DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of television program)
Unidentified Man #1: This is NBC Nightly News, Friday, September 1st.
Unidentified Man #2: Good evening. We'll have more on the developments in the Watergate bugging case. We'll hear George McGovern talking about tightening up his campaign organization and we'll have a look at the new unemployment figures. And first, Bobby Fischer. Today...
DAVIES: In 1972, nobody was bigger news than chess master Bobby Fischer. He squared off against Russian Boris Spassky in a historic match seen as a showdown of the Cold War.
Fischer's life as an extraordinary chess genius and troubled soul is the subject of a new documentary directed by my guest, Liz Garbus, called "Bobby Fischer Against the World." It premieres Monday on HBO.
The film chronicles Fischer's unusual family life, his rise to celebrity as a chess master and his increasingly bizarre behavior after his 1972 match with Spassky. Fischer eventually became an angry, paranoid anti-Semite who fled the U.S. to avoid criminal prosecution.
The film includes interviews with many who knew Fischer, including chess master and physician Anthony Saidy, who also joined our interview.
Liz Garbus has directed more than a dozen documentaries, including her Oscar-nominated film about a Louisiana prison called "The Farm: Angola, USA." "Bobby Fischer Against the World" features a lot of archival footage of Fischer. You can hear his awkwardness in this interview, conducted in his late 20s when he was in his chess-playing prime.
(Soundbite of interview)
Unidentified Man #3: Bobby, you've given virtually your entire life to the world of chess. What about Bobby Fischer the man? What's he like?
Mr. BOBBY FISCHER (Chess Master): I don't know. It's pretty - chess and me, you know, it's like it's hard to take them apart, you know, just like my alter-ego, you know. I dont need to...
Unidentified Man #3: But there are times when you get away from that chess board. What do you do?
Mr. FISCHER: I don't do too much for the most. See, I'm really, you know, tied up in chess. I intend to expand, but first I've got to get the title, basically.
DAVIES: I asked Liz Garbus and Anthony Saidy about Fischer's early years, growing in New York with his mother, Regina.
Well, Liz Garbus, Anthony Saidy, welcome to FRESH AIR. We know that Regina, Bobby Fischer's mom, was deeply involved in left-wing activity and was monitored by the FBI. Liz Garbus, do you know what kind of impact this had on the kids growing up?
Ms. LIZ GARBUS (Director, "Bobby Fischer Against the World"): Yeah, I mean, it's kind of remarkable. We got both Bobby Fischer's and Regina Fischer's FBI file. And Bobby Fischer being someone who was actually ultimately hunted by the U.S., a fugitive, arrested in Japan, his FBI file was, you know, about an eighth of the size of his mother's, Regina Fischer, which just tells you a lot about the period in which they were growing up and the suspicions the FBI had about her communist activities.
It was a paranoid time, right, McCarthy, and this was the Cold War, and this is the environment in which they were growing up, so that, you know, one imagines that that paranoia would have transferred to the young Bobby.
One of our interviewees told a story about how - that Regina had instructed Bobby, if he was ever sort of sitting on the steps outside of his house, if anybody asked him what his name was or where he lived, he should just say: I can neither confirm nor deny that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
So he was apparently trained at a young age how to kind of watch his back.
DAVIES: Wow. Now, of course, he's a terrific chess player, and at 13 or 14, he starts beating people who are much, much older and making it clear what a master he could become.
I thought we would listen to a clip from the documentary of Bobby Fischer as a teenager. Here he is at age 15. He's appearing on the TV show "I've Got a Secret." We're going to hear the voice of Garry Moore, who is the host, and Dick Clark, who was a panelist. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of film, "Bobby Fischer Against the World")
(Soundbite of television program, "I've Got a Secret")
Mr. GARRY MOORE (Host): Can you tell us how old you are and where you're from?
Mr. FISCHER: I'm 15. I'm from Brooklyn.
Mr. MOORE: He's 15 years old, and he is from Brooklyn, all right?
