Bobby Fischer vs. The Rebbe
The chess genius denied he was a Jew, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe disagreed. Who was right?
Fischer took Lazslo up on his invitation and spent time with the Polgars in the Slavic hills of Hungary. The Polgar daughters were able to play chess with Fischer, although he demanded they play a variation he called “Fischer Random.” Added to official FIDE rules in 2008 as “Chess960,” and named after the number of possible starting positions, the variation pushes traditional chess into an abstract and far less studied realm. Fischer Random was a material outpouring of Bobby’s suspicion that Russians fixed matches among themselves during competition in order to maintain supremacy. “Why do you want to get involved with something that is rote in prearrangement?” Fischer stated. “[Fischer Random] is much better than the old chess.”
For 23 years, Polgar was ranked as one of the top three female chess players in the world. She became an International Grandmaster at 15, a year later in life than Fischer. (Her sister Judit would usurp that record by becoming a grandmaster at 14.) Today, she heads the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellent (SPICE) at Webster University in St. Louis, the No. 1 ranked Division I collegiate chess program in the country.
“[Bobby] was so much ahead of his peers,” Susan told me by phone as she recalled the time Fischer spent with her family in the early 1990s. “He still loved chess very much at that time. I always called him a ‘big child’—he was funny, he loved joking around, he was very down to earth in his everyday life. He would like to go hiking with us. He loved to eat a lot. He loved Japanese [food]. He used to go a lot to Hungarian spas. He was in a position (financially) where he could enjoy life.”
In 1993-94, she and Fischer communicated on a daily basis; after his rematch with Spassky in ’92, she became involved in negotiations on his behalf to organize matches—some serious, some exhibitions. “For example, one of the tobacco companies that was about to sponsor a small exhibition match—they were willing to pay six digits for a couple hours of his time and he said, ‘No, no, no, no.’ ” She remembered him saying, “ ‘I’m not willing to promote any tobacco or alcohol-related company.’ So you know, even a significant amount of money wouldn’t interest him because it was against his principles—he was never drinking or smoking.”
Fischer’s mistrust and loathing of Jews was also evident. The Polgars were a Jewish family who suffered losses of relatives exterminated in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust, but Fischer would deny to their faces that such events took place. “There were good Jews and bad Jews in his mind,” Susan told me. “[And] somehow he separated.” She believes that his anti-Semitism was an unfortunate byproduct of being wronged and unprotected during an extraordinary childhood. “[Bobby] had some very bad experiences with Jewish people and he really hated those experiences. At such an early age he was so successful. At the same time there were a number of people trying to take advantage of his status and he resented that, obviously.”
During his formative years, Fischer’s mother acted as a de facto manager, but she had neither the time nor the resources to provide her son with the support he needed. “Unfortunately in his time—he was 14, 15 years old and started becoming a celebrity—it did not mean he would be a millionaire or be in a position to hire [someone] that would protect him from people wanting to take advantage of him,” Susan Polgar said to me. “That’s how he developed these anti-Jewish feelings, and unfortunately later on in his life he got connected with people who instead of convincing him otherwise, they further ingrained in him these anti-Semitic feelings. I was trying to convince him otherwise when I met him in 1993 [but it] was just too deep.”
In 1997, when Fischer’s mother died, he supposedly (according to Brady) flew to Vancouver and then entered the United States by car and went to California to attend her funeral, incognito. His sister, Joan, died less than a year later, and this time Fischer was unable to be there. In 2004, Fischer was arrested at Narita airport in Tokyo for attempting to travel to the Philippines on an illegitimate passport. (It was from the Philippines that Fischer, as Foer points out, would broadcast hateful screeds over the radio against the United States on Sept. 11—“What goes around, comes around”—and against Jews.) The United States had revoked Fischer’s passport the year before, and he was held for 10 months in a Japanese prison before Iceland, the location of his chess crowning, took him in as a citizen.
Fischer was filmed on the jet to Iceland and in a car upon landing. An online search yields three videos of this trip. Among other things, Fischer readily offered opinions about President George Bush and the “Jews behind him.”
“Bobby was sick,” Susan Polgar told me. “He had mental diseases towards the end of his life.” She says that while his vitriol should not be excused, he also made a positive difference in chess and that the two should be separated. “Unfortunately,” she says, “It’s the same person.”
According to Dovid Zaklikowski, the director of the Lubavitch Archives, the sixth Rebbe, Yosef Yitchak Schneersohn, asked a disciple to instruct his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, upon his arrival in New York in 1941, to organize a public gathering once a month. At these farbrengens, Schneerson’s son-in-law, who would follow in his father-in-law’s footsteps as the seventh and last Rebbe, would focus his meaningful commentary on a particular subject. Once, in 1949, Samuel Reshevsky attended a gathering led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who spoke of chess:
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