonable prediction, with which everyone would have probably agreed.

Everyone… except one person, of course. Bobby Fischer arrived, saw and won. Without losing a single game (+ 8 = 5-0) and reducing the American chess establishment to rubble, he was proclaimed absolute champion of the United States. He was, needless to say, the youngest player in history to achieve such a feat. He was officially the best chess player in the country. With this, he also won a place to participate in its first major international competition, the Interzonal Tournament, where the best professional players from five continents fought for an opportunity to compete in the world championship. Bobby Fischer had kicked the door of the elite, ready to gatecrash in among the best. [See additional translation notes.]

I was fourteen years old.

…and we all knew he was playing games in his head

Bobby was very intense, he took everything very seriously, but when something seemed funny he had a great laugh. It's as if he were trying to hold it back, but all of a sudden he let go of that great and explosive laugh, as if it were an escape route. We always got along well. He could be very funny, but the topic of conversation was almost always chess (…) Fischer was a good boy, although very naive in anything that was not chess. Everything was chess for him, every moment of the day” (Ron Gross, childhood friend)

School photo of Bobby Fischer.

In spite of the precarious economic condition of his family, the mediation of the people of the chess world of the city allowed that Bobby Fischer could go to a pretigious private New York school. Knowing Bobby's talent, they put him in touch with Erasmus Hall and urged him to apply for a position. In order to decide Fischer's possibility for admission, faculty submitted him to tests that measured his intellectual capacity. … and since he obtained a score higher than that of Albert Einstein, they were happy to admit him as a student with a scholarship that exempted him from paying the high costs of registration. The fact that he publicly aired the IC that he obtained in his childhood, a fact frequently cited by the press every time he was talked about, always seemed to bother Fischer. Apart from the public taking that score as a kind of immutable number carved in stone (which it is not, since the IC is rather an approximate and incomplete indication of the general intellectual capacities), Fischer never lent himself to to repeat that type of tests and in his adult age he affirmed not knowing what his IQ was. Nor was it necessary to measure it; everyone was clear that his intellectual capacity was immense. [See additional translation notes.]

Even with his prodigious intelligence, the classes in the select Erasmus Hall college did not overly benefit him. It is true that he was not a troubled student. Despite the image of enfant terrible that was earned in later years, the student Bobby Fischer was rather a quiet, educated and absent-minded child. But he was not a good student. He had a hard time paying attention, he spent hours and hours with his mind lost in chess. And when he was not thinking about chess, he was doing drawings of monsters, “elaborate doodles” or writing lyrics. His teachers would remember him as a poor student and a withdrawn child, rather unsociable, who used to jump for joy when the bell rang signaling the end of classes. All in all, he had interests not too unusual for any child of the fifties: he liked astronomy, dinosaurs, etc. But he did not give indication of relating too easily. In addition to his particular character and aberrant intelligence – frequently cited as causes of some maladjustment – we must take into account another detail that is usually omitted: Fischer was a poor child in a private school where most of the students came from wealthy families, when not directly affluent. At that age, this detail is something that can well make a difference. Rarely has attention has been given to this in biographies of Fischer. [See additional translation notes.]

Bobby only got good grades in the limited subjects that captured his interest, or in those for which he had a special facility. For example, he was particularly well-versed in Spanish classes. In those he did not have to work or apply himself, since at least in part, he inherited his mother's polyglot, the ease for the languages of Regina Fischer. Beyond these exceptions, his academic performance left a lot to be desired and his grades were bad.

The few glimpses into a portrait of Bobby Fischer's school years come sometimes from sources as curious as unexpected. For example, and this is already a coincidence, one of his classmates was Barbara Streisand, whom in later years would become one of the most famous people in the world. When Fischer was also famous, Streisand confessed that he had been Bobby's friend at school and had experienced a typical teenage crush. The singer and actress said that Bobby was, like herself, a misfit in the classroom. She said that they used to have lunch together every day and remembered Bobby either laughing loudly while reading the humorous Mad magazine, or, more usually, completely silent and staring off into infinity: “Fischer was always alone and he was very peculiar, but to me he seemed very sexy.” [See additional translation notes.]

