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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)

The king is the most valuable piece on the chessboard. Protecting the king and attacking the pieces, which threaten the king’s “dominion” is the objective of the game, and the goal of all the pieces at the king’s disposal.

The same thing is true with all of created reality. The king represents the King of the Universe. When G-d created the world, He had an end-goal in mind—that this G-d-denying reality be made into place where His dominion is known. Just as all of the pieces in the chess game exist in order to fulfill this deepest desire of the King of kings.

While the king represents the transcendent quality of G-d, the queen represents malchut d’Atzilut, G-d’s immanent quality. This quality of G-d generates the rest of the spiritual hierarchy, including all the angels and souls.

The officers—rooks, bishops, and knights—represent the angels. They inhabit the spiritual worlds and channel Divine energy to the worlds below and are imbued with great powers.

And on the lowest rung are the pawns, which represent the souls of Jews as they are embodied in physical bodies in this world.

Every level of this hierarchy has a unique position and method of moving, in accordance with its mission.

On the lowest rung, but on the front lines, are the pawns. Like the pawn that can only go forward one step at a time, we make the world into a place where G-d can feel at home by moving slowly, step-by-step. We do our work with simple actions that are often not very glamorous. Although we can achieve a lot, we must work within the limits of the natural universe.

However, when a pawn finally completes its step-by-step progression and reaches the other side, it can be swapped and promoted to a higher level. It is even possible for a pawn to attain the level of queen.

This is also true spiritually: It is possible for a simple human soul to be united with its source malchut d’Atzilut, to be charged with the level of G-dliness that is higher than all the angels and souls. We are the only ones in all of the realms of created reality that are capable of this kind of drastic transformation. …

And what does it mean to win a game of chess? What is the future that even G-d Himself will drop everything to save? It means to win the war of all wars: when the world will be a place of good and harmony, peace and tranquility; when no part of G-d will be in exile; and when the essence of G-d will no longer be “removed” from creation.”

Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum, director of Chabad activities in Prospect Heights and Fort Greene, says that when the Rebbe sent Reshevsky to see Fischer, he was testing his theory; if Fischer could recognize his Jewish soul, his culture, his people, and his identity, he could overcome his inner hatred and embody malchut d’Atzilut—become the queen. In a recent interview in Kirschenbaum’s home, he read me an excerpt from a talk the Rebbe gave, influenced by his father-in-law, the sixth Rebbe, about what it means to be a Lubavitcher Hasid, which he says, can apply to Jews and non-Jews alike: “A Hasid is like a street lamplighter. In olden days there was a person in each town who would light the streetlamps with the light he carried on the end of a long pole. There must be someone to light even those lamps so that they may meet their purpose and light the lamps of others.”

While the Rebbe was not interested in using Fischer as evidence of Jewish genius, the chess master’s apprehension that he was being used was not entirely wrong. Saving Bobby Fischer’s troubled soul—his Jewish soul—would be proof of the Rebbe’s theory of the spiritual potential inherent in every Jew. But was the Rebbe’s theory right?

The first place to look for evidence of Bobby Fischer the lamplighter is within the game of chess itself—in America. When Fischer won the 1972 chess championship, he had to overcome a formidable Russian chess regime, one that was and continues to be subsidized by their government. The United States did not have, nor does it have today, federal chess scholarships. Brooklyn Castle, a 2012 documentary, tells the riveting story of a group of New York City middle-school students at “below the poverty line” I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, who use chess as a springboard for life—teamwork, individual focus, building character through failure, appreciating success. The school boasts one of the best chess teams in the United States, winning more national championships than any other middle school in the country—a testament to the inroads Fischer blazed himself, becoming the only FIDE world chess champion the United States has ever produced, at a critical moment in the country’s Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union.

While many viewed Fischer as a greedy diva, he saw a dearth of money within a game that took everything within an individual to reach the top, so he fought tooth and nail for every penny. Today, as a result, tens of thousands of dollars can be won in international play on a regular basis. Susan Polgar’s program, SPICE, currently grants scholarships to chess-playing students from eight countries. And Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, the world’s current No. 1 chess player, has made numerous national television appearances, including on 60 Minutes and The Colbert Report (he beat the host at rock-paper-scissors).

“I think everybody recognizes his genius on the chessboard,” said Susan Polgar says of Fischer. “I know for a fact Kasparov does. The younger generations they don’t give as much respect to older generations as they should because they grew up so much already in the computer era.” Therefore, she says, they take for granted the tactics that are considered standard for a club player. Polgar says the older generations, which includes Fischer, “invented them.”

There’s no memorial to or signs of Bobby Fischer in the small foyer of 560 Lincoln Place in Crown Heights, his childhood home. The lobby is dusty and old, and the paint on the ceramic moldings is faded. Upstairs somewhere, one can imagine Bobby, a boisterous boy falling in love with the game he came into by chance because sister Joan bought a chess set on a whim in a nearby store. Fischer became so obsessed that his mother used to lay an unhinged door over the bathtub so that her son could play for hours on end, his brain enmeshed in understanding the infinite game that would abet his extraordinary rise and fall.

In the lobby, a boy, about 10, comes home.

“Did you know Bobby Fischer used to live here?” I ask him.

“No,” he says. “Who’s he?”


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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:


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?

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