Friday, February 4, 2011

Bobby Fischer’s descent into madness

BOBBY Fischer against the World” is a documentary about the late chess genius who was admired by chess players as the greatest of all time but was also considered as one of the most reviled persons by the rest of the world.

The film is produced by documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus, who decided to do it after reading the New York Times obituary on the chess legend in 2008.

It is scheduled to be shown on HBO this coming July. Watch for it.

It follows Fischer from his childhood in Brooklyn, New York, to his death from kidney failure in Iceland at the age of 64.

At the height of the cold war, his match with world champion Boris Spassky, played in 1972 in Iceland, took on the magnitude of an international confrontation. When Fischer delayed his arrival, Henry Kissinger recalled in an interview that he called Fischer and bluntly told him to “go.”

Garbus built her film around the drama of the match. After winning that match, he got mad, literally, and stopped playing chess.

He showed up 20 years later in 1992 in a rematch with Spassky in war-torn Yugoslavia,
breaking a United Nations embargo. He reportedly earned about $5 million.

After Sept. 11, his long simmering anti-American and anti-Semitic feelings exploded in a tirade.

The Philippines was a special country as Eugene Torre and the late Florencio Campomanes were his close friends and he also had a controversial intimate relationship with Filipina Marilyn Young.

Garbus, together with editors Karen Schmeer and Michael Levine, has managed to show the pieces of his shattered life. They put together a complex and fascinating portrait of genius wasted.

Did he have a lifelong mental illness?

Rick Warner, a movie critic of Bloomberg News, interviewed Garbus and here are excerpts from that interview (Reprinted here with his kind permission).

Warner: What made the 1972 match against Spassky such a cultural phenomenon? It was such a big deal that it was televised by PBS and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

Garbus: The Cold War played a significant role. The Soviet Union dominated chess and used it to demonstrate its intellectual superiority over the West. Then here comes this Brooklyn boy who taught himself chess in his apartment to take on the Soviet machine.

Warner: Give me an idea of how much attention it got?

Garbus: It was the highest-rated PBS show ever and “Wide World of Sports” interrupted prime-time programs with updates. They did a survey of bars in New York City , and more people were following the chess match than the New York Mets.

Warner: Fischer grew up not knowing his biological father and was left alone at 16 when his mother moved out of their apartment. How much did that scar him?

Garbus: Bobby obviously didn’t have a great home life, but I also think he had a disposition for a personality disorder. He became obsessed with chess, and nothing else really mattered to him.

Warner: Three years after winning the world championship against Spassky, he forfeited it by refusing to defend his title and retired from competitive chess. Is that when he started to decline mentally?

Garbus: Bobby was singularly focused on chess, and when that was gone, his life didn’t make much sense to him anymore. He had no support system—no close friends, relatives or loves—and he drifted into mental illness.

Warner: When Fischer was a fugitive living overseas, he made a lot of anti-Semitic and anti-American statements, including praise of the 9/11 terrorists. Was that him speaking or his mental illness?

Garbus: I don’t believe Bobby hated Jewish people. He was Jewish himself. He was suffering from paranoid psychosis.


Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on February 04, 2011.

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