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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)

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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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?