SI Flashback: Bobby Fischer
At 7:51 p.m. on the evening of Wednesday, April 3, this year, as I was walking out of the history department of the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, I stopped for a moment by the card-catalog files in the library's second-floor rotunda. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I had one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.
The library was closing in nine minutes, and for about the last half hour I had experienced that hollow sensation I had grown to know so well, the one that always accompanied the awareness of another day lost in Palo Alto, another afternoon misspent in Pasadena, another evening busted and shot in Los Angeles. Off and on for almost two years, I had been to all those places and more looking in vain for
To find him, to see him, had become a kind of crazy and delirious obsession, the kind of insanity that has hounded other men in search of, say, the Loch Ness monster. Fischer was the most gifted prodigy in chess, the game's equivalent of
During those two months in Iceland, Fischer attained a folkloric celebrity that attracted millions of Americans to a game they had long associated with the relative obscurity of park benches and coffeehouses. Looking out from the cover of national magazines that wild summer, he was depicted as a gallant cold warrior, a solitary Arnerican genius taking on and crushing the Soviet chess juggernaut, with its Moscow computers and its small army of grandmasters arrayed against him.
The 29-year-old Fischer emerged a hero, of course, but he promptly rejected scores of offers, worth millions of dollars, to capitalize on his fame. In fact, though promising to be a fighting champion, he turned back every offer to play chess again. To this day, since Spassky resigned in the 21st and final game on Sept. 1, 1972, Fischer has not played a single game of chess in public. He forfeited his world title in 1975, turning down a multimillion-dollar offer to play challenger
So Bobby Fischer was gone. Ever since he won the championship, Fischer had been drifting quietly into seclusion, finding refuge in
After Fischer relinquished the title, Karpov was named champion. Karpov still holds the title, but his crown has not been without a singularly painful thorn, for Fischer is still alive, out there somewhere in Southern California. No longer merely a former world chess champion, he has grown to almost mythic size, leaving behind him a trail of rumors and a chess world that is still reaching out for him in the void.
Much the same kind of effect was created in the 1850s when
Later in his life, after abandoning chess altogether, Morphy suffered from delusions of persecution and withdrew into his own private world. Occasionally he strolled the streets of New Orleans, muttering, in French, "He will plant the banner of Castille upon the walls of Madrid, amidst the cries of the conquered city, and the little king will go away looking very sheepish." He died of apoplexy, at age 47.
But Fischer is still alive, and still very much on many minds. Until recently Robert J. Fisher lived in Pasadena, just about a mile east of where Bobby was arrested in 1981 for allegedly holding up a bank. Fisher installs cable television and spells his name without the "c," but over the years he has received telephone calls from all over the world, often at three in the morning, awakening to hear:
"This is the international operator, Mr. Fisher. You have a telephone call from Yugoslavia." Or the Soviet Union, or Czechoslovakia, or Bulgaria, or Germany.
Almost invariably, the voices speak broken English and cry out, "Boooby! Are you Booby Fischer, the chess player?"
To which Bob Fisher will sing back, "Wrong number! This is Bob Fisher, the cable-television guy."
Fischer is out there, to be sure, but so elusive as to be almost a figment of the imagination. "It's like this god of chess hanging over everybody's head," says American grandmaster
That he was out there, still lurking around, was what had drawn me to the second-floor rotunda of the Los Angeles Public Library at 7:51 p.m. on the night of April 3. Desperately looking for a lead earlier that day, I had visited the chambers of
"Have you ever thought he might want to be left alone?" Madame Lola asked.
"Look, Madame Lola, a lot of people are wondering what has happened to him," I said.
"A lot of celebrities want to be left alone," she said.
In my own paranoia, the thought suddenly occurred to me: Maybe she knows Bobby and is trying to protect him.
"Do you know Fischer or something?" I blurted.