Unidentified Person: Yay.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOORE: Will you show your headline from camera three to Dick Clark because we'll make him go to work on you. It says: Teenager's Strategy Defeats All Comers.
Mr. DICK CLARK (TV Personality): This strategy, did it involve finances?
Mr. FISCHER: No.
Mr. CLARK: Did you have any help?
Mr. FISCHER: No.
Mr. CLARK: Is it all by yourself. Did it make people happy?
Mr. FISCHER: It made me happy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of buzzer)
Mr. MOORE: This young man's name is Bobby Fischer, and already, he is the United States chess champion. He is 15 years old, and he has defeated the masters. He is the United States champion in chess.
(Soundbite of applause)
DAVIES: And a piece of Americana there, Bobby Fischer at age 15 on the TV show "I've Got a Secret." That's from the documentary "Bobby Fischer Against the World," directed by our guest, Liz Garbus. Also with us, Anthony Saidy, an international chess master who knew Bobby Fischer.
Liz Garbus, did Bobby Fischer's mother Regina want him to be a public figure? Is that how he got on TV?
Ms. GARBUS: It seems that as they, you know, sort of Bobby's accolades grew, and it was clear, you know, what his prowess was and his potential on the chess board that she did support that rise, that she was deeply ambitious and ambitious for her son.
At a certain point, I think that ambition and that drive of hers was probably too much for Bobby, and Bobby had to separate from her and would only go to chess tournaments with his sister, Joan. He had to pull away from perhaps her drive and her ambitions for him.
DAVIES: And she actually moved out of the house when he was 16. Is that right?
Ms. GARBUS: Yeah, apparently at age 16, Regina moved out of the house, leaving Bobby there to kind of raise himself. And people who went over to the house at that time, and I imagine Dr. Saidy was one of them, talking about kind of the total chaos and disarray that he lived in.
You know, but then he sort of, I think, quickly, you know, went on tour and was sort - became more of a life of living in hotel rooms and playing chess tournaments.
DAVIES: Anthony Saidy, did you know him to be, in these years when he was a teenager and in his 20s, a difficult person to get along with?
Dr. ANTHONY SAIDY (Chess Master): He was difficult, yes, from teenage on. In terms of just every day agreement on, you know, where do we eat? Or, what hotel should we stay in? There was always an issue, and it had to be his way.
He didn't have empathy for other people's desires or needs at all. I guess it was exemplified when he came to my family's home in Long Island prior to the big match, and I said to Bobby: Incidentally, my dad is very ill. And Bobby said: Oh, I don't mind.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GARBUS: And Bobby, you know, Bobby was holed up there. From what I know and from what Dr. Saidy has told us, Dr. Saidy's mother was going to great lengths to keep Bobby Fischer happy and fed and all the great food spreads, but, you know, meanwhile there were sort of greater needs going on in the household.
DAVIES: Now, was he making his living at chess from, you know, his teens on through his 20s?
Ms. GARBUS: Bobby would travel around, and Larry Evans, who has now passed away, his father would organize tours for Bobby Fischer. And Bobby would go, and people would pay to play Bobby Fischer. So there were different ways that Bobby made money.
There would be people in chess clubs who would just pay to play Bobby Fischer, and he's play blitz matches against - you know, and then he would make money this way.
The purse in chess matches at the time was quite small, and it was difficult for a chess player to make a living playing chess, and this was one of the major things that Bobby actually took on as his cause and really caused a change in the purses so you could actually make a living as a chess player.
DAVIES: You said he did blitz matches. What are they?
Dr. SAIDY: Blitz is a term for a timed game in which each side has only five minutes. It's a very action-packed form of chess.
DAVIES: And would he play more than one opponent at a time?
Ms. GARBUS: Yeah, there's footage in the film - people always remark on it because it looks to those of us outside the chess world so remarkable, but to people in the chess world, it was quite a normal scene, where Bobby would play 20 opponents at once, going from board to board, making a move while the other people, you know, sometimes four times his age, would still be pondering the move. He would be back after having played, you know, 19 other people.
