Though I made a film called Searching for Bobby Fischer, I never actually met him. I never had the opportunity during the writing or making of the film because -- as young Josh Waitzkin says in the opening of the film -- after his stunning achievement in Reykjavik, Iceland, Bobby Fischer made "the most original and unexpected move of all ... he disappeared."
No one knew where Fischer was back then in the early 1990s when we were making the film. Someone must have known, of course; no one can live on their own in total obscurity. But nobody who was talking to me had any idea where he was.
But then, just as we were finishing shooting in the fall of 1992, something terrible for a film with a philosophical title like Searching for Bobby Fischer happened: He was found.
He surfaced in Belgrade, and I thought, What rotten luck for me, that after years of being invisible and inscrutable and shrouded in myth, Fischer turns up bragging about a high-priced rematch he's organizing against his old Russian adversary, Boris Spassky.
To my great relief, though, just months after dispatching Spassky and collecting his money (and an arrest warrant, but more on that later), Fischer made another surprising move: He disappeared again!
Now he was rumored to be living ... everywhere. In Manila. In Tokyo. Spotted in Budapest. Believed by some to be playing chess games anonymously on the Internet. He was a ghost again, underground, and this pattern of appearances and disappearances -- or wanderings -- became the routine of his latter years -- his 'latter' years, like with any prodigy, and most professional chess players, beginning after an early pinnacle at age 29.
For most of his life then, the last 35 years of it, Bobby Fischer was far less famous than he was infamous. His great accomplishments in the '60s and '70s were over, and he now ran afoul not of gambits on a chess board, but of the laws of nations, and grew more and more bitter and unstable as he roamed the world as a fugitive.
His first brush with the authorities came in 1981, when he was detained for two days after being mistaken for a bank robber in Southern California (after which he wrote a lurid pamphlet about the experience called, I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!)
His last arrest -- and the extradition battle that followed -- came in 2004, in Narita, Japan, as he tried to board a flight to the Philippines using a revoked passport.
This legal trouble, most of his legal troubles and expatriate status, stemmed from his participation in the Spassky rematch in Yugoslavia in 1992 in defiance of the UN's embargo and the US Treasury's warnings. It was this arrest warrant that eventually caught up with him in Japan. (He won the match in Belgrade, by the way, and pocketed $3 million dollars.)
The young half-Jewish American, who during the Cold War beat the Russians at the game they had so long dominated, who came to symbolize American intellectual might -- and for those who could use the rhetoric, the superiority of Capitalism over Communism -- now railed against America and Jews with hatred and vengeance.
The day after 9/11, Bobby said:
This is wonderful news. It's time for the US to get their heads kicked in. Finish off the US once and for all. Fuck the US. Fuck the Jews. They're murderous, criminal, thieving, lying bastards. They made up the Holocaust. They are the worst liars.
This kind of rant from Fischer was not, sadly, a rare one, and you can't help but wonder how he got to this place. Did it begin after his first arrest, or when he was told he'd be jailed if he ever returned to the US, or did it start much earlier, in his youth, in Brooklyn, in school, in the streets, at home, in the smoky corners of chess clubs, these kinds of paranoid thoughts beginning to form in the head of a boy who seemed to all to be concentrating only on the beauty of a chess position on the board?
The film Searching for Bobby Fischer, despite its title, wasn't really about him, but rather what he represented to the chess world, to chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini, to chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, to his parents, and to us: the distance that is sometimes narrow between art and science, success and failure, genius and madness, and the great price one often has to pay for great talent.
Bobby Fischer died of kidney failure on January 17, 2008, in exile in Reykjavik, Iceland -- the same city where he became the World Chess Champion in 1972.