There was no doubt that I had become slightly wiggy. I had been prowling the catacombs of the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library for months because Fischer had often been sighted there -- as recently as a few weeks earlier -- but he had never appeared when I was there. I had begun to think that perhaps he had contacts at the library who would tip him off whenever I showed up. After all, I had a source working at the library,
The day before, on April 2, I had gone to a Goodwill store in the city of Orange and purchased a disguise, clothes that would have suited any bum wandering around nearby MacArthur Park or the broken-bottle district of downtown L.A.: a $5 pair of baggy brown pants, marked down to $2.50, whose cuffs scraped the floor; a large gold shirt for $3; a white tie, with a bright yellow stain, for 15 cents; a pair of brown shoes, which I wore without socks or laces, for $5; and the ugliest sports coat in the store, a black number with red and white flecks, for $2.50. An accommodating friend stained the coat and pants with grease and glue to match the sorry tie. At a magic shop, I bought a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles and a can of gray makeup paint with which I liberally doused what was left of my hair.
Thus disguised on April 3, on my way to the library I stopped off to see Madame Lola. It was a sweltering day, about 85 degrees, but the disguise and the promise of finding Fischer had buoyed me with a new sense of mission. I strode into her storefront chambers, apologized for my wardrobe, and within 10 minutes we were ensconced in a backroom cubicle adorned with religious paintings and statues. At Lola's request, I had brought several pictures of Fischer that I had been showing around restaurants and stores in Pasadena, hoping someone might recognize him. I also brought copies of papers bearing Fischer's handwriting, including the pseudonym
Fischer had written it in 1981 after he was arrested in Pasadena -- he was mistaken for a bank robber -- and jailed for two days. In this remarkable document, Fischer described his arrest and then detailed what happened to him in two days of incarceration, during which, he says, he was ordered to strip and was threatened with confinement in a mental hospital. The chapter headings include: Brutally Handcuffed, False Arrest, Insulted, Choked, Stark Naked, No Phone Call, Horror Cell, Isolation & Torture.
Madame Lola placed her hands on the papers and the photographs, tipped her head forward and closed her eyes. "He has been hurt in many ways by people in business," she began. "He feels that people are going to take advantage of him. . . . Have you tried looking toward the desert?"
"The desert?" I said. "No . . . what about Pasadena?"
Madame Lola opened and closed her eyes. "He's not there now," she said. "I feel him towards some place hot, very hot. Very, very warm. I feel a lot of sun. . . ." Outside, it felt hot enough to roast a duck, but that was not what Lola meant. "It could be Nevada," she said. "This is what I'm picking up. . . . He is a very confused person. . . . He feels everyone is going to recognize him. . . . I feel you will find him when you least expect him."
Madame Lola looked up, fixed me with her eyes and said finally, "He's always one step ahead of you. I'd give up on the whole idea."
Moments later I was heading for the library in Los Angeles. Time was getting short. By now, the office was restless, and more than one editor had told me to write the story whether I had found him or not, but I was having trouble letting it go.
So what was I doing here, dressed up like an abject bum and looking for a rnan who would bolt the instant he knew who I was? And what on earth might he be doing now in the desert? Pumping gas in Reno? Riding a burro from dune to dune in the Mojave, looking over his shoulder as the sun boiled the brain that once ate Moscow? And what of his teeth? I had been thinking a lot lately about Fischer's teeth. In the spring of 1982, one of Fischer's oldest chess-playing friends,
the two men take a fishing trip into Mexico. Gross, now 49, had first met Fischer in the mid-'50s, back in the days before Bobby had become a world-class player, and the two had kept in irregular touch over the years. In 1980, at a time when Fischer was leaving most of his old friends behind, he had contacted Gross, and they had gotten together. At the time, Fischer was living in a dive near downtown Los Angeles.
"It was a real seedy hotel," Gross recalls. "Broken bottles. Weird people."
At one point, Gross made the mistake of calling Karpov the world champion. "I'm still the world champion," snapped Fischer. "Karpov isn't. My friends still consider me champion. They took my title from me."
By 1982, Fischer was living in a nicer neighborhood in Los Angeles. Gross began picking him up and letting him off at a bus stop at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax, near an East Indian store where Bobby bought herbal medicines.
That March, on the fishing trip to Ensenada, Fischer got seasick, and he treated himself by sniffing a eucalyptus-based medicine below deck. Fischer astonished Gross with the news about his teeth. Fischer talked about a friend who had a steel plate in his head that picked up radio signals.
"If somebody took a filling out and put in an electronic device, he could influence your thinking," Fischer said. "I don't want anything artificial in my head."
