Which Bobby Fischer Should We Remember?

A conversation with the filmmaker behind HBO's Bobby Fischer Against the World


Harry Benson

The last time the late Bobby Fischer appeared on American TV, he railed at reporter Jeremy Schaap during a press conference in Iceland, demeaning Schaap's father Dick as "a Jewish snake." That image of an anti-Semitic, anti-American lunatic is what most endured during the chess champion's later years, as virtually every public appearance or radio-station phone call he made devolved into explosions of hateful, conspiratorial rhetoric.

A fugitive from justice for violating U.S. economic sanctions against Yugoslavia by playing a match there in 1992, this Fischer was far removed from the prodigy who riveted the nation and secured one of its greatest symbolic Cold War victories by defeating the Soviet Union's Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship, deemed the "Match of the Century."

That dichotomy is the core of Liz Garbus' documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World, her compelling look at the man and his public image, which premieres tonight at 9 EST on HBO. Here, she offers her thoughts on this monumentally complex figure.

For viewers who only remember the Bobby of recent years, the film inspires empathy where perhaps there once was none. Why was that important to you?

That's exactly the experience I had in getting to know Bobby, and it's exactly the experience we hope to take viewers on. Of course, there are folks who watched the match in '72 and remember every move and remember the early Bobby, the Bobby who could be charming, the Bobby who was very charismatic and could have a laugh at himself. He was always arrogant, he was always socially awkward but as many people who knew him at the chess club said, "He was just a harmless, chess-obsessed kid." Later on, after his fame buoyed and grew, he really inhabited that role and actually was charismatic.

Many of us who got to know him in later years or only in retrospect remember vividly those 9/11 comments [the attacks were "wonderful news," Fischer said] and images of him after being arrested in Japan [while trying to board a flight to the Philippines]. It's easy to write him off or see his entire career through that lens.

How do you explain Bobby's hateful conduct?

With Bobby and his ideology, it was not well-organized. This was not a man who was planning to put a bomb in a synagogue. This was a man whose mind was overrun by thoughts, which mostly had to do with his own self-hatred and the loss of his own life, in a certain way.

Why was fame especially hard on him?

I think that Bobby, because he was slightly different and a little awkward, or prone to comments that people perceived as arrogant about his prowess on the chessboard--which in fact were true--he was an ideal object for caricature. So the press could be really brutal. Bobby read that stuff and would feel injured and incredibly angry about it. He was this kind of awkward kid and subject to its scrutiny early on. There were places that he was very comfortable: The Dick Cavett Show, which he went on several times. But in general I feel that the press could be a bit tough on him.

How would he have been treated differently by the press today?

He was afforded more privacy than he would have been today. There was no TMZ, the industry of taking photos and telling stories was a fraction of what it is now. In certain ways, it's academic, because there would never be a Bobby Fischer today. There's a great chess player now, an American who's number six in the world, but he's not taking on the chess masters from al-Qaeda. It doesn't resonate in our culture the way it did in the Cold War.

To what degree do you credit the era with the amount that Bobby resonated with people?

I do believe it has so much to do with the Cold War and cultural factors of the time. Yes, Bobby's chess-playing was beautiful. And he demolished his opponents. He was the youngest grandmaster and the youngest world chess champion at that time, so certainly he was extraordinary, and certainly there would have been stories about him. But getting on nighttime talk shows with hosts like Cavett and [Johnny] Carson and Bob Hope? No, he would have not captured the interest, were he not sitting across the table with the Russians.

Did the hype surrounding Bobby's match against Spassky contribute to Bobby's downfall?

I love an interview where Carson says to him, "Bobby, how do you feel now that it's all over?" And Bobby says to him, "I feel like something's been taken from me." For Bobby to have that level of insight was somewhat rare, but it's like his entire world was organized around this one thing, and then the world around him became organized around this one thing, and that's an enormous amount of pressure. Yeah, he could have kept fighting and tried to maintain the title for years, but that's just not the way he was organized.

Why do we persist on viewing complicated figures like Bobby in only black and white terms?

I think that the media has something to do with it. I think that what's extraordinary was when we were going out to make this film about Bobby Fischer, people wanted to know: "Is he a saint or a sinner? What portrait are you making of him?" And I said, "I'm listening to you. I'm not making a portrait. I'm not making him a [saint or a] sinner. I'm listening to all the stories and putting them all together and finding a truth in all their differences and all their agreements." People were so suspicious of me and I can't blame them. There has been a tendency for portraits of people, especially in the shorter sound bite world that we live in, to be pigeonholed. It's up to a long-form documentary like this to explore those grey areas because that's where life exists, and we're all in it.