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Bobby Fischer vs. The Rebbe

The chess genius denied he was a Jew, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe disagreed. Who was right?

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Bobby Fischer, 1971. (AFP/Getty Images)

With the match tied 5½ -5½  (1 point for a win, 0 for a loss, and a half point for a tie), the contest hit a snag when the 12th round, slated for a Saturday, was rescheduled for the following day due to Reshevsky’s religious observances. Additionally, Jacqueline Piatigorsky, one of the match’s sponsors, required the match to begin at 11 a.m., citing her own travel needs. Fischer, whose circadian rhythm was that of a bartender, failed to show for the morning commencement. The game was ruled a forfeit. When Fischer was absent from the 13th match too, Reshevsky was declared the overall winner. (Fischer would ultimately sue his opponent and the American Chess Foundation; the case was eventually dropped.) As Frank Brady notes in Endgame, a 2011 biography of Fisher, the result of the match “was the unfortunate casualty of Bobby’s ingrained sleep habits and long shadow of patronage in chess.” A few years later Fischer became a disciple of the Worldwide Church of God; ironically, its tenets forbade him from competitive chess on the Sabbath.

At the 1963-64 U.S. Chess Championships, Fischer tallied an 11-0 record, the only perfect score in its history, defeating his rival Reshevsky along the way. The victory, his fifth in the U.S. championships, would earn him the title of International Master. He would go on to retain his crown two more times for a record eight in front of Reshevky’s seven. In late 1968, Fischer unexpectedly took 18 months away from chess, returning in 1970 to play in the “USSR vs. the Rest of the World” tournament in Belgrade. This time, Reshevsky was his teammate.

“Samuel Reshevsky’s game vs. Vasily Smyslov had been adjourned,” writes Brady. “Back at the Metropol Hotel, Bobby sat down with Reshevsky to analyze the position and consider possible strategies the older grandmaster might play when the game resumed. After ten years of bitterness and competition, this was the first time Fischer had had a friendly interchange with his American rival. (The next day Reshevsky won his game).” Fischer, writing for Brady’s (now-defunct) Chessworld magazine years later, would name Reshevsky as one of the 10 greatest chess players of all time.

Known affectionately in his youth as “Shmulik der vunderkind,” Reshevsky lived in Crown Heights and developed a relationship with Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe. He once asked for a blessing from the Rebbe, who agreed on the condition that Reshevsky study Torah daily; Reshevsky obliged. Throughout his life, Reshevsky wrote seven books on chess and worked regularly as a journalist. In 1982, at age 70 and no longer competing at a world-class level, Reshefsky was considering retiring from professional chess and approached Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh and last Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and asked for advice. According to Dovid Zaklikowski, the Rebbe told Reshevsky that playing chess was his “way of fulfilling the commandment of sanctifying G-d’s name” and suggested that he not hang it up just yet.

And so, in 1984, aged 72, Reshevsky tied for first place at the Reykjavik Open. After his victory, Reshevsky received a congratulatory letter from the Rebbe, which ended:

P.S. The following lines may appear strange, but I consider it my duty not to miss the opportunity to bring it to your attention. You are surely familiar with the life story of Bobby Fischer, of whom nothing has been heard in quite some time.

Unfortunately, he did not appear to have the proper Jewish education, which is probably the reason for his being so alienated from the Jewish way of life or the Jewish people. However, being a Jew, he should be helped by whomever possible. I am writing to you about this since you are probably better informed about him than many other persons, and perhaps you may find some way in which he could be brought back to the Jewish fold, either through your personal efforts, or in some other way.

Inspired by the Rebbe, Reshevsky took it upon himself to seek out Fischer in Los Angeles during a visit to the area for a tournament.

Since winning the international chess summit in 1972, Fischer had moved back to California where he “want[ed] to meet girls, vivacious girls with big breasts,” according to Endgame. Yet apart from a couple of television appearances, Fischer lived alone and was seldom seen in public, reachable only by phone or mail to the dwindling few still within his good graces; to some he stopped speaking entirely, to others, he simply acted selfishly—or brattily. When Fischer’s childhood coach and mentor, Jack Collins, asked Bobby to write the introduction to his book, My Seven Chess Prodigies (1974), in a time of need, Fischer never answered the request. And in 1975, before agreeing to defend his title against Russian upstart Anatoly Karpov, Fischer made rule-changing demands on FIDE, the governing body of the tournament. The group made concessions, but not enough to appease the boy-wonder from Brooklyn. As a result, Fischer officially relinquished his title, and Karpov became the champion by default.