"Does that include dental work?" asked Gross.
"Yeah," said Bobby. "I had all my fillings taken out some time ago."
"There's nothing in your cavities to protect your teeth?"
Gross dropped the subject for the moment, but later he got to thinking about it and, while taking a steam bath in a health spa in Cerritos, he asked Fischer if he knew how bacteria worked, warning him that his teeth could rot away. "As much as you like to eat, what are you going to do when your teeth fall out?" asked Gross.
"I'll gum it if I have to," Fischer said. "I'll gum it."
Their relationship ended that summer, after Gross gave an interview to the chess writer for
When Fischer heard about
"How can you feel that way?" Gross asked. "I didn't say anything bad about you."
"It doesn't matter," said Bobby. "You're not supposed to talk to these guys. Do you realize I don't let my friends talk to the press?" Gross tried to mollify him, but it was no use. That was their last conversation.
"This move is no good," he would say to Grumette. "He should have done this. What do you think?"
"What are you asking me for?" she would say.
"Well, everybody's opinion helps," he would answer.
That is how she remembers him best, sitting at the board and having fun playing games. "Whatever people say about him, he has a very kind heart," Grumette says. "He always impressed me as a normal, kind, decent human being. He visited my husband in the hospital when he was dying of cancer, and walked my dog every night. Bobby was part of the family."
Until, that is, Grumette talked innocently about him to a reporter from the Los Angeles Times following his defeat of Spassky in 1972. "He dropped me, too," she says.
Lina took me to the second-floor room which Fischer had used when he lived there, and showed me a box of possessions that he had left behind: a warranty for a Zenith television set given to him after a tournament in 1966, a few religious books and stacks of letters from children asking him about chess.
She last spoke to him around 1979, when she was trying to arrange an exhibition match for him at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Caesars offered him $250,000 in appearance money. After he had agreed to the terms and all the arrangements had been made, Fischer called her. "I've been thinking," he began.
The minute he said that, she knew the deal was off. "I'm risking my title," Fischer said. "I should get $1 million."
The last time Grumette tried to reach him, she called Claudia Mokarow to ask for her assistance. It was just after the appearance of another Los Angeles Times article in which Grumette was quoted. "That'll cost you $1,000," Mokarow told her.
Actually that figure was cheap. Not long after inviting Fischer to Chamberlain's house for dinner, Schaap got in touch with Mokarow and told her he wanted to interview Fischer for
"Bobby will be perfectly happy to interview with you," Mokarow said. "He's charging $25,000 per interview. Since he didn't charge you for the last interview, it will be $50,000."
None of his old chess friends have seen or spoken to him in years. Grandmaster
"I worry about him, but I can't worry about him night and day," Lombardy says. "I've made efforts to get in touch with him. I've tried to get his phone number, but he doesn't like his number given out. I can't be chasing him around, just to get hold of him to talk to him. In L.A., I've tried to find him. I've asked people where he might live, where you might see him. My door is always open. If he wants to get in touch with me, he can."
"We talked about chess," Christiansen says. "He didn't have much respect for Karpov's play. . . . He launched into a tirade against the Jews, the world conspiracy. He seemed like a nice guy, then he launched into that tirade. I felt kind of sorry for him. I could see Zuckerman in the back seat, masking laughter."
For most of those who knew him well, though, Fischer's flights into such fantasies were no laughing matter. Perhaps his oldest friends in the world are
"He began to visit us when he was just 13," says Jack. "We played thousands and thousands of speed games. You can't predict what a boy that age will be. The next thing I knew, he went up like a Roman candle. It's hard to believe he's not the Bobby Fischer we knew. I still think of him as the little prodigy who lived with us years ago. We had a lot of fun together. They're one thing as boys; they're another as men."
The question of whether he would ever come back remains open in his teacher's mind.
"Chess players don't get better as they get older, they get worse," Collins says. "Their careers roughly parallel those of big league pitchers. It's hard to know why. Maybe it's nerves. Maybe it's the will to win. But Bobby always admired players who competed into old age, such as
Fischer has not been in touch with the Collinses for five years. They don't know how to reach him. He used to call once a month. Now there is nothing.