DAVIES: He would rotate around a circle where there are boards of other people, and he would look at the board for two seconds, make a move and just keep moving.
Ms. GARBUS: Right, so ostensibly keeping all of those patterns in his head, you know, of each board and sort of the state of play.
DAVIES: We're speaking with documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus and chess master Anthony Saidy. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus. She's the director of "Bobby Fischer Against the World," the documentary about chess master Bobby Fischer, which will be premiering on HBO.
Also with us, Anthony Saidy, a chess master who knew Bobby Fischer. So let's talk about the historic match between Bobby Fischer and the Russian Boris Spassky. Liz Garbus, why were so much attention paid to this confrontation?
Ms. GARBUS: It's hard to imagine that in 1972, all eyes were on a chess match, but it in fact seem to be the case. Bobby Fischer was this, you know, self-taught Brooklyn boy who kind of took the New York chess scene and then the national chess scene by storm.
And the Russians had been dominating the sport for decades. The Soviet Union had made chess its national sport. It was a way of demonstrating intellectual superiority over the rest of the world, including certainly the U.S. and the West. And so for an American, Bobby Fischer, to have a real chance at beating that machine, this was big stuff.
I mean, it was as if, you know, there was going to be a chess match between or a boxing match between a representative of the U.S. government and al-Qaida. I mean, it was the organizing principle of the time, and here they were going to have, you know, have war over the board. So the symbolism of the match was enormous.
DAVIES: A real Cold War confrontation, national prestige on the line.
Anthony Saidy, you were in touch with Bobby at the time. It was not easy getting him here. He was living in Los Angeles, right? And what was his...
Dr. SAIDY: In Pasadena, near Los Angeles.
DAVIES: Yeah, what was his state of mind as this approached?
Dr. SAIDY: Ambivalence. He wanted to go and win the world championship, but he had many provisos that had to be met, and it was always touch and go whether he would go through with the match.
I thought it was an event of great historical importance, and I wanted to see it take place. So I bent every effort to go on the positive side and get him at least from California to New York, where he could be dealt with by many negotiators.
DAVIES: Right. Now, the event itself was going to be in Reykjavik, Iceland. And you said he had a lot of provisos. What were some of his demands to get the match going?
Dr. SAIDY: Money was a chief arguing point at the beginning, and in fact, I don't think he would have gone and played if the British financier James Slater had not doubled the purse overnight and issued a challenge to Fischer: Come out and play if you're not a chicken.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GARBUS: And we should add that there had been opportunities for Bobby to make it this far before. Bobby had backed out of matches before. So there certainly was no guarantee that these were just antics or provocations.
You know, he really had lived up to his threats before of, you know, if you don't satisfy my conditions, I'm not coming. Bobby was already 29. You know, he probably could've won the championship earlier, but he had really - when people hadn't met his conditions before, he had dropped out.
So there was extraordinary pressure on it this time to really get him to go. People knew how serious he was.
DAVIES: Is it true that Henry Kissinger called?
Dr. SAIDY: I can personally confirm one call of Kissinger placed to our family home when Fischer was there. That's beyond dispute.
Ms. GARBUS: We spoke to Dr. Kissinger for the documentary, and he said, you know, it was important for an American to win this match. So he wanted to call Fischer and tell him to go.
He very simply said: You know, this is a matter of national importance. And Bobby Fischer, get out of Dr. Saidy's house and get on a plane and go to Reykjavik.
Now, this coincided with the purse being doubled by a financier, and so it was kind of the perfect storm. Finally, Bobby would go.
DAVIES: Now, it's interesting, you know, Anthony Saidy, you said that Bobby was living in Pasadena, California, and you sort of coaxed him to New York. You said: I need to go back. My father's ill. Let's go to New York. And you were really simply trying to get him a step closer to Iceland, right?
Dr. SAIDY: Correct.