Fischer then virtually disappeared from public view—with one exception. One day in 1981, Fischer went out for a walk in Pasadena. Because of his aversion to Western medicine, he now sported a limp and many of his teeth were rotted or had fallen out. He had also grown a paunch. In other words, he was a shell of the custom-suit-wearing chess stud who’d taken the world by storm. A police car pulled up beside him, because he fit the description of a wanted bank robber in the area. The more he was questioned, the more irate he grew; when the police searched his bag’s contents they found a juicer—Fischer demanded restaurants juice fruits and vegetables in front of him—and hate literature. He was booked for vagrancy and spent the next two days in jail (the bank robber was already caught). Upon his release, Fischer spent over $3,000 to publish 10,000 copies of an 8,500-word, 14-page booklet titled I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse! (It currently still sells online for around $300.)

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One wonders if Fischer suffered from Asperger’s. His irascible lack of any sympathy combined with a brilliant obsession with a checkered board suggests the symptoms.

pkbrandon says:

There is currently no such diagnosis as Asperger’s; just a continuum from normal to autistic.
Of course Fischer was single-minded beyond most of us, but so are many people (including athletes and clergy) who excel in their fields.
As to whether he was Jewish, both sides are correct.

Lilithcat says:

Why use the racist phrase “great white hope”?

I saw Sammy Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer play 30 simultaneous games on separate occasions at Yeshiva University in the early 1960′s. Reshevsky tied 4 games and won all the others (including my game). He seemed at ease, smiled often and engaged in some friendly banter. Indeed, his son Joel, a friend of mine, was a student at the school. Fischer, by comparison, was uptight; never smiling. I was told at one point that the captain of the chess team had a splendid move up his sleeve. I went to the table, and saw him smiling in anticipation, and when Fishcer approached, made the move with confidence, Fischer hesitated a bit (he generally responded in a second or two) and made a move that caused the captain to slap his head in disbelief. He lost a few moves later. Fischer was an unbelievable player, but was then simply a jerk. Later, he flowered into the full-blown ass that he defined his adult character. By the way, his score that night was 30 wins – no losses or ties. And the only words he uttered during the whole time he was there came at the end when he asked: “Where’s my check?”

Pip Power says:

YOU WANNA USE, “GREAT KIKE HOPE”?

Pip Power says:

Talmudic Judaism is a mental disease!

I haven’t finished this piece, but I was under the impression that recently discovered documentation proved that Fischer was Jewish on both sides of the family. If I recall, it was from a cache of papers pertaining to his family’s immigration to the United States.

herbcaen says:

Nobody misses Bobby Fisher. Even AHmadinejad would probably be better company. Bobby Fisher was dreck

While I haven’t read the biography Endgame yet. It is worth noting that his sister Joan and mother Regina lived lives that are worthy of biographies. They were both remarkable people that treated others well.

Umish Katani says:

Who cares?… surely Fisher didnt so why even bother discussing it. Waste of time and grey matter

I remember first getting interested in chess during the Fischer-Spassky match. Real disappointment finding out later that he was a lunatic.

There are several mistakes
1) Reshevsky was never world chess champion.

2) Fischer was never a member of
the church. The church used to advertise in chess magazines. The church said that the messiah would come in 1975. In 1976 Fischer lost interest .

3) Great white hope?. Out of over 1,000 Chess Grandmasters, only one is black..

4) Fischer’s IM title did not come in 1964. He became a Grandmaster ,a higher title, in 1958 at the age of 15.

5) Reshevsky asked the the Fred Rebbe for a blessing to avoid the draft. The Fred. Rebbe answered that if he takes upon himself the yoke of torah by learning daily he will be freed from yoke of army
That is enough for now. Lastly, Reshevsky never played the Rebbe a game of chess.January 20, 2013 4:30 am

Thing that always got me is, there’s no way out of Judaism. None. You can convert out of Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, but eat a bacon cheeseburger on Yom Kippur at a German restaurant–still a Jew. There ought to be some form of ritual for leaving the faith, maybe involving a reverse mikvah of pork grease or something.

Having watched the video of Fischer flying to Iceland, all I can say is that if he ain’t Jewish, I ain’t. He looks like he could be a Rebbe himself. Sad story.

Moysescu says:

If Fischer didn’t want to be a Jew, than that’s o’k with me. I wouldn’t want that miserable SOB to share anything with me. The world’s a better place for his absence.

Papa493 says:

Burn your Bloomingdale’s credit card.

If Fisher stated that he was not Jewish, the case is closed. There is no reason to create illusions and false truths. Because want to assign it to force the Jewish condition? Is this a mature attitude, sensible?

one thing’s for sure, Fischer will be remembered as a chess genius. The writer of this weird article won’t be remembered at all.

Yellow says:

Fischer was right, obvs.

Jewry is the eternal sickness of mankind.

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Bobby Fischer vs. The Rebbe

The chess genius denied he was a Jew, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe disagreed. Who was right?