The Troubled Genius of Bobby Fischer Bobby Fischer might have been the greatest chess player who ever lived, but he was a deeply troubled man who descended into paranoia and hatred. Author Frank Brady, who knew Fischer, charts his rise and fall in a new biography.
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The Troubled Genius of Bobby Fischer

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The Troubled Genius of Bobby Fischer

The Troubled Genius of Bobby Fischer

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

One night in 1960, a chess player named Frank Brady sat down for dinner in a Greenwich Village tavern. Brady had just founded a national chess magazine.

Across the table from him was Bobby Fischer, just a teenager and already a grand master of the game. Now, Fischer was never without his pocket chessboard, and as the two men huddled over the dinner table, he pulled it out and began to rehearse for an upcoming match.

Mr. FRANK BRADY (Author, "Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall"): (Reading) His fingers sped by in a blur, and his face showed the slightest of smiles, as if in a revelry. He whispered barely audibly: Well, if he plays that, I can block his bishop.

And then, raising his voice so loud that some of the customers stared: He wouldn't play that. I began to weep quietly, aware that in that time-suspended moment, I was in the presence of genius.

RAZ: But Fischer was a troubled genius who eventually disappeared into a fog of paranoia and hatred and died in exile in Iceland in 2008.

Frank Brady is the author of a new book about his old friend. That's his voice you just heard. The book's called "Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness." And Frank Brady joins me now from our studios in New York.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. BRADY: Thank you for inviting me.

RAZ: You knew Bobby Fischer. First, how did you meet him, and what kind of impression did he make on you?

Mr. BRADY: Well, I first heard about him from his chess teacher, Carmine Nigro, and he was telling me that he had this young kid who was really master strength already, and he was just a child.

And then I was playing in a tournament on the Upper West Side, and I saw this boy playing. And even in between the rounds, the rounds lasted about five hours for a game, he was playing chess in between the rounds. He couldn't get enough of it.

RAZ: This was in the late 1950s.

Mr. BRADY: Exactly. Or maybe mid-'50s.

RAZ: And he just - this was a kid who was unquestionably, clearly special.

Mr. BRADY: There was something special. And I remember some older man kibitzing the game, and Bobby spun around, and he said: Please, this is a chess game. You know, the man was about 65 years old, and he was silenced by this child.

RAZ: He was, what, 9, 8, 9, 10, 11?

Mr. BRADY: No. He was more like 10 or 11, I think, at that point.

RAZ: He was an international grandmaster by the age of 15, I should mention.

Mr. BRADY: By 15, he had become the youngest international grandmaster in the history of the game.

RAZ: What was it about the way his mind worked, the way he played the game that made him so extraordinary?

Mr. BRADY: Well, first of all, he was probably the foremost student of the game. He spent six to eight hours every single day studying past games, studying contemporary games. He learned Russian and Serbo-Croat and other languages so that he could follow the games in those newspapers and magazines.

And his chess was extremely lucid. It was crystal clear. You knew what he was going to do, but there was no way you could stop it.

RAZ: He sort of drew you in.

Mr. BRADY: Exactly. And it was - if I could make a musical analogy, he was sort of more Bach than Beethoven, more Rembrandt than (unintelligible). I mean, it was very clear what he was trying to do. There were no secrets. There were no cheap traps.

RAZ: You just couldn't get out of it.

Mr. BRADY: You couldn't get out of it. He was like, you know, the cobra, and he was going to get you.

RAZ: Unfortunately, and obviously what - some of the things I do want to ask you about, are the things that Bobby Fischer became better known for, which was his eccentric behavior.

We begin to see him reveal that, and you write about this in the book, his sort of shining, glorious moment was in 1972, when he faces Boris Spassky in the world championships match.

I mean, he's riding high. He is a hero. This is a match that is a Cold War showdown. And yet, he's unsatisfied, to some extent.

Mr. BRADY: He's unsatisfied. He wins the world championship, and yet he despised the publicity he was getting. And he became a recluse. He moved to Los Angeles. He got himself a small basement apartment. He gave no interviews. He played no chess.

He became a voracious reader, and he read everything, sometimes, hate letter (unintelligible) unfortunately.

RAZ: He was, as you say, living in this kind of dump of an apartment in Los Angeles, living off his mother's Social Security checks just a year or two after he was offered millions of dollars in endorsements. At this point, he starts to become more sort of vocal in expressing anti-Jewish sentiments. I mean, do you think that he was - he suffered from a pretty serious psychological condition?

Mr. BRADY: I think he was paranoid. I think he was disturbed. I think he was neurotic. He did not have hallucinations. He did not have total delusions, except that they were touching upon his paranoia. In a sense, it makes him look worse because if he - if you could say he was mentally ill, you might forgive some of the statements he's made. But I don't think he was what you would call crazy.

RAZ: The last time many people heard from Bobby Fischer was shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001. He was in the Philippines at the time, making regular appearances on the radio. And what he said that day, of course, is shocking.

It sounds like something you might hear from Charles Manson, I mean, basically saying the United States got what it deserved, and cry - you crybabies whine, your time is coming. He calls for the death of the president at the time and again, some anti-Semitic remarks.

Mr. BRADY: I'll tell you that when I heard those statements, and they were on the Internet, so I could actually hear them, not only just read them, I personally went ballistic. I was horrified by it. And I didn't want anything to do with Fischer from there on in. I didn't want to honor him in any way.

I didn't - but after thinking about it for a number of years, to me, it was a little bit like Wagner. You know, can we listen to the music of Wagner, even though he was, you know, an anti-Semite and Hitler's favorite composer? Can we separate the man from the art? And that is what I was able to do to enable me, actually - I had gotten many offers to write a new biography of Fischer, and I had turned them down until I came to terms with this philosophically.

RAZ: Bobby Fischer died in exile in Iceland in 2008. He - obviously, you knew him, Frank Brady. How do you think we should remember this very complex legacy of this very complex person?

Mr. BRADY: Well, you know, paraphrasing Churchill, he was an enigma inside of a conundrum. Think of him as the greatest chess player that ever lived, the Mozart of chess, if you will. And then think of him also as a failed human being who fell tremendously and quickly and swiftly fell from grace.

RAZ: That's Frank Brady. He's the author of "Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness."

Frank Brady, thank you so much.

Mr. BRADY: My pleasure.

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