DAVIES: Right. Now, what happened the first time he went to JFK Airport to go to Reykjavik? Were you there?
Dr. SAIDY: He seemed headed for Iceland, and our troubles were over, we thought. But as we were headed toward the check-in desk, a New York Daily News photographer had spied Bobby and started chasing us with about 50 pounds of photographic equipment on his back.
And Bobby saw the guy and started running. I turned around and blocked the photographer, and the photographer said: What are you going to do, stop me? I said: Oh, no, no. In any event, that spooked Bobby.
He had this phobia of the press for a long time, and instead of checking in for the flight, he just left the airport.
DAVIES: All right. So eventually, he does get to Reykjavik, and there is the appointed day at which Boris Spassky is there. This is going to be televised. The whole world is watching. And I thought we'd listen to a moment from the documentary and get a flavor of this, and this is a bit of a montage from Liz Garbus' documentary.
We're going to hear some - mixed in some of the broadcasters who are telecasting it.
(Soundbite of film, "Bobby Fischer Against the World")
Unidentified Man #4: The clock has now been started. It was officially 5 o'clock in Reykjavik. Spassky is obviously anxious about the whereabouts of Mr. Fischer.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SAIDY: Bobby was nowhere to be seen, and all of us despaired.
Unidentified Man #5: If Fischer doesn't show up by the time one hour has elapsed, he forfeits the game automatically.
Unidentified Man #6: Oh, there he goes now. He's just played one pawn to queen four.
Unidentified Man #7: You saw Spassky make his move. Then he touched his clock, which turns his clock off but turns his opponent's clock on. So Fischer's time is now ticking.
DAVIES: And that's from the documentary "Bobby Fischer Against the World," directed by our guest Liz Garbus. Also with us, Anthony Saidy, whose voice is in that clip. He is an international chess master who knew Bobby Fischer.
So when this confrontation happens. Bobby Fischer doesn't show up on time for the first round. Anthony Saidy, what was going on?
Dr. SAIDY: That was a minor blip because he was just late to start the first game. The major blip came for this in the second game, when Bobby didn't show up at all in a big dispute over cameras and noises and conditions in the playing room. That's when despair mounted and we feared that the match would just end.
The Soviets told Boris Spassky: You have been disrespected. The Soviet Union has been disrespected. You have every right to go home now and keep your world championship title because this American upstart is too rude.
And Boris said: No, I want to play chess. He was a great sportsman.
DAVIES: Now Fischer, and I have to say this is depicted really well in the documentary because there is this surviving television footage of this. He said he could hear the TV cameras. Anthony Saidy, do you believe him?
Dr. SAIDY: I think he had a heightened sense of hearing. Yes, I do believe that. I also believe that his ego was involved, and he insisted on making everyone kowtow to his demands.
DAVIES: So the match gets moved into a quiet room in the back, and even though there's a huge purse here that I assume depends upon, you know, internationally televised transmission of this, the public really has to follow this through a chess board. It was that right, Liz Garbus, where the moves are relayed to crowds, and then the television doesn't actually see the players?
Ms. GARBUS: Yeah, it's really remarkable. I mean, it was the most anticipated match and had been anticipated for months and months, and everybody had followed the shenanigans of, you know, would Bobby even show up.
So Bobby shows up. You know, as you played in the clip, he's late for the first game. Spassky, the world champion, got to - in game one, he plays white, so he played first. So he got to open, and, you know, nobody was there. And then Bobby Fischer emerges, you know, comes into the room saying he was caught in traffic.
And of course it was just a blip, but at the same time, it, you know, wasn't the way these things were usually played.
For game two, the Icelanders had refused to remove the cameras from the hall originally, which Bobby wanted because Bobby didn't like the noise, and he didn't like the cameraman, Chester Fox, who had been given the contract to record the match and distribute it all over the world.
