Viewers have become fascinated by chess lately, thanks to the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, which focuses on a fictional woman chess champ in the 1950s and ‘60s. Anya Taylor-Joy plays young Beth Harmon, poised over her chessboard, her wide-set gaze fixated on every move.
But according to Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov, who consulted with the series and provided details that lent authenticity to the chess scenes, the character of Beth, drawn from the 1983 Walter Tavis novel, is really “the story of Bobby Fischer, but it’s a female version. You have drugs, substances, and alcohol,” as he told Slate.
Fischer, the troubled American grandmaster considered by many to be the best player in history, cut an enigmatic figure in the international world of chess until he disappeared from the US amid a flurry of anti-Semitic comments and tax problems and turned up — where else? — in the Philippines around 2001.
I wrote about his erratic last moves in 2010 STAR article The Curious Endgame of Bobby Fischer, and I couldn’t help thinking about it while watching The Queen’s Gambit.
If anyone could serve as the model for Beth Harmon, the chess prodigy who relies on pills and booze to escape from human entanglements, heading perilously close to cracking up, it’s the man who defeated Boris Spassky in a 1972 world championship that was every bit as riveting and dramatic as the final episode of the Netflix series.
From his early emergence as a US champion at age 14, Fischer was a different type of animal. Much like Beth Harmon, he was implacable and intimidating. He once boasted to Dick Cavett in an interview that he not only liked to beat his opponents — he relished “the moment I break a man’s ego.”
Fischer wasn’t really a pill popper like Beth, though he did die of liver cancer at age 64, possibly related to alcohol abuse. And like Beth, he was raised by an unconventional single mom, his father far out of the picture.
Something else Fischer shared with Beth was a passion for fashion: The Queen’s Gambit focuses a lot of attention on the main character’s chic wardrobe, especially when facing down her opponents in matches. Similarly, Fischer started smartening up soon after he became a chess champ: he invested his winnings in a rack of bespoke suits, often visiting local tailors when he’d compete abroad.
It was during the Cold War ‘60s — an intense battle of wills between the US and USSR — that Fischer made his name in the glamorous world of international chess. Fischer basked in all the intrigue, even alleging to Sports Illustrated in 1963 that Russian chess players “collude” with one another by willingly losing or drawing games to allow favored players to advance to final matches. (A move that’s exaggerated in The Queen’s Gambit with Russian players actually pooling their strategies in order to beat Beth.) “That’s where Elizabeth Harmon parts from Bobby Fischer,” Kasparov notes of the Netflix series, “because Fischer was on his own and never trusted anyone.”
Fischer, like Beth, was erratic and may have had undiagnosed mental problems. He largely withdrew from the world of chess after defeating Spassky in 1972, then grew increasingly bizarre and paranoid, almost becoming the Howard Hughes of chess whizzes. He would be seen wandering around in hobo rags, carting a regimen of vitamin C pills and herbal potions to avoid being poisoned by “Communists” and the CIA. He joined an apocalyptic cult church and tithed away most of his chess winnings. Although he got lucrative offers to play exhibition matches around the world (Ferdinand Marcos reportedly dangled $3 million for him to play a single tournament in Manila), Fischer renounced the game, the United States, Jews (he himself was Jewish), only to eventually reemerge for a rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia, 1992, pocketing a $3.65 million prize.
Unfortunately, the US had a trade embargo with Yugoslavia at the time and Fischer, a US citizen, became a fugitive.
He roamed the globe for the next decade — Hungary, Iceland, Japan — and lived in Baguio for a while in 2001, where he would regularly sit in with local radio hosts and occasionally burst into karaoke, but more often spew anti-Semitic and anti-American diatribes, such as when he infamously showed up on DJ Pablo Mercado’s Bombo Radyo show on Sept. 11, 2001, to declare that it was “a wonderful day” and “Death to the US!”
His relationship with a local woman he met at Baguio Country Club, Marilyn Young, later led to a paternity suit over her daughter, Jinky, which even extended to suing to exhume Fischer’s body in Reykjavik, Iceland — where the grandmaster had been buried in relative obscurity in 2008 — to obtain his DNA. (The court later ruled Fischer wasn’t the father).
There’s something perversely fascinating about genius slipping off the rails. I sometimes imagine Fischer back then, poking around the Bagiuo markets, his lengthy beard dangling down over the ad hoc chessboards set up in local cafés. It’s probably not really him — just another expat, looking for redemption or some quantum of solace. Or just looking to get lost.
As The Queen’s Gambit showed us, chess can be full of intrigue and drama. Just like Beth Harmon, Fischer’s descent into the shadowy jungles of his own mind is certainly worth at least one gripping novel, or mini-series.
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