Jonathan Safran Foer on Bobby Fischer, From Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame

The stadium scene.
Oct. 24 2012 8:00 AM

The Unnatural

Bobby Fischer (1943–2008), from Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame.

Chess legend Bobby Fischer.
Chess legend Bobby Fischer at New Tokyo International Airport in 2005

Photograph by Junko Kimura/Getty Images.

This piece comes from Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, and published this week by Twelve.

A Jew wrote The Natural, but has there ever been a natural Jew? Free-spiritedness, joie de vivre, ease in the world—these are not what we do. We do scrappiness, resilience, hard work, self-questioning, self-consciousness, self-destruction, and unflappable will. This applies especially to our athletes, many of whom were not given the best of genetic toolboxes. Most great Jewish athletes have at least this in common: they overcome God’s gifts.

Not a jock, and not a Jew by any definition richer than heredity, Bobby Fischer was the quintessential Jewish Jock. He worked harder than any of his peers. He attempted to conceal his insecurity behind an ego built for 20, and his self-love behind self-hatred behind self-love. And perhaps more than any human who has ever lived, he kvetched: The board is too reflective, the presence of breathing humans too distracting, the high-frequency sounds—which only he and Pomeranians could detect—made game play utterly impossible. Some loved him for his loony obstinacy. Most didn’t.

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Contrary to our notions of a chess prodigy and the accepted version of Bobby Fischer’s biography, he was not magnificent from the start. He had to learn, practice, and mature. As an adolescent in Brooklyn, he developed an unusually strong passion for a game that he was not unusually good at. (Children his age regularly beat him.) While he did clearly come into some innate prodigious talent—hard work might unleash genius, but it never creates it—what distinguished him, both in his formative years and through his career, was his single-minded, obsessive devotion to the game. He was known to practice 14 hours a day, and fall asleep with one of his several hundred chess books and journals on his chest. (“I give 98 percent of my mental energy to chess,” he once said. “Others give only 2 percent.”) Like a good Jewish boy, he outworked his peers and brought the A home to Mama. And like a good Jewish boy, he couldn’t stand Mama—her politics, priorities, relationship to money, or religion.

He got better. And better. Before 1956, Fischer was an excellent, if not particularly remarkable, chess player. His talents were real and evident, but no one would have picked him as a future world champ. But then, at the age of 13—in lieu of a bar mitzvah, one might say—he made a quantum leap, becoming not only the youngest person ever to win the U.S. Junior Championship, but one of the fiercest, most aggressive, and punishing chess players in history. The gangly, all-arms-and-legs Jewish boy didn’t simply defeat or even crush his opponents, he circumcised them. (They were all men.)

While he became known for his increasingly outlandish demands—especially sums of money that didn’t correspond to the world of chess—what he actually wanted held constant through his life: an ego fortified by the destruction of all other egos. In his own words, “The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.”

One of the most remarkable things about Fischer’s chess in those early years was how often he won. For the last century, as chess has become more and more a study of past games—rather than a honing of strategies in preparation for a unique, unwinding story—the rote openings have become longer and longer, and more games end with draws. Each move sets into motion an eventuality, which is why so many players resign when they are 10 or even 20 moves from a likely loss. Fischer played a different game, the long game that left room for chance and intuition.

And rather than play for match victories—which would involve the marshaling of mental resources, and taking fewer risks—he only played for game victories.

How did he become so strong so quickly? Of course no one will ever know, but the thrill of his accelerated talent is comparable to anything any artist or scientist accomplished. Those lucky enough to witness and understand it knew the historical significance. Fischer’s own explanation for his radical development: “I just got good.” A year after becoming U.S. Junior Champion, he was the youngest U.S. master, then the youngest International Grandmaster. Then he beat just about everybody just about always.

Fast-forward half a century, to his quantum demise. The quintessential Jewish boy was the first chess fugitive in history, disavowed by the World Chess Federation and hunted by the United States for having played a chess match in Yugoslavia, which was then subject to a United Nations embargo that included sanctions on sporting events. His only public presence was occasional broadcasts from DZSR Sports Radio, a Manila, Philippines–based AM station that embraced Fischer as a sideshow freak capable of pulling in listeners. His talking points wouldn’t have worked well around the Seder table:

“[Jews] are lying bastards. Jews were always lying bastards throughout their history. They’re a filthy, dirty, disgusting, vile, criminal people.”

“My main interest right now is to expose the Jews ... These God-damn Jews have to be stopped. They’re a menace to the whole world.”

“[Jews] are subhuman. They are the scum of the Earth.”

“I’m very concerned because I think the Jews want to drive the elephants to extinction because the trunk of an elephant reminds them of an uncircumcised penis. I’m absolutely serious about that.”

“Jews are anti-social, destructive, intolerant, mean-spirited, deceitful, et cetera. They wish to destroy, rule, and kill, rob whoever gets in their way. To facilitate them getting what they want, they have developed a perverted, unnatural, destructive, evil lifestyle. Even though they live off the non-Jews as parasites, they still hate them and wish to destroy them. Jews hate nature and the natural order, because it’s pure and beautiful, and also because it’s bigger and stronger than they are, and they feel that they cannot fully control it. Nature’s beauty and harmony stands in stark contrast to their squalidness and ugliness, and that makes them hate it all the more. Jews are destroyers. They are anti-humans. The anti-human Jew hates and wants to destroy all non-Jews. He will also destroy even other Jews who are less destructive and evil than he is, if they get in his way. Apparently, the wickedness of the Jew is genetically based. Jews are destroyers. They are anti-humans. By the act of circumcision, the Jew shows his hatred towards nature and the natural order. By this bloody, cruel, senseless act, he shows his cruelty and sadism, and that he will stop at nothing to obtain his ends.”

“It’s time to start randomly killing Jews.”

With Jews like this, who needs Nazis?

His girlfriend at the time excused his behavior thusly: “He’s like a child. Very, very simple.” Or perhaps chess is an inherently paranoid game, and anti-Semitism is the paradigm of paranoids. The most obvious explanation would be that he had experienced some kind of psychic break. Whatever the cause, he had left the fold of mainstream humanity, and despite whatever lingering chess abilities he might have had—his 1992 rematch with Boris Spassky, after 20 years out of public view, was at best uninspired—he was universally reviled.

How and why did he devolve into such vile insanity? How and why did he leap to such genius?

Is it any fairer to castigate Fischer for his lunatic ravings than it was to praise him for his genius?

Perhaps the latter had some admirable component of work, but Fischer pursued his racist theories with energy, too, leaving hate-mongering flyers on windshields in parking lots, reading anti-Semitic tracts with the same fervor that he once read about chess.

What do we do with the unnatural mind? Praise it when it’s beautiful, excuse it when it’s ugly? That would seem to be the world’s response: Fischer’s chess brought him enormous wealth and fame, and his crazed rants left him isolated and ultimately festering in a Japanese prison. Or should we write off the unnatural mind in all cases? Should we put it on a pedestal to observe, in a cage to protect ourselves from it—put it in a book?

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Eating Animals.

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