Bobby Fischer vs. The Rebbe
The chess genius denied he was a Jew, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe disagreed. Who was right?
In the summer of 1971, a year before he won the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Bobby Fischer—who died five years ago today—appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in one of his many custom suits.
“Can you have any other life and be a great chess player?” Cavett asked Fischer, who sprawled opposite the host in an undersized chair.
“Not at the moment, no,” said Fischer. “You know, first things first, right? Get the title and uhm … ”
Cavett, sensing an unanswerable flash for Fischer, chimed in.
“And what’s the moment of pleasure for you?”
Fischer shifted his torso, his thumb and forefinger now stroking his chin.
Cavett clarified. “Is it when you see the guy in trouble?”
“Well, when you break his ego: This is where it’s at. [The opponent] sees it comin’ and breaks all up inside.”
“What would you have been if you hadn’t been a chess player?” Cavett asked.
“I don’t know,” said Fischer. “Some kind of sport, something.”
As the interview continued, Cavett told Fischer that people expect to meet “a frail little fellow with thick glasses,” and that they’re surprised by the width of his shoulders and athletic appearance.
“I like a little swimming [and] tennis,” Fischer responded. “Mainly I just use [sports] to keep in shape for the chess.”
The audience offered a nervous chuckle.
Cavett pressed gently. “Where does it take strength?”
“Well, you’re sitting there for five hours,” Fischer said, offering the now risible crowd a toothy smile that’s equal parts nervous and warm.
Fischer, who had been the youngest American chess champion ever at 14, sensed genuine doubt in the audience and stuck to his guns. “How does that song [go]?” he said. “The neck bone is connected to … all that stuff. You gotta have the blood coming into your head. The reason that players fade out in, say, their 40s or 50s is ’cause by the fourth or fifth hour of play they’ve lost their concentration, their stamina’s gone.”
With this, Fischer seemed to preemptively answer the initial question likely to be asked by readers of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s essay about the chess master in Jewish Jocks, a book of 50 essays edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, which won a National Jewish Book Award this week: Is chess really a sport? Indeed it is. But the questions that should inevitably follow this one are more complex.
There is a well-known situational concept in chess called “zugzwang,” German for “pressure (to act),” wherein any subsequent move a player is able to make would only worsen his or her position. When it comes to playing Bobby Fischer, most moves we observers make—analysis, commentary, etc.—are part of the losing game of rote: What happened to Bobby Fischer the chess player; the American; the Jew? Foer first gives a summarized account of Fischer’s rise (“How and why did he leap to such genius?”) and then his fall into chess and moral oblivion (“How and why did he devolve into such vile insanity?”).
While embracing the jock label, Fischer would have wholeheartedly disapproved of the “Jewish” tag because, though his mother Regina was Jewish, he denied any sort of Jewish upbringing or education and never considered himself to be Jewish. Therefore, Foer suggests, he hated himself: “He attempted to conceal his insecurity behind an ego built for twenty, and his self-love behind self-hatred behind self-love.” Jews, whom Fischer would also call “absolute pigs,” would become his default nomenclature for anyone who drew his ire, whether Chosen or not. He denied the Holocaust ever happened and believed that “hundreds of thousands of Jews should get executed in the U.S. … and go to some kind of concentration camp to be re-educated.” His anti-Semitism, which was at times conflated with his anti-Americanism, festered and was unleashed during sensitive times and continued in exile as he became enamored with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; he was a tithing member of the Worldwide Church of God and later studied Catholicism, which he’d write “is just a Jewish hoax and one more Jewish tool for their conquest of the world,” before passing away on Jan. 17, 2008, in Iceland of kidney failure.
And so, what seems clear is that the question raised by Foer’s essay is not whether Fischer was sufficiently athletic enough to be included in the book, but rather: Was Bobby Fischer Jewish or not? And if he was Jewish, what kind of Jew was he?
Before it was Bobby Fischer, America’s great white chess hope was Samuel Reshevsky, an Orthodox Jew and seven-time U.S. Chess Champion who did not play on Shabbos. A positional player, Reshevsky was born in Ozorkow, Poland, and began playing at the age of 4. He became an International Grandmaster at 39 and defeated seven world champions in his lifetime although his main profession was that of an accountant. In the summer of 1961, Reshevsky, then 50, played a 16-game match versus 18-year old Fischer who hadn’t lost a game in American tournament play in four years. The match was played at the Beverly Hills Hilton and billed the “Match of the Century,” and the winner would take home 65 percent of the $8,000 prize money.
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