Bobby Fischer vs. The Rebbe
The chess genius denied he was a Jew, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe disagreed. Who was right?
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.)
A brilliant young Harvard Ph.D. faces jail for impersonating a Bible scholar—and rival of his father