Bobby Fischer; Biography of a Child Prodigy

Bobby Fischer

Becoming the youngest grandmaster in history in 1958, Bobby Fischer and his brilliant chess skills brought the game to the attention of the American public. He won the world championship in 1972, but how did this legend discover the game and how can we learn to play just like him?

Fischer was an American professional player who became one of the greatest players in history. His most famous tournament victory came when he defeated Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship title in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest matches ever played.

The Early life of Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer’s full name was Robert James Fischer and he was born at the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, on the 9th March, 1943.

He was raised by his Jewish mother, Regina Wender Fischer, who was born in Switzerland, but migrated to the United States due to the rise of anti-Semitism rulings. She took many different jobs over the years to support her two children, Bobby and his sister Joan, including as a teacher, a registered nurse, and later a physician.

When he was just six years old, Bobby learned how to play chess with his sister Joan; they taught themselves after buying a set in a local candy store. When Joan lost interest in chess and their mother Regina did not have the spare time to play, Bobby ended up playing against himself. He became passionate about the game, even finding a book of old chess games and studying it intensely.

Aged just seven years old, Bobby Fischer astounded onlookers when he played in a simultaneous exhibition held by Master Max Pavey, former Scottish champion. Although he eventually lost to the chess master, he held on for 15 minutes, and manage to impress Carmine Nigro in the process, who introduced him to the Brooklyn Chess Club.

Bobby Fischer once said “Mr. Nigro was possibly not the best player in the world, but he was a very good teacher. Meeting him was probably a decisive factor in my going ahead with chess.”

Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer’s Chess Career

In July 1956, Bobby Fischer won the US Junior Chess Championship, scoring 8½/10 at Philadelphia, becoming the youngest Junior Champion ever at the age of just 13. The very same year Bobby also accepted an invitation to play in the Third Lessing J. Rosenwald Trophy Tournament in New York City. Although he didn’t win overall, it was at this tournament that he played a game which attracted a huge amount of international attention and which would later be dubbed “The Game of the Century”.

In ‘The Game of the Century’ Bobby Fischer beat International Master Donald Byrne by sacrificing his Queen and unleashing an unstoppable attack. Whilst he modestly claimed to have just been lucky, experts have talked about, analysed, and admired this game play for more than fifty years.

Based on Bobby’s ongoing strong results, the US Chess Federation invited him to play in the 1957/58 US Championship. Still only 14 years old, he surprised everyone by going on to win and therefore became the youngest ever US Champion and also earned himself the title of International Master.

Bobby Fischer carried on demonstrating amazing composure, precise calculation and devilish resourcefulness at every game and tournament he played at. He became the youngest person ever to qualify for the Candidates and the youngest ever grandmaster at 15 years, 6 months and 1 day old.

He played in eight US Championships over ten years, winning all of them, managing to only concede three games over all the championships. He also represented the United States on first board at four Men’s Chess Olympiads, winning two individual Silver and one individual Bronze medals.

Bobby Fischer

During the mid 60’s, Bobby Fischer took a semi retirement from the game of chess, taking himself out of the 1966 World Championship cycle. Instead he travelled around the United States and Canada from February through May, playing exhibitions and giving a lectures in more than 40 cities.

Upon his return, Bobby suffered a disastrous loss to Boris Spassky at the Piatigorsky Cup (1966) tournament in Santa Monica, but as it turned out, this was to be his last loss. From this point on, now aged 23, Fischer went on to win every match or tournament he completed for the rest of his life.

In 1970, Bobby Fischer began a new effort to become World Champion. His campaign for the title and his distinctive manner of play made him a household name and made chess front-page news for a time. He went on to win the title in 1972, but forfeited it three years later.

When Bobby Fischer refused to meet his Soviet challenger, Anatoly Karpov, in 1975 it led to The Fédération Internationale des Échecs depriving him of his championship and declared Karpov champion by default.

Bobby Fischer’s Retirement

After forfeiting his title, Bobby Fischer then withdrew from serious play for almost 20 years. The only exception to this was when he returned to defeat Spassky in a privately organised rematch in 1992 in Yugoslavia.

Bobby Fischer

After this match, Bobby slid back into relative obscurity. This was in part because he had been indicted by U.S. authorities for violating economic sanctions against Yugoslavia. But more than this, he had alienated himself from many in the chess world because of his paranoia, anti-Semitism, and praise for the September 11 attacks.

Bobby was a controversial public speaker and despite the fact that his mother was Jewish, he rejected attempts to label him as Jewish. He even made numerous antisemitic statements and professed a general hatred for Jews since at least the early 1960s.

In July 2004, Bobby Fischer was detained at a Japanese airport for trying to leave the country with an invalid passport and he was jailed for several months. He was eventually granted citizenship by Iceland and moved there in 2005.

Although Bobby Fischer was never formally diagnosed, there is widespread speculation concerning his psychological condition, based on the extreme views he expressed and his unusual behaviour.

Bobby Fischer died at the age of 64 of kidney failure on January 17, 2008, in Reykjavík, Iceland. 

Quick Facts

  • Bobby Fischer first learned to play chess at age six.
  • At age 16 he dropped out of High School to devote himself fully to the game.
  • In 1958 he won the first of eight American championships.
  • He became the only player ever to earn a perfect score at an American championship, winning all 11 games in the 1964 tournament.
  • When playing White, Fischer virtually always opened with 1. e4.
  • He was known for his victories from surprise attacks.
  • The 1993 film ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer‘, and its eponymous book, is actually about the life of chess prodigy Joshua Waitzkin, even though it uses Fischer’s name in the title.
  • Bobby Fischer is the author of several memorable phrases about chess, such as “Chess is life”; “Do not tell me about losing. I can not think of that! “; “In chess there are two types of players: the good ones and the hard ones. I am one of the hard ones “
  • He was estimated to be worth around $2 million at the time of his death.