Bobby Fischer vs. The Rebbe
The chess genius denied he was a Jew, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe disagreed. Who was right?
Sometime in early 1984, though, he did receive one visit: Reshevsky. What’s on record of the visit is that the chess prodigy agreed to meet with his elderly former rival for three hours. During that time, they spoke about chess. When Reshevsky spoke of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s desire to get him involved with Judaism, Fischer became exasperated and requested that his long-time chess foe and friend leave.
Shortly thereafter on June 28, 1984, Fischer typed a letter to the Encyclopaedia Judaica Jerusalem offices at 866 Third Ave. in New York City:
Knowing what I do about Judaism (sic), I was naturally distressed to see that you have erroneously featured me as a Jew in ENCYCLOPAEDIA JUDAICA. Please do not make this mistake again in any future additions of your voluminous, pseudo-authoritative publication. I am not today, nor have I ever been a Jew, and as a matter of fact, I am uncircumcised.
I suggest rather than fraudulently misrepresenting me to be a Jew, and dishonestly abusing my name and reputation as a kind of advertising gimmick to improve the image of your religion (Judaism), you try to promote your religion on its own merits—if indeed it has any!
In closing, I trust that I am not being unrealistically optimistic, in thanking you in advance for your anticipated cooperation in this matter.
The World Chess Champion
“They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men.” This from an 18-year-old Bobby Fischer in 1961 to journalist Ralph Ginzburg, then 32, who would include the quote in a profile of the rising star for Harper’s magazine. “They shouldn’t play chess, you know,” continued the prodigy, who had dropped out of high school at 16. “They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man. There isn’t a woman player in the world I can’t give knight-odds to and still beat.” The resulting article, “Portrait of a Genius As a Young Chess Master,” in the pages of the January 1962 issue, set Fischer ablaze, turning his already tenuous trust of reporters to dust. Brady, the Fischer biographer, writes in Endgame that the piece was “a penned mugging … [to make] a vulnerable teenager appear uneducated, homophobic, and misogynistic.” In it, Fischer comes off as classist too—and Jewish: “[I’m] part Jewish. My mother is Jewish.” According to Brady, Fischer never knew who his father was.
But some of the article’s most inflammatory bits were obviously the ones about women. And yet it was Zita Raycsani, a 17-year-old Hungarian chess player, who brought Fischer back to the ancient game at the age of 47. One day in the early 1990s, Fischer received a letter from her, then an unknown fan:
I WOULD LIKE TO SELL YOU THE WORLD’S BEST VACCUUM CLEANER!
NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR INTEREST, TURN THE PAGE.
Raycsani went on to tell of her admiration of Fischer the chess player and asked why he had stepped away from competition and vanished. He called her immediately from California—at 6 a.m. Hungarian time. “Hi, this is Bobby,” he said, according to Brady. Eventually, the two engaged in written correspondence and soon Raycsani made plans to visit Bobby in the United States. Upon her arrival, though, she met a penurious and physically worn ex-world champion who was living in a messy 35-square-foot room paid for in large part by his aging mother’s Social Security checks.
Raycsani not only convinced Fischer to get back to the board; the teenager also set up a $5-million rematch between her man and Boris Spassky to be played in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1992. The match was dubbed “The World Chess Championship” per Fischer’s order, 20 years since the two grandmasters had rightfully earned their seats. At the time, the United States government was imposing sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro and wrote a warning to Fischer that he could not, under Executive Order 12810, perform in any type of commercial activity in Yugoslavia. Should Fischer have chosen to continue, he would have been fined and faced up to 10 years in prison. At the press conference before the match, an ever-defiant Fischer held up the official letter, announced its content, and spat on it—to the applause of the crowd and the eyes of the world.
Versus Spassky, Fischer started slowly, just as he had done in ’72, but found the rust fully shaken and ahead nine games to Spassky’s five entering the 30th game. Fischer would go on to win and came away $3.5 million richer for his troubles—and more or less set for life.
On Dec. 15, 1992, the United States issued a federal indictment calling for Fischer’s arrest—if he were to return to the States, Fischer, along with his recent earnings, would be immediately detained. So, he remained in Belgrade and eventually settled in a small town on the Hungaro-Serbian border named Magyarkanizsa, or “The City of Silence,” where he hoped the political climate would enable Raycsani to visit more easily. When she did, though, Raycsani, whom Fischer was in love with and wanted to marry, told him that she was pregnant by another man.
In the summer of 1993, Fischer was visited by the Polgars, “the royal chess family of Hungary,” consisting of Laszlo and his daughters, Sofia, 19, and Judit, 16. (Judit is still currently the No. 1 ranked female chess player in the world; she defeated Boris Spassky a year after his rematch with Fischer, earning herself a $110,000 paycheck.) Laszlo’s eldest daughter, Susan, then 23, was already a grandmaster and playing at a tournament in Peru, and was therefore unable to visit Fischer with the rest of her family. Upon her return the Polgars made the trek again so that Susan could meet Fischer.
Like Fischer, Susan Polgar was a child prodigy. At 4 years old she published her first chess puzzle and is still considered the youngest composer ever to do so. The puzzle presents an endgame task—to find checkmate in two—with white to move. It’s notable too for its spatiality—it asks the solver to consider moving the king to an empty square in order to dictate play and then attack with the queen—and rigorous simplicity: One false move of the king will end in a stalemate (a draw), yet the correct move forces a win. Impressive thinking for a preschooler.
When they met, she and Fischer formed an instant bond, and Laszlo offered Fischer an open invitation to their country home a short car ride outside Budapest. Susan also convinced Fischer that if he chose to move closer to the Hungarian capital it would mean that he could spend time with members of the Hungarian chess elite, such as Pal Benko. For Fischer, a move back to Budapest also meant he could continue to pursue Raycsani. (Brady’s account of Fischer’s persistence, which included calling Raycsani a “bitch” in a letter, is summed up by this quote: “I have been in lost positions before … worse than this, and I won!”)
A brilliant young Harvard Ph.D. faces jail for impersonating a Bible scholar—and rival of his father