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Fischer, outspoken ex-chess champion, dies of kidney failure

1/19/2008

REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- "Chess," Bobby Fischer once said,
"is life."

It was the chess master's tragedy that the messy, tawdry details
of his life often overshadowed the sublime genius of his game.

Fischer, who has died at the age of 64, was a child prodigy, a
teenage grandmaster and before age 30, a world champion who
triumphed in a Cold War showdown with Soviet champion Boris
Spassky.

But the last three decades of his life were spent in seclusion,
broken periodically by erratic and often anti-Semitic comments and
by an absurd legal battle with his homeland, the United States.

"He was the pride and sorrow of chess," said Raymond Keene, a
British grandmaster and chess correspondent for The Times of
London. "It's tragic that such a great man descended into madness
and anti-Semitism."

Fischer died Thursday of kidney failure in Reykjavik after a
long illness, friend and spokesman Gardar Sverrisson said Friday.

"A giant of the chess world is gone," said Fridrik Olafsson,
an Icelandic grandmaster and former president of the World Chess
Federation.

Noted French chess expert Olivier Tridon: "Bobby Fischer has
died at age 64. Like the 64 squares of a chess board."

In another bit of symmetry, his death occurred in the city where
he had his greatest triumph -- the historic encounter with Spassky.

Chicago-born and Brooklyn-bred, Fischer moved to Iceland in 2005
in a bid to avoid extradition to the U.S., where he was wanted for
playing a 1992 match in Yugoslavia in defiance of international
sanctions.

At his peak, Fischer was a figure of mystery and glamour who
drew millions of new fans to chess.

Russian former world chess champion Garry Kasparov said
Fischer's ascent of the chess world in the 1960s was "a
revolutionary breakthrough" for the game.

"The tragedy is that he left this world too early, and his
extravagant life and scandalous statements did not contribute to
the popularity of chess," Kasparov told The Associated Press.

Rival and friend Spassky, reached at his home in France, said in
a brief telephone interview that he was "very sorry" to hear of
Fischer's death.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of the World Chess Federation,
called Fischer "a phenomenon and an epoch in chess history, and an
intellectual giant I would rank next to Newton and Einstein."

An American chess champion at 14 and a grand master at 15,
Fischer vanquished Spassky in 1972 in a series of games in
Reykjavik to become the first officially recognized world champion
born in the United States.

The Fischer-Spassky match, at the height of the Cold War, took
on mythic dimensions as a clash between the world's two
superpowers.

It was a myth Fischer was happy to fuel. "It's really the free
world against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians," he
said.

But Fischer's reputation as a chess genius was eclipsed, in the
eyes of many, by his volatility and often bizarre behavior.

He lost his world title in 1975 after refusing to defend it
against Anatoly Karpov. He dropped out of competitive chess and
largely out of view, spending time in Hungary and the Philippines
and emerging occasionally to make outspoken and often outrageous
comments.

He praised the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying, "I want to
see the U.S. wiped out," and described Jews as "thieving, lying
bastards." Fischer's mother was Jewish.

In 2004, Fischer was arrested at Japan's Narita airport for
traveling on a revoked U.S. passport. He was threatened with
extradition to the United States to face charges of violating
sanctions imposed to punish Slobodan Milosevic, then leader of
Yugoslavia, by playing a 1992 rematch against Spassky in the
country.


Fischer renounced his U.S. citizenship and spent nine months in
custody before the dispute was resolved when Iceland, a chess-mad
nation of 300,000, granted him citizenship.

"They talk about the 'axis of evil,"' Fischer said when he
arrived in Iceland. "What about the allies of evil ... the United
States, England, Japan, Australia? These are the evildoers."

In his final years, Fischer railed against the chess
establishment, claiming that the outcomes of many top-level chess
matches were decided in advance.

Instead, he championed his concept of "Fischerandom," or
random chess, in which pieces are shuffled at the beginning of each
match in a bid to reinvigorate the game.

"I don't play the old chess," he told reporters when he
arrived in Iceland in 2005. "But obviously if I did, I would be
the best."

Born in Chicago on March 9, 1943, Robert James Fischer was a
child prodigy, playing competitively from age 8.

At 13, he became the youngest player to win the United States
Junior Championship. At 14, he won the United States Open
Championship for the first of eight times.

At 15, he became an international grand master, the youngest
person to hold the title.

Tall and striking-looking, he was a chess star -- but already
gaining a reputation for erratic behavior.

He turned up late for tournaments, walked out of matches,
refused to play unless the lighting suited him and was intolerant
of photographers and cartoonists. He was convinced of his own
superiority and called the Soviets "commie cheats."

"Chess is war on a board," he once said. "The object is to
crush the other man's mind."

His behavior often unsettled opponents, to Fischer's advantage.

This was seen most famously in the championship match with
Spassky in Reykjavik between July and September 1972. Having agreed
to play Spassky in Yugoslavia, Fischer raised one objection after
another to the arrangements and they wound up playing in Iceland.

Fischer then demanded more money and, urged by no less than
Henry Kissinger, he went to Iceland after a British financier, Jim
Slater, enriched the prize pot.

"Fischer is known to be graceless, rude, possibly insane. I
really don't worry about that, because I didn't do it for that
reason," Slater has said.

"I did it because he was going to challenge the Russian
supremacy, and it was good for chess," he added.

When play got under way, days late, Fischer lost the first game
with an elementary blunder after discovering that the TV cameras he
had reluctantly accepted were not unseen and unheard, but right
behind the players' chairs.

He boycotted the second game and the referee awarded the point
to Spassky, putting the Russian ahead 2-0.

But then Spassky agreed to Fischer's demand that the games be
played in a back room away from cameras. Fischer went on to beat
Spassky, 12.5 points to 8.5 points in 21 games.

In the recent book "White King and Red Queen," British author
Daniel Johnson said the match was "an abstract antagonism on an
abstract battleground using abstract weapons ... yet their struggle
embraced all human life."

"In Spassky's submission to his fate and Fischer's fierce
exultant triumph, the Cold War's denouement was already
foreshadowed."

Funeral details were not immediately available. Fischer moved to
Iceland with his longtime companion, Japanese chess player Miyoko
Watai. She survives him.