"His view of the world is completely incompatible with mine," Collins says. "He wants to talk about that all the time. What do you do with a person who insists the Holocaust didn't happen?"
His oldest friends are not the only ones who have become alienated from him.
As Sneider drifted away from Fischer, Bobby found a set of surrogate parents in Mokarow and her husband, Arthur, then members of the Worldwide Church. Sneider had sensed early in Fischer a desire for a world utterly apart from chess. "He would really like to be just left alone," Sneider says. "He's trying to live a normal life, with regular hours. He is saying, I want my own space.' " When Sneider encouraged him to play chess, Fischer would say, "That's none of your business. Just be my friend."
In Claudia, Fischer found someone to screen his calls and otherwise protect him from the inquiring world. When I phoned her, here's the way the conversation went:
"Hello?" answered the female voice.
"Is Claudia Mokarow there?" I asked.
"Yes, this is she." I told her who I was, that I wanted to speak to Bobby, and asked her to help.
"No, I really can't," she said.
I pressed gently, asking her if Bobby was in town. "No, I'm not able to help you," she said.
"May I come and see you?" I asked. Silence.
More frantic now, my voice rising as I thought of Schaap: "Is he seeing people?" Again, silence. More desperate now, almost a whinny: "Is he in town? Is he anywhere in Southern California?"
"I think I'd better hang up," Claudia said.
Again: "Is he in Southern California?"
"Bye," she said sweetly. Click. I paid a call on Mokarow on March 9, Fischer's 42nd birthday, knocking on her door on San Remo Road in Pasadena. I knew the house well, for I had staked it out on several occasions in the past months, hoping to see Fischer come or go. A woman's voice answered from behind the door.
"Who is it?" Claudia asked, in her telephone voice. I told her who I was. "It's Bobby Fischer's 42nd birthday, and I would like to talk to you, please!"
"I'm not interested in talking to you," she said.
So it was with Claudia and all of those still known to be in touch with Fischer. I ran into
So, too, came the word one day from
"Have you seen him lately?" I asked.
"I guess what you're asking are personal questions," Joan said.
"I'm in Palo Alto," I said. "Could I see you?"
"There wouldn't be much point in it," she said.
Nor was there much point in asking to see
"Sir!" shouted Buff. "You're calling me on an unlisted number! I have nothing to say to you! If you call me again, I'll call the chairman of the board of
Bobby had been known to like San Francisco. In 1981 he had lived at the apartment of Greek-born grandmaster
One day Buff called. "Peter, he's coming up. Bobby's coming up on the bus to stay with you!"
Fischer arrived one early March morning with his suitcase of clothes and vitamins and a large orange-juice squeezer that he had bought in Mexico. He stayed for two months, returned to Los Angeles in the summer, then came back in the fall to stay two more months. They swam in the ocean, played pinball machines, bowled, went to movies, squeezed oranges and played baseball in Golden Gate Park. Fischer shagged Buff's fly balls and pegged them back to the plate as hard as he could.
"How was it coming in?" asked Bobby.
He was more overpowering at the chessboard with Biyiasas. During his four months in San Francisco, he beat Biyiasas 17 straight speed games before Biyiasas finally surrendered. "He was too good," Biyiasas says. "There was no use in playing him. It wasn't interesting. I was getting beaten, and it wasn't clear to me why. It wasn't like I made this mistake or that mistake. It was like I was being gradually outplayed, from the start. He wasn't taking any time to think. The most depressing thing about it is that I wasn't even getting out of the middle game to an endgame. I don't ever remember an endgame. He honestly believes there is no one for him to play, no one worthy of him. I played him, and I can attest to that. It's not interesting."
As time passed, Fischer's taste for the eccentric and his preoccupation with Jews became evident to Biyiasas. Biyiasas says Fischer referred to Jews as "Yids," telling him that one controlled the fluctuating price of the world's gold. "He is fascinated by who this might be," Biyiasas says. Fischer had what he called Chinese healthy brain pills ("Good for headaches," Fischer told him) and Mexican rattlesnake pills ("Good for general health"). He had vitamins in a suitcase, and he invited Biyiasas to help himself to them.
One day, Biyiasas tried to open the suitcase but found it locked. Later, Biyiasas asked him about this. "It's not locked for you," Fischer said. "If the Commies come to poison me, I don't want to make it easy for them."
