One of the common questions I am frequently asked is if I knew the late Great American World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer?
As so many others of my generation, I was greatly influenced by the chess frenzy that Bobby created right around when I started to play chess. Fischer played Spassky for the World Championship in July and August of 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland.
I do not remember exactly but it was definitely within six months of that time when I first saw a chessboard. I do remember from back then my father talking about the Fischer phenomenon and how amazing his chess play was. Obviously at that time, and for a long time to come, I never could imagine that I would ever play chess with Bobby or even meet him.
After winning the World Championship title in 1972, Bobby decided to retire and did not defend his title in 1975. The chess world was very sorry and disappointed by the disappearance of Fischer from the scene. He brought fire, excitement and, yes, sometimes scandals to the chess community. But most of all, he played many great games and had amazing victories. He practically defeated the Soviet chess machine all by himself. He virtually single-handedly created professional chess as such.
He was the first one with the star power to command serious financial conditions from chess organizers. After his 1972 match, he had lucrative endorsement contracts in his hands. Unfortunately, he never signed any of them. Had he have been more business- and marketing-oriented, most likely chess professionals even today could benefit from it. But even so, we chess professionals have to be very thankful for what Bobby did for the sport, and not complain of how much more he could have done.
It is amazing that even now, more than 45 years after the chess match of the 20th century, there is still a mystic excitement about what Bobby has done.
In 1992, on the 20th anniversary of the 1972 Fischer – Spassky match, a Yugoslav Bank owner sponsored a political, highly controversial rematch with a $5,000,000 prize fund between the same two players. That was the time when the U.S. had an embargo forbidding Americans doing any kind of business with Yugoslavia. Bobby, however, did not obey the order of the U.S. government and traveled to Sveti Stefan, a beautiful resort off the coast of Montenegro.
Prior to the start, Bobby received another notice from the White House warning him about the consequences if he played the match. He literally ignored it.
Both former world champions were 20 years older and not quite on the top of their games. However, they did play many interesting games and some very high level ones too. Bobby won the rematch quite convincingly, 17.5 -12.5, even though, to quote Boris: “I did not want to lose the match, but also I did not mind that Bobby won.”
After the match was over, Bobby went into hiding. Officially the U.S. government was after him and he kept a low profile’ in a small Yugoslavian town, Kanjiza, near the Hungarian border. I believe it was sometime late May 1993 when our old acquaintance / friend, Janos Kubat, a Hungarian / Yugoslav, drove my parents and sisters to meet Bobby in his hiding place.
I was in Peru at the time and envied them for the honor of meeting the American chess genius. Apparently, Bobby was disappointed that I did not go as well, and he wanted to meet me, too.
Therefore, another visit was arranged. After my return from South America, I drove my family in my VW Passat for another trip across the border. Bobby was protected by a professional bodyguard, as well as his good friend, Filipino grandmaster Eugenio Torre. Bobby was staying in a modest hotel room. His main activities were listening to the radio, reading, analyzing and playing chess. He was constantly following the chess news and games.
I was surprised to see how tall and big he was. He was slightly overweight, though I would not call him fat, and seemed to have enormous hands and feet. He was very friendly and open with me right away, and had a lot of questions, including about my recent trip to Peru. He was in the process of analyzing the games between the two World Champions right after him, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.
Fischer was completely convinced that the Soviets usually prearranged the results of important championship games. I was fascinated to watch his analysis. In some endgame positions where, after an adjournment, one side made obvious (according to Bobby) mistakes and blew the game, he viewed at it as proof that a player of this caliber would never make such mistakes unless they did so on purpose. By the way, it also showed the tremendous professional respect that Bobby had for his colleagues.
While I personally did not agree with Bobby’s theory, I can also imagine some occasional games were not being played out at full strength, especially games ending in a draw. However, I did not feel that there was any need to debate with Bobby on this issue. I do my debate on the chessboard.
After I first met Bobby, I felt he was not happy hiding and living like a fugitive in a small place to which he had no connection whatsoever. My family and I suggested to him that he move to Budapest, a much bigger city where he could go to restaurants, movies, meet chess players or do many other things.
A few weeks later, Bobby, together with his bodyguard and Grandmaster Torre, packed up and moved to Budapest. In Budapest, besides our family, Bobby found some old friends as well: Pal Benko, Lajos Portisch and Andor Lilienthal, grandmasters more or less from his generation. I also introduced him to some of my friends to keep him company.
After Bobby arrived to Budapest, I often drove him and his companions around, showing him my beautiful hometown. We often had lunch or dinner at our place, and went out to restaurants together, which was one of his favorite things to do. He was especially fond of caviar and Japanese cuisine. Another thing Bobby loved in Budapest was our world-famous mineral baths.
During his stay in Budapest, we played countless Fischer Random chess games. We discussed at length about how to perfect the rules for Fischer Random. It was a work in process. At the end, we came up with the final rules, ones which are being used today. We also analyzed many important chess games. It was clear that his knowledge and understanding of the game was quite deep.
Even though Bobby’s reign as World Champion was brief, the impact he made on chess will live on forever. While I strongly disagree with many unfortunate comments that he has made, I will always respect his genius and vision of the game. Even though there were several discussions about a possible match between Fischer and me, it did not happen. He passed away on January 17 in Reykjavik, Iceland.
I discussed at length about my experience with Bobby and many other great World Champions in my best-selling book “Breaking Through.”