So for game three, for the match to continue, the Russian team would have to agree that the match be moved into a different room. And so they end up -Spassky agrees, as Dr. Saidy pointed out. He did not need to agree. He could've just insisted that the match be played as per the plan. But he wanted to play Bobby Fischer.
He wanted the match to continue. So he agreed to move this monumentally important chess match into the back, into a little ping-pong room with, you know, just Bobby, Boris, the official and a couple other guys.
So all the people who had been anxiously awaiting this match were forced into this room, and they had to watch it through closed-circuit television and boards reporting the moves, calling out the moves. And so the whole thing - the whole arrangement kind of went south.
DAVIES: And Boris Spassky takes a two-nothing lead, which Anthony Saidy, seemed like an insurmountable deficit to a lot of people at the time, right?
Dr. SAIDY: It's a huge lead in a match where the challenger actually has to win one more game than the champion in order to take the title. And this forfeiture of the second game, of course, was under protest. And I can't really fathom how many critical moments had to go the right way in order for this match to reach a conclusion.
DAVIES: Anthony Said, a chess master who knew Bobby Fischer, and documentary Liz Garbus, whose film "Bobby Fischer Against the World" premieres Monday on HBO. We'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
We're talking about the troubled life of the late chess master Bobby Fischer with Liz Garbus, whose documentary "Bobby Fischer Against the World" premieres Monday on HBO, and with Anthony Saidy, a chess master who knew Bobby Fischer and appears in the film.
The pinnacle of Fischer's career and the centerpiece of the documentary is the historic 1972 world championship match between Fischer and Soviet master Boris Spassky.
Bobby Fischer committed a foolish blunder to lose one of the early games and then he had this unorthodox strategy which allowed him to win game three, get back into it. People still talk about game six. Anthony Saidy, we don't understand chess like you do. What made game six special?
Mr. SAIDY: Let's compare chess to music, and of course there are many varieties of music. Game six in a musical sense would be Mozartian. It was a placid symphony of squeezing Boris Spassky's pieces to the point that they had hardly any moves left. And then the coup de grace at the end, sacrificing, you know, rook for a knight. Everyone in the world thought that this was a magnificent game. And also it started with a move that Bobby had never hardly ever played before, which was a surprise weapon. He kept springing these surprises on the Soviet side again and again and them off-balance.
DAVIES: And how did Boris Spassky react to this game six?
Mr. SAIDY: Great sportsman that he was, he joined in the crowd's applause for the game. He stood up and applauded his opponent. And Fischer, the humanity of that even got to Fischer.
Ms. GARBUS: The stories were that after Boris had, you know, stood up and applauded for Bobby at game six, Bobby said, you know, did you see that? Did you see that? You know, did you see what he did? He was moved. Bobby, who didn't really pay attention to other people's emotional displays, was really quite moved and satisfied at the end of game six.
DAVIES: Anthony Saidy, how did it end? How did the match end?
Mr. SAIDY: That was the turning point. Bobby seized the lead in game six and he won going away. He lost only one more game out of the 21-game match. Totally dominated Boris Spassky. The chess world was surprised, very surprised at the one-sided nature of the match. And it's clear to me that Boris was not himself, at all these disturbances and shenanigans at the beginning of the match had upset him.
I don't think Fischer intended to upset him, he was just being himself. But we weren't going to protest the outcome. We were just thrilled that a lone American who had virtually no help had managed to defeat the world champion from the Soviet Union, who had all kinds of help that we never dreamt of in New York.
DAVIES: At age 29, Bobby Fischer achieved this historic victory. What kind of celebrity did this confer on him?
Ms. GARBUS: People said when he returned home to the United States there was a sense that nobody was bigger, nobody was more important than Bobby Fischer right then. And when he got home he got all sorts of offers to endorse products. But Bobby responded in his usual Bobby-ish way. For instance, Steinway piano wanted to pay him several million dollars to pose for ads with their piano, and Bobby said but that would be dishonest because that would give the impression that I play piano and I don't. So Bobby was, you know, a bit of a naive in this world and certainly did not embrace it.