Now Fischer was moving in a vacuum. A reporter had checked all public records in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas for a clue to Fischer's whereabouts, and he had found none. No telephone, no driver's license, no vehicle registration, no real property and no records of him in an array of courts.
Nonetheless, I sensed that I was closing in, if only I could get more time to prowl the library in my disguise. I knew he had been seen there, which meant he wasn't in Brazil. That he had gone to Brazil had been the big rumor in December.
The scent seemed to be fresh. There was the tale told by
"Bobby, hello," Lewis said. Fischer reeled backward. "About 10 feet," Lewis later recalled. The first thing Fischer said was, "How do I know you're not a journalist?"
Lewis thought that was pretty funny. "Bobby, I'm in ray uniform, I drive a truck," Lewis said.
"Show me some ID," Fischer demanded.
Assured that he was, indeed, a truck driver, Fischer talked to Lewis for about a half hour. At one point, Lewis told him, "Bobby, you were the greatest!" To which Fischer sternly replied, "What do you mean, were?"
They chatted amiably, Lewis telling him that he had two sons and asking Fischer how he could make them better players.
"Don't try to make them child prodigies," Fischer said. "Forget about all that. Just let them play."
Lewis had a fine time talking to Bobby and, looking back, he has but one regret.
"If I had had a chess set, Bobby would have played me," Lewis said. "That's the thing that hurts more than anything else. I didn't have a doggone chess set."
So he was probably here somewhere, and there I was, dressed like a derelict and making my way up the steps of the library's Hope Street entrance at 4:35 p.m. I did a quick circuit of all the rooms and at once found Gordon Brooks standing in the social sciences department. I approached him from behind and gruffly asked him for a cigarette. He turned: "I'm sorry, I. . . . Oh, it's you."
I told him to keep his eyes peeled, that I was on the prowl. Gordon nodded. An expert chess player, Brooks had once lost to Fischer in a simultaneous exhibition.
He had seen Fischer several times at the library in the last four years. The first time he spotted him, Fischer had a beard and was standing in front of the card-catalog files. Brooks approached him. "He mumbled something and turned and walked away," Brooks said.
They spoke on another occasion and, according to Brooks, Fischer said, "I'm bothered by a lot of weirdos."
Leaving Brooks, I swung through the history department and I thought I saw Fischer crouching by a stack of books along a wall. I could not see his face, so I sat down at the nearest desk and waited. He looked tall -- Fischer is 6' 2" -- and he had a balding spot on the back of his head. Vintage Bobby. Suddenly the man stood up. I breathed deeply, and looked. Ohhh! Not him.
I got up, caught my breath and was about to head out the door when someone tapped me on the shoulder. Startled, I jumped and blurted, "Ahhh!" It was Brooks. He whispered to me, "He was here yesterday."
"What?" I breathed. "Are you sure?"
"The lady in Social Sciences said she saw him in there," he said.
Brooks and I swept through History into Social Sciences. "Are you positive it was Fischer?"
"How do you know it was Fischer?" I asked. Spencer pulled out an old newspaper photo of Fischer and flashed it from behind the counter. "I know him," she said. "I see him a lot in here."
Turning to Brooks, I said, "A day! I missed him by a lousy day!"
But he was here! He was in town, certainly in the neighborhood. I left the library, went to a deli and bought a Diet Sunkist and a bag of cheese corns and sat on the stoop of The Church of the Open Door, thinking Bobby might stroll past any time now and look at me and figure I was O.K., just a bum feeding the pigeons. Ha! So I flipped some cheese corns to the birds strutting past and waited in the gathering dusk. ble and walked out of History and into the rotunda.
Passing the card catalogs, I glanced up and stopped -- jerked to a stop and froze. There he was. Bobby Fischer was standing about 15 feet away, and for an instant he looked right at me, so I could see his face straight on, and I think my mouth dropped open but I can't be sure, because all I can remember is how it suddenly went dry and how I ducked behind the card catalogs and leaned my head against the files and said, in a suppressed whisper, "Oh my God! I found him. I don't believe this. Now what the hell do I do?"
