Bobby Fischer, Bill Belichick share something in common   

Updated: January 24, 2008, 5:52 PM ET

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In the early 1970s, long before he began ranting about Jews who kill Christian children and wield their blood in black-magic ceremonies, long before he had his dental fillings removed for fear of signals being monitored by unspeakable forces through his mouth, Bobby Fischer won 20 consecutive chess matches against some of the best competition on earth, on his way to qualifying for the world championship. In a confounding game with an endless number of permutations, where draws are commonplace and losses are inevitable, it was one of the great competitive accomplishments of the 20th century, a streak of such proportion that in the midst of it one Soviet news agency declared, "A miracle has occurred."

Bobby Fischer

AP Photo/John Lent

Bobby Fischer's chess accomplishments were incredible. But did the game drive him crazy?

Fischer died last Friday at age 64, reportedly because he refused medical treatment for an illness that led to kidney failure. He was, then and now, the greatest American chess player who ever lived; he eventually won the world championship in 1972, against a Russian named Boris Spassky, briefly propelling chess into mainstream culture. And yet his aloofness and acute paranoia, his weird single-minded insistence upon seeing everything in life through the veil of a game, ultimately obscured his legacy.

If that sounds like a familiar story line, it should. We see it all the time these days in sports, if only on a less exaggerated scale. Barry Bonds: paranoid, aloof. Bill Belichick: paranoid, aloof. "Bill Belichick actually had two childhoods: A normal American childhood and then a football childhood as well," David Halberstam wrote in his book, "Education of a Coach." "As a boy he spoke two languages -- English and coach-speak, football version. Other kids had their hobbies; some collected postage stamps and others had baseball cards, but Bill studied football film."

I am asked quite often, since I decided to spend nearly two years of my life immersed in the world of competitive chess, whether I think it is a sport. I don't know if there's a correct answer to that question (though it confuses me, in a country where John Daly and David Wells are considered "elite athletes," how worked up people get during this discussion). But I find myself thinking often about Bobby Fischer when I think about sports. Because Bobby Fischer and his troubled and obsessive psyche may be the purest distillation of the dark side of our modern American games.

Fischer discovered chess at the age of 6 (at around the same age Belichick began following his father, a football coach, into film rooms). Fischer's mother, Regina, then spent years trying to dissuade him from chess, to no avail. "Often it would be midnight and Bobby would still be out playing chess, and she would have to take the subway or use the old, often unreliable family car … and literally drag him … home to bed," wrote Frank Brady in his biography of Fischer, "Profile of a Prodigy."

Eventually Regina Fischer gave up and left her son to fend for himself in their Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment, surrounded by his books and his boards. And Fischer kept burrowing deeper and deeper into his own psyche, and surrounding himself with people who enabled him merely because of his genius, until "his sense of immunity became so acute that he was simply beyond the reach of criticism."

Bill Belichick

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

What will Bill Belichick do after football? What would he do without it?

Brady wrote those words in 1972. Today, that explanation seems not only prophetic, but blatantly obvious. These days, it's shocking to find a figure in sports who doesn't consider himself beyond the reach of criticism. Virtually every professional athlete in every major sport grows up in a bubble, just as Fischer did. And coaches like Belichick and Bill Parcells are so single-minded that it's hard for them not to lose their grip on reality sometimes. All they know -- all they've ever known, really -- is winning and losing. Their entire existence, since childhood, has been based on finding the tiniest advantage in a zero-sum game. So why wouldn't today's sports figures ask their trainers to inject Winstrol into their rear ends if they thought it might give them an edge? Why wouldn't they shoot surreptitious digital videos on the opponent's sideline? And why wouldn't there be an increasingly wide gulf of understanding between those people and the rest of us?

"My entire life has been spent thinking about this game," Parcells once said. "That's pretty narrow … I don't view myself as a person who's well versed in very many subjects. I'm not proud of that."

At the very least, Parcells is self-aware enough to acknowledge such a thing. But he has presided over a generation of athletes who aren't -- who happen to think dogfighting is a fine and decent pastime, and who eventually emerge from their bubble ill-prepared to deal with the rest of their lives.

It's true that Bobby Fischer was the most extreme example of this. He may have been especially unprepared for an existence beyond chess. He may have simply been mentally ill. "He is the most single-minded man I have ever known," Brad Darrach wrote in a remarkable Playboy magazine profile of Fischer, which was reprinted in "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century." "He talks as he thinks, in simple sentences that lead him to where he is going like steppingstones, and his voice is the voice of a joke robot … flat, monotonous, the color of asphalt."

This is not to imply that 20 years from now, Bill Belichick will be monitoring his dental work for messages planted by Communist-sympathizing AFC East rivals in faraway galaxies. But it does raise a question that we don't ask often enough in sports, which is simply, what happens to people like this when there is nothing more to be won?

Michael Weinreb's book "Game of Kings: A Year Among the Oddballs and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team" was recently released in paperback by Gotham Books. He is currently working on a book about sports in the 1980s. He can be reached at michaelweinreb.com.


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