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Genius & Insanity
February 22, 2011
There can be a very fine line between genius and insanity. Such was the case with Bobby Fischer—perhaps the greatest chess master to ever play the game, but a man who seemed to live his life teetering on the brink of insanity. Fischer is the subject of Endgame, a compassionate but honest new biography written by Frank Brady. It offers an insightful look into the life of a strange, tortured individual whose intellect was matched only by his pride.
Bobby Fischer grew up fatherless, raised by a caring but doting mother, one who was convinced of his brilliance but unequipped to deal with him on her own. Fischer was an obsessive child who, from a very young age, was drawn to puzzle games. He viewed the game of chess as the ultimate puzzle—one that could not be solved, but one that could be mastered. And he sought to master it, dedicating almost every waking hour, year after year, to honing his skills. Even as a teenager he made his mark on the chess world, steadily rising through the ranks and eventually rising to the pinnacle as the World Chess Champion.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Fischer, apart from his brilliance, is his ego—an ego that seemed to know no bounds. He was remarkably self-assured and utterly convinced that he was the most brilliant chess player in history. All honor, all adoration, all acclaim belonged to him alone. He would demand recognition and demand honor. When he felt he had been slighted in any way he would respond with fury and outrage. He would turn down tens of millions of dollars if accepting the money would in any way prove a blow to his pride.
As it turns out, that kind of outrage soon consumed his life. He spent decades lost in a morass of self-pity and fury. He frittered away money he had won, eventually ending up homeless and wandering through Skid Row. He returned to fame for a widely-celebrated match in the early 90’s but that match only deepened a growing paranoia as he came to believe that the Soviets were after him, that the United States government was out to get him, that he would be assassinated by someone. He steadily lost his grip on reality.
Fischer’s wavering faith proves an interesting study. During his life Fischer was drawn first to Judaism, then to the Worldwide Church of God and finally to Roman Catholicism. He died without faith and without hope. He died an angry, embittered man who had turned against those who loved him most. He took and rarely gave, he was the center of his existence, his own god. By the end of his life he was firmly antisemitic despite his Jewish ancestry and adamantly anti-American despite being American. He cheered every disaster on 9/11 and called for the eradication of American Jews. He died in Iceland, an adopted home, the only country that would take him in. He died with few friends—friends he had wronged constantly but who, for some reason, remained strangely loyal to him.
Endgame is a fascinating character study. The Bible teaches us that the wages of sin is death. And Fischer’s life is marked by death—by the due consequence of his sin. There can be a fine line between brilliance and insanity. Fischer proves that the two are not mutually exclusive.