Though when he did come back, he did appear on many talk shows - Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett. And I think actually the most revealing moment in those months after the match was on the Johnny Carson show, when Carson asked Bobby, you know, Bobby, how did you feel what it was all over? You know, it must've been kind of a letdown, you know, after the match was all over. And Bobby said, yeah, you know, I kind of feel like something has been taken from me. And that really was a harbinger of what was to come later in Bobby Fischer's life. The great triumph was actually a loss of something for Bobby Fischer.
DAVIES: And he gradually sort of retreated into isolation. Anthony Saidy, were you in touch with him during this period? Do you know what was going on in his head?
Mr. SAIDY: Yes. He became very close to the Worldwide Church of God, headquartered in Pasadena. And I never saw him unless he was transported by one of his church fellows or I picked him up myself. He was in retreat. He turned down so many good offers. I personally was involved in one offer of half a million dollars to make a record on how to play chess. And his reason for turning it down, I don't think any American in history has given a reason like this. He said, I could make a mistake and 10 years from now the Russians could find the mistake and bad mouth me.
Well, it was a half-million bucks. You know, we don't make decisions like that most of us.
DAVIES: Did you have concerns for his mental health then?
Mr. SAIDY: I had concerns moderate concerns. I thought he was certainly capable of taking care of himself at all times. But he started to develop such deep resentments of classes of people. I can understand his resenting the Soviet Union, which had cheated and had perhaps delayed his ascendancy to the title. I could understand some of the things. But he became truly paranoid.
DAVIES: And you mentioned this church. Was it the United Church of God?
Mr. SAIDY: Worldwide Church of God.
DAVIES: Yeah. What were they about? Ms. Garbus, did you look into them?
Ms. GARBUS: The Worldwide Church of God was a church where Bobby found sort of a home and a community, especially after '72, when he actually started living in an apartment that the church are rented for him. Yeah, they were a church with a very charismatic leader, Armstrong, and an apocalyptic vision. And when that particular apocalypse did not come to pass, Bobby Fischer became disenchanted with the church and rejected them.
DAVIES: And, of course, he got interested in anti-Semitic ideologies. He read the Elders of Zion. Anthony Saidy, did he recognize that he himself was ethnically Jewish? Did he...
Mr. SAIDY: He certainly considered himself Jewish when he was a kid. In fact, he told me one time, he said those Irish kids, they don't like us Jewish kids at all. So there was no doubt he felt that he was Jewish.
DAVIES: So what do you make of his embracing anti-Semitism?
Ms. GARBUS: I think at a certain point Bobby just rejected everything that he was, everything that he had come from. You know, in addition to feeling angry at the Soviets for having cheated, and what Dr. Saidy was referring to there was that it was established that the Soviets would prearrange draws so that their better players could rise up in the ranks of tournaments without being exhausted by tough matches.
And this was something that Bobby had complained about a lot. People called him paranoid about that at the time. But it turned out it was true. So Bobby was angry at the Soviets for this. But also, Bobby also became very disenchanted with the U.S. You know, as Harry Benson, one of the photographers who was with Bobby all throughout Reykjavik in 1972, said, you know, there was never a fruit basket. You know, Kissinger called him to tell him to go. But you know, there wasn't support for Bobby once he got there, he was really on his own. And then, of course, later the United States really pursued Bobby. So Bobby rejected Jews. He became an anti-Semite. And he also rejected America, applauding the events of 9/11 in one of his sort of most infamous speeches. So Bobby rejected everything that he had come from and he even, you know, stopped playing professional chess.
DAVIES: You know, Anthony Saidy, what about the idea that when you look at what chess is, it's this infinite possibility of moves and a game in which you are thinking 20 moves down the road about how your opponent might get you. That's almost the definition of paranoia, isn't it?
Mr. SAIDY: You've got it. Somebody is scheming against you every minute. But most people are able to see reality and keep friendly relations with their opponents.