I had never seen him in my life, except in dated photographs, but I knew it was Fischer, just plain knew it the instant I saw him. The long face. The brown eyes. The half-inch beard. The brown hair revealing a slightly balding Where is he? At 6:10 p.m., I walked up the stairs and into the library and began my regular tour of the place, like a night watchman with a key.
Nothing in Philosophy and Religion, nor in the Newspaper Room, where Fischer used to go last fall to read
Another quick swing throught the rooms revealed nothing. It was 7:30 p.m., then 7:45. Suddenly the bell rang, signaling 15 minutes left before closing. The man reading the trigonometry book looked up in the back of History. A bum dressed even worse than I, with holes in his pants and a tom coat, sauntered toward th e door. At 7:51, I got up from a tapatch at the back of his pate. About 6' 2". He was carrying a plastic bag -- Ben Lewis said Fischer was carrying a bag when he met him -- and as I emerged from behind the files, he was already ducking into the telephone booth, as he had when Brooks first saw him. He had materialized out of nowhere at closing time, as if he had descended from the dome to use the phone. After watching him disappear into the booth, I dashed downstairs to watch the exits.
At almost eight sharp, as the guards were seeing patrons out the door, Fischer came down the winding staircase and walked quickly past me to the Hope Street exit. He went through the door, took a left, then moved fast down the stairs to the street. I followed him, about 30 feet behind. Halfway down the stairs, he turned his head and saw me again. Does he think I'm following him? He never turned back again. Nearing the corner of Sixth and Hope, Fischer suddenly stopped and picked up a public telephone. Of course, I thought, an old trick to lose a tail! Head down, I swept past him, crossed Sixth Street to a row of hedges at the Lincoln Savings and Loan and crouched down to hide. Looking around, he appeared not to have noticed me.
He was on the phone about five minutes. Not sure what he was going to do, I crossed Hope, doubled back across Sixth to his side of the street and lurked about in wait. Fischer hung up the phone, crossed Sixth, passed the hedges of the Lincoln Savings and Loan and strode quickly into the night. I followed him at a distance of 50 yards, at times having to break into a trot to keep up. Ron Gross had been right. "Fischer is a fast walker," Gross had said. "With those long, fast strides he takes, he's hard to keep up with."
Half jogging, I watched him as he disappeared in shadows and reappeared in the light, his bag twirling and swinging at his side. Everywhere he went, I trailed just behind him on the other side of the street. I could not hear him whistling, but he moved as if he were.
For some 21 months I had wondered what I'd say to Fischer upon meeting him face to face. Dressed as I was this night, I knew I could have affected a foreign accent, stuck out my hand and said, "Boooby Fischer! You ah zee greatess chiss playah uff all zee time!" But I had decided long ago I could not do that. Were I to confront him, I would have to do so on his terms, which meant I would have to be scrupulously honest. No lies, no evasions, no deceptions. He detests all such things. So, confronting him, I would have to tell him who I was and why I was there, whereupon he would either flee in horror or lash out.
After spending weeks of my life looking for this man, in a journey that had led me to countless homes, libraries, bookshops, chess tournaments, stakeouts, police stations, restaurants, bowling alleys and health spas, I finally had him in my sights, and I simply could not bring myself to reach out a hand to shake his. Fischer had chosen this life of privacy and seclusion, for whatever reason, and to breach it now seemed a pointless intrusion. I was certain enough in my own mind that the man was Bobby Fischer. I chased him for block after block through the streets of Los Angeles, thinking he might lead me to his home, for I was curious to know for myself just where he lived after hearing all the rumors.
In the end, even that didn't really matter. He stopped on one street corner for a while, waiting for a light to change, and then crossed the street and stopped at another. There were bums and winos all around, but he appeared to pay them no mind. I watched him for a long while from across the street. Fourteen years ago, he had stormed the chess world by winning those 20 straight games, and he was on his way to Iceland to do battle with Spassky. What seemed like only the beginning then was really the end.
Now here he was, momentarily sharing a street corner with winos in downtown Los Angeles. The last time I saw him, he was standing there under a large clock hung upon the corner of a building. Fittingly enough, the clock was broken, its hands motionless on the dial. Then he disappeared into a group of people climbing on Bus 483, bound for Pasadena.