Commentary Magazine


Bobby Fischer’s Perfect Death

Bobby Fischer is dead, at 64, a young but perfect age for a chess genius to die: there are of course 64 squares on the chessboard. Fischer was certainly one of the greatest chessplayers in history, eclipsed perhaps only by Garry Kasparov. But his life was tragic, and for all the interest in chess he generated here in the U.S., his net contribution has to be counted in the negative column.

The problem, of course, was his madness, which began to manifest itself quite early in his career. Signs of trouble were already visible in 1962, when at age nineteen and already a giant on the chess stage, he encountered “personal problems” and dropped out of high-level competition for a period of years, falling under the spell of various radio-preachers. His semi-retirement ended in 1968 and he began his quest for the world championship, which ended in his celebrated victory over Boris Spassky in 1972. From there, a long spiral downhill began.

In 1982, he published a pamphlet, “I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!,”  the consequence of a mistaken arrest as a bank-robbery suspect. Two years later, he wrote to the Encylopedia Judaica asking for his entry to be removed (the underlinings are as in the original):


Knowing what I do about Judaism, 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 editions 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

A passionate hatred of Jews was to stay with Fischer for the rest of his life.

Anti-Semitism has been likened to a disease in the way it sometimes infects entire societies, and it is indeed a suitable metaphor to describe that phenomenon. But when applied to individual anti-Semites, the disease metaphor has the defect of removing responsibility for evil words and actions. But in Fischer’s case, as was made plain by so much else about him, his anti-Semitism truly was the consequence of disease.

Thanks to Bobby Fischer’s illness, the public has absorbed the idea that great chessplayers tend to be madmen. And while there have been several deranged grandmasters, it is doubtful that the frequency of mental illness in this group is higher than the average rate among geniuses. In the end, Bobby Fischer deserves to be remembered for his contributions, even if those contributions were seriously marred by the disrepute he brought upon the game of chess.