Ms. GARBUS: One of the other greatest chess players who ever lived is Garry Kasparov, who we interviewed for the film, and he is, you know, remarkably sane, charming and socially well-developed, so it's certainly not a rule. But yet chess is a game which involves, you know, constantly feeling like you are under attack, and indeed you are under attack from many places anticipated and not anticipated. So it's a game certainly that heightens one's sense of paranoia.
DAVIES: Documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus and chess master Anthony Saidy. The film "Bobby Fischer Against the World" premieres Monday on HBO.
More after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're speaking with chess master Anthony Saidy and filmmaker Liz Garbus, whose documentary "Bobby Fischer Against the World" premieres Monday on HBO.
Bobby Fischer was a recluse, it seems, or at least not often seen for 20 years. Then he reemerges in 1992 and does this spectacular rematch with Boris Spassky in war-torn Yugoslavia, violating a UN boycott, which gets him indicted in the United States, and kind of emerges as this angry crank.
And I thought we'd listen to a piece of tape, and this is, I think, a call in to a radio show after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, where he well, maybe, Liz Garbus, is this where he's calling a radio show in the Philippines? Is that where this is from?
Ms. GARBUS: That's right. Bobby through the '90s would call in mostly in the Philippines to radio shows there and air his views, largely anti-Semitic and anti-American.
DAVIES: So let's listen. This is him calling in to a radio show after the September 11th attacks.
(Soundbite of radio show)
Mr. BOBBY FISCHER (Chess Master): This is all wonderful news. It's time for the (bleep) U.S. to get their heads kicked in. It's time to finish off the U.S. once and for all. This just shows you that what goes around comes around, even for the United States.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: And that's Bobby Fischer in 2001, reacting with glee to the September 11th attacks. That's from the documentary "Bobby Fischer Against the World," directed by our guest, Liz Garbus. Also with us, Anthony Saidy, an international chess master who knew Bobby Fischer.
Liz Garbus, how do you describe his mental state in these last years?
Ms. GARBUS: I mean it's a very, very sad story. I mean we got into our possession tens of hours of Bobby's ranting on these radio show. And it was really the rantings of a man who was not at all well and whom nobody was kind of steering back in the right direction, without any kind of protective factors or supports. You know, the 9/11 comments are what they are, they're hateful, and we listened to many other hours of Bobby ranting this way. I listened for any clues. I kept on trying to sort of wade through them, find some truth, some introspection, and it really wasn't there. By the late '90s it was really just, just that, just a lot of ranting paranoid idea.
DAVIES: Yeah, he ends up being unable to return to the United States because he is under indictments, spends time in Japan. Finally Iceland offers him citizenship and he finishes his life there before he dies in 2008. And you know, Liz Garbus, this interested me as someone who - you study people and images, and when I looked at a lot of the film of Bobby Fischer when he was young and in his prime and playing chess competitively, when he was interviewed he often seemed awkward. He looked away frequently, almost twitched at times, just did not seem comfortable. And those troubling scenes at the end where he's giving these angry rants, he seems at ease. He seems completely comfortable in his skin. Did that occur to you?
Ms. GARBUS: It absolutely did. I think it's a great observation. There was a part of him that was never - that was always sort of fighting with himself to kind of, you know, be present in the media in all of those appearances. And then I guess the sort of floodgates were opened and everything just kind of poured out, there was no censor. He was unhinged at that time.
DAVIES: He had romantic partners. I mean there was a woman in Japan who I believe an Icelandic court concluded was his wife and was entitled to his estate. There was also a romantic partner in the Philippines, right? I assume you tried to reach these folks?
Ms. GARBUS: We did. We interviewed - there was a dispute after Bobby Fischer passed away. There was a dispute over his estate. A woman with whom he'd been involved in the Philippines claimed to be the mother of his child. Her name was Marilyn Young and the child is Jinky. It's clear that she did have a relationship with Bobby and that Bobby was fond of this little girl. The little growth would come visit him in Iceland. They would walk around the streets. People saw them together. There were letters they had written back and forth.