Apparently, the platonic love of the Streisand was not reciprocated and remained in a simple friendship. After the actress told the anecdote to the media there was an inevitable wave of curiosity about the unusual school coincidence between two national celebrities. The press, in fact, asked an adult Fischer about his adolescent friendship with Barbara (by then she was already writing her name as “Barbra”) and he responded with his characteristic escapism, which was usual when dealing with the most personal issues:

Reporter: “Bobby, is it true that when you were in high school, Barbara Streisand was one of your classmates?
Fischer: “That I heard! I remember a shy-looking girl. Maybe it was her, I do not know.
Reporter: “She was your best friend, according to the information.
Fischer: “No, I do not think so, no, no. Not at all.

Barbra Streisand was a classmate and according to her, Fischer's best friend at school, although he later claimed not to remember her.

It should not be ruled out that Fischer did remember Barbara Streisand well and more if they had a certain close relationship: the chess player was never precisely characterized by his bad memory. But we also know that Fischer hated to be the subject of gossip, so it is not strange that he denied emphatically the singer had been his friend at school. It was a way like any other to stop the speculation of the press. [See additional translation notes.]

Be that as it may, Bobby Fischer's school record was quite poor and he only stayed in school until he was sixteen, that is, the legal age which he was obliged to attend until. The only training that interested him was the one related to chess – there he applied himself with iron determination – and he affirmed with frankness that “the school is useless, they do not teach you anything here”. Obviously, nothing related to chess. At home, he was able to spend hours studying chess theory non-stop, applying an energy and discipline that he lacked completely in formal studies. He even learned Russian in order to understand the best chess books of the moment, Soviet manuals, to which it helped that Regina Fischer – who had studied in Russia and sympathized with Communists – usually heard Radio Moscow at the family home. But Bobby did not develop the same fluency in languages as his mother, for him they were only a tool guide to the board; He stopped trying to learn Russian as soon as he knew enough to be able to handle what he was interested in. His mother spoke perfect Russian, but Soviet chess players still remember that, although Bobby Fischer read and understood Russian, he spoke it rather hesitantly and insecurely.

That fanatical fixation by the practice and continuous study of the game –connected, of course, to his extraordinary natural condition– was what, over the years, allowed Bobby Fischer to break the Soviet hegemony practically alone, revolutionizing chess like had never been seen before. Although during his early years he had mentors and coaches, such as Carmine Nigro or Jack Collins –with whom he also had close personal relationship, being the only thing remotely resembling a father figure— he was basically a self-taught person. For him the coaches were one more assistance, like the manuals or the practice tournaments, but in reality Fischer was training himself. It was impossible for any other person to try to impose a learning program. It was he who imposed his own program according to his own criteria, and this criterion consisted in not separating from his board.

Bobby travels to the Soviet Union

When I started, the Russians were my heroes” (Bobby Fischer)

I expected to find a young man dressed in a quirky way, making rude comments all the time, but it was a great pleasure to meet such a different person” (Alexander Kotov)

At age fifteen, Bobby was classified for the Interzonal Tournament that was to be held in Portoroz, Yugoslavia. That is to say, he was going to be part of the highest chess competition on the planet. But there was a serious problem: he had no money to make the trip. American chess, unlike the Soviet chess, was not really professional and even someone as relevant as Samuel Reshevsky worked as an accountant. And Bobby, a schoolboy of humble family, could not finance the international adventure. Moreover, the Soviets had extended invitation to Moscow with his sister Joan (who was then nineteen years old) before the Interzonal, but they probably did not know that Bobby had no money to pay for his plane tickets. However, despite this inconvenience, he showed his determination:

I'll go even if I have to be swimming.

The Soviet authorities had to call Master Petrosian because little Bobby was gutting everyone who crossed his path in the Moscow Chess Club (in the photo, a game between them).

Regina Fischer, after understanding that she would not be able to separate her son from chess, had taken a 180-degree turn and now dedicated herself to enthusiastically supporting Bobby's incipient career, for example accompanying him to the tournaments, something that bothered the young player a lot. She organized a collection and quickly raised the money needed for the trip, since her sprout was already starting to become famous as a kind of new American Einstein. But Bobby went into a rage when he found out. That was the first sign of one of the typical characteristics of his personality: he never accepted what he considered an act of public charity. That money seemed to him the shameful product of his mother's pleas and pride prevented him from accepting it, which, we may venture, was intimately related to the way he had lived through the poor economic conditions of his childhood and perhaps also his experience in the Erasmus Hall, surrounded by students from wealthy families. Such was his displeasure at knowing about the collection that made his mother return all the proceeds. He literally preferred not to go to Portoroz, than to use the money his mother had begged for without his knowledge. Again he was broke.

