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The Secret Life of Bobby Fischer

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Whatever happened to Bobby Fischer? Six weeks after winning the world chess championship on Sept. 1, 1972, he abruptly vanished without a trace into the brown haze of Greater Los Angeles. Rumors flew, but the truth was weirder than the rumors.

At the pinnacle of chess success, Bobby abandoned the game that had made him famous and took up residence in a closed California community of religious extremists. With rare exceptions, the world outside has not seen or heard of him for more than 16 months. Reporters who tried to track him down were turned back by the private police force that patrols the church property in Pasadena.

On the day he finished off his great Russian opponent, Boris Spassky, in Iceland, Bobby had realized the first of his three main ambitions. The second, he said, was “to make chess a major sport in the United States.” The third was to be “the first chess millionaire.” As history’s first purely intellectual superstar, Bobby was offered record deals, TV specials, book contracts, product endorsements. “He could make $10 million in the next two, three years,” his lawyer said after Bobby’s victory at Reykjavik. And to promote chess, Bobby promised to put his title on the line “at least twice a year, maybe more.” Millions of chess amateurs enthused at the prospect of a Fischer era of storm, stress and magnificent competition.

But it didn’t happen quite like that. After curtly declining New York Mayor Lindsay’s offer of a ticker-tape parade (“I don’t believe in hero worship”), Bobby made impulsive appearances on the Bob Hope and Johnny Carson shows—and then was swallowed up by the Worldwide Church of God, a fundamentalist sect founded in 1934 by a former adman named Herbert W. Armstrong. Well advertised on radio and television by Armstrong’s hellfire preaching—and more recently by the charm-drenched sermons of Garner Ted Armstrong, the founder’s son—the church now claims 85,000 members. They celebrate the sabbath on Saturday and observe the dietary laws of the Old Testament—no pork, no shellfish. Smoking, divorce and cheek-to-cheek dancing are forbidden. Necking is the worst kind of sin. Tithing is mandatory—the church’s annual income probably exceeds $50 million. Church leaders live palatially and gad about the world in three executive jets provided by the faithful. Recently, however, scandals and schisms have shaken the flock.

Bobby Fischer, the child of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father, first tuned in on the elder Armstrong while still in his late teens. Lonely and despairing after he muffed his chance to become world champion at 19—Bobby found strength in the church’s teachings and has adhered to them closely ever since. He turned to the church in the crisis he faced after Reykjavik. Verging on nervous exhaustion after his two-month battle with Spassky and the match organizers, Bobby decided that the last thing he wanted after his triumph was the world that lay at his feet. In the large and outwardly peaceful community that surrounds the Armstrong headquarters, he saw a safe setting where he could unsnarl his nerves and find the normal life that he had sacrificed to competition and monomania.

The church welcomed him. Though Bobby is not a full church member—he is listed as a “coworker”—he offered Armstrong a double tithe (20%) of his $156,250 winnings. “Ah, my boy, that’s just as God would have it!” Armstrong replied, and passed the word that Bobby was to be given VIP treatment. A pleasant three-bedroom apartment in a church-owned development was made available. So were the gymnasium, squash courts and swimming pool of the church’s Ambassador College. Leaders of the Armstrong organization were told to make sure that Bobby had plenty of dinner invitations. “The word went out,” says a church member, “that Bobby should never be left alone, or allowed to feel neglected.”

To make doubly sure, the church assigned a friendly weightlifter in the phys. ed. department as Bobby’s personal recreation director. The two of them played paddle tennis almost every day, and Bobby worked out with weights to build up his arms and torso.

Not long after he arrived in Pasadena, the 31-year-old Bobby confessed to a high church official that he wanted to meet some girls. There is a rigid rule against dating between church members and nonmembers like Bobby, but the official allowed that in Bobby’s case the rule would be suspended. What sort of girls did he like? Bobby said that he liked “vivacious” girls with “big breasts.” A suitable girl was discovered and Bobby began to date her frequently, taking the weightlifter and his wife along as chaperones.

Bobby met other girls as well and for six months he forgot almost everything else—even chess. He saw hardly any of his chess friends and for the first time in his life stopped studying the game. When a message came that Henry Kissinger wanted to have dinner with him, Bobby said, “Naa, I’m too busy.” He was living a full life, glorying in his new title and acting the big fish in a little pond. Not all the inhabitants of the pond were pleased when he was admitted to Bible classes strictly reserved for full church members, or when he took a hop to Texas in the founder’s jet. The weightlifter complained secretly that the out-of-pocket expense of entertaining Bobby—a famous trencherman who seldom picks up a check—had become intolerable. Even Bobby’s church advisor said he should be encouraged to spend more time with people his own age who would not allow him to pull “celebrity” rank.

Bobby sensed that the honeymoon was over. “People around here are too restricted in what they can say and do,” he said, and took off to Denver with some disaffected church members.

Was he leaving the Armstrongs and returning to chess? In October he showed up at a major tournament in Manila as the guest of President Ferdinand Marcos—but he didn’t compete. In fact he hardly put his head out of the presidential suite at Manila’s Hyatt Regency Hotel except under heavy guard. He slept one night in the presidential palace, took a spin on the president’s yacht, made a brief speech to open the tournament, had a few steam baths and flew off to Tokyo.

A few weeks later the prodigal was back, but now he saw hardly anyone but the weightlifter and his wife, and the dating slowed to a stop. Bobby kept the shades in his apartment drawn, slept till afternoon, stayed up all night, listened to shortwave radio, read the New York Times and an occasional skin magazine—and, for the first time in more than a year, got back to studying chess. Some weeks later a visitor reported that the apartment was littered with chess games in progress and that Bobby again had the cold glint of combat in his eye.

He began to set traps for the man he will play for the championship in 1975. Early last fall he had fired off a telegram to the International Chess Federation protesting the new rule—that the title would go to the first player to win six games. That was too few, he said. Ten would be more like it. “He’s looking for insurance,” said grand master Larry Evans. “In a short match a cold streak could beat him. In a long match Bobby figures his energy and talent will tell.” Then Bobby set another trap. If the score reached 9-9, he said, the match should be called a draw, and the champion should be allowed to retain the title. “What he’s really saying,” Evans pointed out, “is that the challenger would have to win by at least two points, 10-8.”

Bobby seems not at all concerned about who the new challenger will be. With the elimination matches still in progress most grand masters were betting on a 23-year-old Soviet genius named Anatoly Karpov or on the 37-year-old Boris Spassky, and the biggest bets are on Spassky. The ex-champion left Reykjavik in acute depression. Back in Moscow, he was brutally criticized in the Soviet press and for almost a year was refused permission to play abroad. But last fall he won the year’s toughest tournament, the Soviet championship, with a smashing display of power and concentration. In January, in Puerto Rico, he defeated grand master Robert Byrne, the only U.S. contender in the quarter-final eliminations to select the challenger to meet Bobby.

Bobby is never out of Spassky’s mind. On the wall of his Moscow apartment hangs a photograph of the man who beat him at Reykjavik. Friends say Spassky often studies the photograph. Sometimes he speaks to it. “Spassky is not the same Spassky who met Bobby in Reykjavik,” an American grand master said. “If he sits across the board from Bobby in 1975, that will really be the Match of the Century.”

But it takes two to play a chess match, and there is strong suspicion in the chess community that Bobby will not play unless all his demands are met. That could mean a repetition of the madness that preceded the Reykjavik match, and once again Bobby has the whip hand. The chess world knows that chess without Bobby is little more than a parlor game for doubledomes. But chess as Bobby plays it is a global passion, a corrida of the intellect, thinking as a blood sport.