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Last night’s TV: Bobby Fischer, Genius and Madman


Under pressure: Bobby Fischer (right), an eight-time U.S. chess champion, ponders his next move against world champion Boris Spassky

Under pressure: Bobby Fischer (right), an eight-time U.S. chess champion, ponders his next move against world champion Boris Spassky

Under pressure: Bobby Fischer (right), an eight-time U.S. chess champion, ponders his next move against world champion Boris Spassky

James Walton reviews Bobby Fischer, Genius and Madman which profiles chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer.

In July 1972, one sporting event dominated American TV. It was broadcast live in Times Square, and channels cleared their schedules for coverage. The occasion, rather improbably, was the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik.

One obvious reason for the interest was the Cold War element, with America’s Bobby Fischer taking on the Soviet champ Boris Spassky. Another, though, was Fischer. Storyville: Bobby Fischer, Genius and Madman (BBC Four) chronicled his extraordinary life with the aid of compelling footage and a series of eyewitnesses who still looked a bit shell-shocked at what they’d seen. By the end, both parts of the subtitle seemed equally accurate.

According to an early interview, Fischer first got serious about chess when he was seven. But “getting serious” was essentially a euphemism for full-blown monomania. Growing up in Brooklyn, with no father and a distant mother, Fischer spent every available moment playing and studying the game. By 14, he was the US champion, and already dreaming of the world crown.

Not, given his many neuroses, that he made it easy for himself when the time came. One of the many highlights last night featured the minders responsible for getting him to Reykjavik reliving “the most stressful week” of their lives. In the end, as Fischer mysteriously dithered, or just kept running away, Henry Kissinger had to personally intervene to persuade him to go. Then, having arrived two days late, he blew the first game with an unthinkably basic error – and the second by the even simpler method of not showing up on stage.

Before long, however, it wasn’t hard to see why the world had once been captivated by the sight of two men staring at a chessboard. And, to its great credit, the programme was never afraid to plunge us deep into the rarefied world where chess is played at a level that none of us can understand. Game six, for example, was apparently “a symphony of placid beauty” – which Fischer opened by moving a slightly different pawn than usual. “Spassky was ready for many things,” said one commentator last night. “But not for that.”

When, two months later, he’d finally won the 24-game match, Fischer was asked what he wanted to achieve next. “My goal now,” he unironically explained, “is to play a lot more chess. I feel I haven’t played enough.”

As goals go, this should have been achievable. But in 1975, before his first defence, he was stripped of the title when the chess authorities ran out of patience with his extravagant demands (including a lot more money and a total change to the rules of championship chess). After that, he began – or continued – the long mental decline that led him to embrace an anti-Semitism that would have seemed weirdly virulent even if he hadn’t been Jewish. On September 11, 2001, he made a rare public statement – to call the Twin Towers attack “wonderful news”.

None the less, Fischer never came across here as an out-and-out villain. (He was, after all, mentally ill.) True, his friends became increasingly exasperated – even to the point of regarding his death in 2008 with something approaching relief. Yet, their feelings always seemed closer to sadness than to anger, and that always seemed about right. Storyville could easily have served up a straight character assassination. Instead, it took the much braver – and wiser – decision to present the life of Bobby Fischer as a bona fide tragedy.