Ultimately, a DNA test proved that she was not Bobby's daughter. And Miyoko Watai, who is involved in the Japanese Chess Federation and also a friend of Bobby's, was found to be Bobby's legal wife. There continues to be a dispute over the estate. Bobby had two nephews. His sister Joan had two sons who claim they are the rightful heirs to the estate.
DAVIES: Liz Garbus, did you ever learn anything about his romantic relationships, how he related to women?
Ms. GARBUS: Yeah. We did learn about his romantic relationships. It seems that Bobby was not interested in women for conversation, in women as peers. Romantically his relationships seem to be somewhat stunted. From the Filipino woman, Marilyn Young who we interviewed, she, you know, they had a relationship. Bobby, they didn't really, she didn't understand anything about chess. In fact, she barely spoke English and so their relationship was not intellectually probably or emotionally or, you know, stimulating for Bobby. There were other women Bobby was involved with. A Hungarian woman named Zita Rajcsanyi, who also we spoke to over the phone and, you know, her relationship with Bobby was very difficult and he was not easy with women.
Dr. SAIDY: I think Zita made a cute remark when asked why she was friendly with Bobby. She said she had worked in a mental hospital and she had an understanding of this kind of person.
DAVIES: Hmm. Now Anthony Saidy, this was somebody that you knew well when he was young and brilliant. And then you watched him from a distance as he deteriorated. Did you think of him much in those years when you weren't in touch?
Dr. SAIDY: I certainly did. And I intervened once in public and asked the world to leave him alone out of, quote, solicitude for the mentally ill. And somehow he found out about that and he resented that quite a bit.
DAVIES: When people see the documentary theyll see the images that go along with the voices that we've heard. But it's so striking when you see this kid, a 15-year-old kid on television and how awkward and vulnerable he is. And then see Bobby Fischer in his old age as this contemptible anti-Semitic crank. I don't know, how do you regard him Liz Garbus? Do you like the guy?
Ms. GARBUS: I have a lot of empathy for Bobby Fischer. One of the most surprising things for me in making the film was looking at all the footage of him, 71, 72, and he was, yes, he was awkward and nervous but he had moments of real charisma and kind of inhabiting that rock star role he was being given at the time. He could laugh at himself when an interviewer made him comfortable, like Dick Cavett made Bobby very comfortable. You know, he had a sense of humor and could laugh and be very, very charming.
So, you know, yes, I like that man. And then later, you know, over the course of the years and you listen to Bobby, I listened to all these hours of Bobby calling into radio shows, you can't help but feel empathy. I mean these ideas are not well organized ideologies to commit violence against anybody. They're really just the ravings of somebody who has become unhinged and for whom there is really nobody sort of pulling him down and helping him. So yes, I felt very empathetic to Bobby Fischer.
DAVIES: Well, Liz Garbus, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Ms. GARBUS: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Anthony Saidy, thank you as well.
Dr. SAIDY: My pleasure.
DAVIES: Filmmaker Liz Garbus and chess master Anthony Saidy. Garbus directed the documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World. Here's a scene near the end of the film when Fischer was living in Iceland reflecting here on his life and talent.
(Soundbite of film, Bobby Fischer Against the World)
Mr. FISCHER: I don't consider myself to be a genius at chess. I consider myself more to be a genius who just happens to play chess. In a sense, so I could be doing any, I could have done and I can do any number of other things, you know? You know, I always wanted to write some songs. I was telling Evans, Larry Evans, this is back in the 60s, I remember saying, you know, I listen to all these songs and I wish I could write them. I try to write some, I try to think of something and I just nothing comes out. And he says yeah, because you haven't lived.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FISCHER: I started thinking about it. He's right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Bobby Fischer died in 2008. The documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World premieres Monday on HBO.
Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker on The New Yorkers first pop music critic Ellen Willis. A new collection of her work has just been published.
This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.