A Friend Remembers Bobby Fischer

He was the youngest U.S. champion at 14; a grand master by 15. At 29, he became a Cold War hero, dethroning the Soviet world champion in a famous '72 match against Boris Spassky. He would go on to become a recluse, allowing the often fanatical details of his life to overshadow his genius: he was wanted in the U.S. for playing a 1992 match in the former Yugoslavia, in defiance of an executive order by President George H.W. Bush. He spent time in a Japanese jail for defying that order, and in 2005, fled to Iceland.

But when Bobby Fischer died last week of kidney failure, one friend noted a fitting irony for a man whose life was chess: he died at 64; there are 64 squares on a chess board. That friend, Larry Evans, himself a chess prodigy, shared these memories with NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett:

I was with Bobby from the beginning. I met him when he was 13, on the drive home from a Canadian tournament, in 1956. Later, I became his collaborator on "My 60 Memorable Games," his masterpiece. Bobby remembered each game like it was a short story: he memorized opponents' facial gestures, their precise moves, the way in which they interacted. But getting those details out of him was like pulling teeth--he didn't want to give away his secrets. I'd say, "Well, if he makes this move, then what do you do?" I scribbled it all down, and tried to be as faithful to his words as I could. Those calculations were key to understanding Bobby's thinking: his sanity seemed to desert him beyond the confines of those 64 squares.

As a human being, Bobby left much to be desired. He was stubborn, difficult, and those qualities got worse and worse as time went on. I think he was bitter because he felt the American government didn't give him the credit he deserved; he felt he'd helped win the Cold War, in a small way. And the great tragedy of his life was not defending his world title in 1975 against Russia's Anatoly Karpov. But his redeeming quality was his sense of humor. When we started working on his book, in 1967, it was supposed to be "50 Memorable games." But after months of work, Bobby withdrew the manuscript. A year or so later, we got a note from the publishers, Simon & Schuster. They wanted to know what to do with the lead plates we used in those days to print books.

Bobby was living in a Brooklyn flat at the time, and said, "Larry, do you think I should store the plates in my apartment?" I looked at him like he was crazy. "Bobby, do you realize how many tons that stuff weighs?" I asked. "It'll come crashing through the floor and kill the tenants below." Apparently it was the push he needed: "Well, the world's coming to an end anyway," he said. "I guess I should publish it."