It was curiously a television program that came out. The shy Bobby was invited to the I've Got A Secret program, making a brief appearance in which a contestant had to guess who Fischer was and why he was there (the reason, obviously, was his precocious title of national champion). The filming is a museum piece: we see young Fischer being himself and it is not difficult to understand why he aroused sympathy among adult chess players. He appears in the studio somewhat ashamed but soon to smile, slightly out of place, and still surrounded by a decidedly childish aura. The teachers who knew him, in fact, continued to see him as a child for many years, knowing his emotional immaturity. In the film, Bobby smiles openly when someone in the audience cheers him for being from the Brooklyn neighborhood, and he gives astonished thanks when he is given surprise air tickets for his sister and he travels to Moscow, while the presenter says “He has received an invitation to go to Russia and Yugoslavia to face the best players in the world in an international competition… the only thing that has prevented this young man from accepting that invitation is the lack of money for transportation, which is understandable. We think it would be a shame that an American should lose by not showing up.” [See additional translation notes.]

What has been said, a sample of how Bobby was seen in those days: as he was, a neighborhood boy whose talent was taking him farther than his family's economy could afford.

Bobby and Joan Fischer finally traveled to Moscow. Although years later Fischer finished – not by his own decision – embodying the west in the Cold War by becoming the main individual adversary of the entire Soviet system, whose figure was always seen with sympathy in the USSR. Very especially during its beginnings. In a nation where chess was so popular and its champions were considered idols, a prodigy like Bobby could only arouse curiosity and interest. The appreciation of the Soviets towards chess could be partly a product of propaganda, but it was a sincere appreciation and it was also sincere the appreciation they showed towards Bobby. In addition, they knew that Fischer had grown up admiring Soviet chess players and learning from them, studying books and reviewing games, the Russians sportingly spoke of him almost like an adopted son. In Moscow he was received with open arms, treated like a true celebrity and entertained with an excess glamour, everything said, bored him exceedingly. The fact that he was introduced to artists and football stars or the one who wanted to invite him to the Bolshoi ballet bothered him a lot. He just wanted to play chess and meet the great masters. He was especially upset because he was not introduced to then world champion Vasili Smyslov. Being the champion of the United States, he did not understand why he had to meet so many soccer players and celebrities, and not the Soviet champion. He thought that this involved a certain lack of professional respect and, although he was still technically an amateur – or was in the transition to professionalism – we know he was very sensitive, but he did not lack reason.

As soon as he was able to free himself from annoying social commitments, Bobby “locked himself” in the Moscow chess club to play “blitz” games from morning to night against promising young Russians, while his sister Joan visited museums, went to the theater and walked around the city. In those days Bobby razed the young Soviet Muscovite players on the board. Their superiority was such that, although they were friendly matches, the Russian federation ended up calling Tigran Petrosian, a fearsome player of twenty-nine years, by most signs, future world champion – to put a stop to the fifteen-year-old who was humiliating the new generation of the USSR's up and coming. The powerful Petrosian, of course, put an end to the inexperienced Bobby's streak. Even so, Fischer managed to win some games against the experienced Tigran; fast chess or “blitz” was always one of Bobby's specialties. More than that, many years later, Bobby astonished some of his former Soviet opponents when he showed that he could remember several of those games at his fingertips!

In later years, Fischer would star in vicious confrontations with Soviet players, although always in the field of sports. He even accused them of manipulating certain competitions. But personally he never stopped maintaining good relations with several of them and was always considered – not only in the USSR but in the rest of the chess world – as a spiritual heir of Russian chess. [See additional translation notes.]

The Interzonal Tournament: Fischer definitely enters History

Bobby with Mikhail Tal and Tigran Petrosian
Three world champions in a single photo: Bobby with Mikhail Tal and Tigran Petrosian, two of the Soviets who most openly showed their admiration for the American.

