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Brilliant in chess, lost in life

The Baltimore Sun

Bobby Fischer, the iconoclastic genius who was one of the greatest chess players the world has ever seen, has died, a close family friend, Gardar Sverrisson, confirmed yesterday.

He was 64 and died Thursday in a hospital in Reykjavik, Iceland. Fischer died of kidney failure after a long illness, Sverrisson told the Associated Press.

Mr. Sverrisson, who lived in the same apartment building in Reykjavik as Mr. Fischer, said: "He was a close family friend, and we all miss him very much."

Mr. Fischer, the most powerful American player in history, had moved to Iceland in 2005. He had emerged briefly in 1992 from a mysterious seclusion that had lasted two decades and defied an American ban on conducting business in war-torn Yugoslavia to play a match against his old nemesis, the Russian-born grandmaster Boris Spassky.

After he won handily, he dropped out of sight again, living alone. He avoided arrest on American charges over his Yugoslavia appearance.

He lived in Budapest, Hungary - and possibly the Philippines and Switzerland - and emerged now and then on radio stations in Iceland, Hungary and the Philippines to rant in increasingly belligerent terms against the United States and against Jews.

Mr. Fischer's 1992 victory against Mr. Spassky was a sad reprise of his most glorious triumph. It was in summer 1972, in a match played in Reykjavik, that Mr. Fischer wrested the world championship from Mr. Spassky, becoming the first - and as yet only - American to win the title, which Russian-born players had held for more than four decades.

Mr. Fischer won with such brilliance and dramatic flair that he became an unassailable representative of greatness in the world of competitive games, much as Babe Ruth had been and Michael Jordan would become.

"It was Bobby Fischer who had, single-handedly, made the world recognize that chess on its highest level was as competitive as football, as thrilling as a duel to the death, as esthetically satisfying as a fine work of art, as intellectually demanding as any form of human activity," wrote Harold C. Schonberg, who reported on the Reykjavik match for The New York Times, in his 1973 book, Grandmasters of Chess.

In July 2004, he was seized by the Japanese authorities when he tried to board a plane from Japan to Manila and was accused of trying to leave the country on an invalid U.S. passport. He was detained in prison for nine months while the various governments, as well as a staunch group of supporters in the chess world, tried to resolve the issue.

In 1999, in a series of telephone interviews he gave to a radio station in the Philippines, he rambled angrily and profanely about an international Jewish conspiracy, which he said was bent on destroying him personally and the world generally.

After Sept. 11, 2001, he told a radio talk-show host in the Philippines that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were "wonderful news," adding he was wishing for a scenario "where the country will be taken over by the military, they'll close down all the synagogues, arrest all the Jews and secure hundreds of thousands of Jewish ringleaders."

The match against the elegant Mr. Spassky was an unforgettable spectacle, the Cold War fought with chess pieces.

Mr. Fischer's characteristic petulance, loutishness and sense of outrage were the stuff of front-page headlines all over the globe. Incensed by the conditions under which the match was to be played - he was particularly offended by the whirr of television cameras in the hall - he lost the first game, then forfeited the second and insisted the remaining games be played in an isolated room the size of a janitor's closet. There, he roared back from what, in chess, is a sizable deficit, trouncing Mr. Spassky, 12 1/2 to 8 1/2 . In all, Fischer won 7 games, lost 3 (including the forfeit) and drew 11.

Through July and most of August, the attention of the world was riveted on the Spassky-Fischer match. Americans who didn't know a Ruy Lopez from a Poisoned Pawn watched a hitherto unknown commentator named Shelby Lyman explain each game on public television. All this was Mr. Fischer's doing.

Bobby Fischer, Chicago-born and Brooklyn-raised, a rebel, a tantrum-thrower, an uncompromising savage of the chess board, had captured the imagination of the world. Because of him, for the first time in the United States, the game, with all its arcana and intimations of nerdiness, was cool. And when it was over, he walked away with a winner's purse of $250,000, a sum that staggered anyone ever associated with chess. When Mr. Spassky won the world championship, his prize was $1,400.

Mr. Fischer's victory was widely seen as a symbolic triumph for democracy over communism, and it turned the new champion into an unlikely American hero. He was invited to the White House by President Richard M. Nixon, interviewed on television, hounded by journalists, wooed unsuccessfully by commercial interests. Sales of chess sets skyrocketed; so did fees for chess lessons, as scores of poverty-stricken chess players benefited from the cachet that Fischer had conferred on them.

But Mr. Fischer was incapable of sustaining himself in the limelight, and by the beginning of 1973, he had withdrawn into the weird, contrarian solitude he more or less maintained for the remainder of his life. Over the years, he turned down huge financial offers to play, among them a bid of $1.4 million from the Hilton Corp. to defend his title in Las Vegas and even larger sums from dictators like Ferdinand E. Marcos of the Philippines and the Shah of Iran to compete in their countries. He said the money wasn't enough.

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