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Chess Champ Kasparov Remembers Bobby Fischer

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

He was the youngest U.S. chess champion at age 14, a grandmaster at 15. Bobby Fischer has died in Iceland. He was 64. In 1972, Fischer faced off against Russian world champion Boris Spassky in a match that became a symbol of the Cold War, a showdown between two superpowers - dubbed: The Match of the Century. Fischer won that match, becoming the first U.S.-born world champion. There hasn't been another since. After the match in Reykjavik, he talked about his victory in his typically brash style.

Mr. BOBBY FISCHER (World Chess Champion): The Russians are the ones that started all this and they are the ones who have been using chess as a propaganda weapon and using every, you know, trick to keep the title and all that. Now, it finally turned against them, you know? And probably, they wish they never even started to play chess.

BLOCK: Soon after that match, Bobby Fischer became a recluse and didn't play competitive chess for nearly 20 years. Then, in 1992, he challenged Boris Spassky again in a match in Yugoslavia, defying international sanctions. Fischer was filmed spitting on the order banning the match.

Mr. FISCHER: So this is my reply to their order not to defend my title here. That's my answer.

BLOCK: The U.S. issued a warrant for his arrest. Fischer moved around the world and finally settled in Iceland, where he died. Over the years, Bobby Fischer would occasionally emerge from seclusion to issue venomous rants against Jews and the United States. One of these anti-Semitic tirades came on September 11th, 2001 - a few hours after the attacks - when he called a radio station in the Philippines.

Mr. FISCHER: I applaud the act. Huh. The U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians, slaughtering them for years, robbing them and slaughtering them. