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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?

Jonathan Zalman
January 17, 2013
Bobby Fischer, 1971.(AFP/Getty Images)
Bobby Fischer, 1971.(AFP/Getty Images)

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In the summer of 1971, a year before he won the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Bobby Fischer—who died five years ago today—appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in one of his many custom suits.

“Can you have any other life and be a great chess player?” Cavett asked Fischer, who sprawled opposite the host in an undersized chair.

“Not at the moment, no,” said Fischer. “You know, first things first, right? Get the title and uhm … ”

Cavett, sensing an unanswerable flash for Fischer, chimed in.

“And what’s the moment of pleasure for you?”

Fischer shifted his torso, his thumb and forefinger now stroking his chin.

Cavett clarified. “Is it when you see the guy in trouble?”

“Well, when you break his ego: This is where it’s at. [The opponent] sees it comin’ and breaks all up inside.”

“What would you have been if you hadn’t been a chess player?” Cavett asked.

“I don’t know,” said Fischer. “Some kind of sport, something.”

As the interview continued, Cavett told Fischer that people expect to meet “a frail little fellow with thick glasses,” and that they’re surprised by the width of his shoulders and athletic appearance.

“I like a little swimming [and] tennis,” Fischer responded. “Mainly I just use [sports] to keep in shape for the chess.”

The audience offered a nervous chuckle.

Cavett pressed gently. “Where does it take strength?”

“Well, you’re sitting there for five hours,” Fischer said, offering the now risible crowd a toothy smile that’s equal parts nervous and warm.

Fischer, who had been the youngest American chess champion ever at 14, sensed genuine doubt in the audience and stuck to his guns. “How does that song [go]?” he said. “The neck bone is connected to … all that stuff. You gotta have the blood coming into your head. The reason that players fade out in, say, their 40s or 50s is ’cause by the fourth or fifth hour of play they’ve lost their concentration, their stamina’s gone.”

With this, Fischer seemed to preemptively answer the initial question likely to be asked by readers of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s essay about the chess master in Jewish Jocks, a book of 50 essays edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, which won a National Jewish Book Award this week: Is chess really a sport? Indeed it is. But the questions that should inevitably follow this one are more complex.

There is a well-known situational concept in chess called “zugzwang,” German for “pressure (to act),” wherein any subsequent move a player is able to make would only worsen his or her position. When it comes to playing Bobby Fischer, most moves we observers make—analysis, commentary, etc.—are part of the losing game of rote: What happened to Bobby Fischer the chess player; the American; the Jew? Foer first gives a summarized account of Fischer’s rise (“How and why did he leap to such genius?”) and then his fall into chess and moral oblivion (“How and why did he devolve into such vile insanity?”).

While embracing the jock label, Fischer would have wholeheartedly disapproved of the “Jewish” tag because, though his mother Regina was Jewish, he denied any sort of Jewish upbringing or education and never considered himself to be Jewish. Therefore, Foer suggests, he hated himself: “He attempted to conceal his insecurity behind an ego built for twenty, and his self-love behind self-hatred behind self-love.” Jews, whom Fischer would also call “absolute pigs,” would become his default nomenclature for anyone who drew his ire, whether Chosen or not. He denied the Holocaust ever happened and believed that “hundreds of thousands of Jews should get executed in the U.S. … and go to some kind of concentration camp to be re-educated.” His anti-Semitism, which was at times conflated with his anti-Americanism, festered and was unleashed during sensitive times and continued in exile as he became enamored with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; he was a tithing member of the Worldwide Church of God and later studied Catholicism, which he’d write “is just a Jewish hoax and one more Jewish tool for their conquest of the world,” before passing away on Jan. 17, 2008, in Iceland of kidney failure.

And so, what seems clear is that the question raised by Foer’s essay is not whether Fischer was sufficiently athletic enough to be included in the book, but rather: Was Bobby Fischer Jewish or not? And if he was Jewish, what kind of Jew was he?


Before it was Bobby Fischer, America’s great white chess hope was Samuel Reshevsky, an Orthodox Jew and seven-time U.S. Chess Champion who did not play on Shabbos. A positional player, Reshevsky was born in Ozorkow, Poland, and began playing at the age of 4. He became an International Grandmaster at 39 and defeated seven world champions in his lifetime although his main profession was that of an accountant. In the summer of 1961, Reshevsky, then 50, played a 16-game match versus 18-year old Fischer who hadn’t lost a game in American tournament play in four years. The match was played at the Beverly Hills Hilton and billed the “Match of the Century,” and the winner would take home 65 percent of the $8,000 prize money.

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.)

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.

Truly Yours,

Bobby Fischer,

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:



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!”)

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:

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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Jonathan Zalman, a staff editor, runs The Scroll, Tablet’s news blog.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.