After passing through Moscow, Bobby went to Yugoslavia to play the Interzonal. What Fischer was going to find there had nothing to do with the level of American competition. In the USA there were several very good players, but as we noted above, only Reshevsky had truly been among the leaders of the world to the point of standing up to the Soviets.

In Portoroz, except the world champion Smyslov and his top rival, the three-time champion Mikhail Botvinnik (both were playing the crown in a rematch competition, because the first had dethroned the second) a good representation of the world's best would be present. Starting with an overwhelming Soviet quartet, led by the new phenomenon of twenty-two years Mikhail Tal (the great artist of the board, great talent perhaps comparable to Fischer's and whom in a couple of years would obtain the world title) and the Petrosian heavyweights, Averbach and Bronstein, in addition to the Hungarian Benko and the Yugoslav Gligoric. Along with them, several other experienced Masters from five continents. The goal was to be classified among the first six of the chart to participate later in the Candidates Tournament, where it would be decided who was going to dispute the title with the winner of the rematch between Smyslov and Botvinnik.

Bobby, frankly, had already arrived as far as logic dictated he could get. It was incredible enough that he had mastered American chess at his age and virtually no experience in high competitions, but to stand among the six first classified Interzonal was an unthinkable feat. It was not only a question of talent, but of baggage, of knowing how such a big event worked and above all of being able to control the pressure, the nerves, etc. In addition, it was the first time he played an important international tournament, outside his country, and being, of course, the focus of attention (a teenager in the Interzonal, surrounded by the best Grand Masters!). All this, by force, had to overwhelm him. Furthermore, no one considered that his chess was mature enough to face the challenges of this new level of competition. No one believed in Bobby's chances. Except, once again, himself.

We should not think that their hopes were unrealistic. As Kasparov would say later, Bobby could have many misconceptions about the world and about life, but before a chessboard, and from a young age, he was simply clairvoyant. He himself was aware of the difficulty of the work, but he made his calculations: if he managed to beat some of the less experienced players – after all, he had already beaten some North American Masters – and at the same time he drew ties against several of the most dangerous, he could achieve rating to qualify for the classification. But who else would believe in that aspiration? No matter how talented Fischer was, and it was clear that he had it, the best players in the world, and especially the Russians, were going to cause him a few defeats. Well, to the astonishment of the world of chess, Fischer obtained a result of + 6-2 = 12, losing only two games (he managed to draw against the four Soviet Grandmasters!). In the final classification he was tied in the 5th-6th position with the Icelandic Olaffson –one of the only two players who managed to beat him in the Interzonal– and only behind the super-heavyweights Tal, Gligoric, Benko and Petrosian. Players, journalists and spectators were astonished, as the Soviet Averbach said : “in the battle on the board, this young man – almost a child – showed himself as a fighter with all of the law, showing an amazing composure, a precise calculation and some diabolical resources.” And, oddly enough, Bobby was not happy with that fifth place. He thought he could have aspired to more.

Anyway, with that fifth place and as unlikely as it would have seemed before the tournament began, the young American was classified for the Candidates Tournament. Thus, Bobby Fischer became one of the ten best players in the world and automatically obtained the title of Grand Master. He was fifteen years old, six months and one day old; the youngest Grand Master the world had ever seen (today there are even younger, but the title is granted more easily and certainly none have had to perform such feats to obtain it).

There he finished his chess childhood and began a professional career full of unexpected, rude, abandonment, controversy, media and political commotion, a new style of chess that amazed both locals and strangers, and above all an aura of legend that – for good or for bad – made him one of the most emblematic characters of the 20th century. Bobby Fischer is more than chess; he is history. And his story is not simply any story. There is still a lot to tell about him, and we will do it, without a doubt. We will talk about his passage (and his absences) for the Candidates Tournaments, his comings and goings, how he held the world in suspense until 1972 – the year of his coronation – and beyond.

Bobby is the best chess player this country has ever produced. His memory for movements, his brilliance to dream combinations, and his fierce determination to win are amazing. Not only do I predict his triumph over Botvinnik, but I will go further and claim that he will probably be the greatest chess player ever.” (Jack Collins, Fischer's trainer during his adolescence )

“My sister bought me a board in the candy store and taught me how to move the pieces” (Robert James Fischer)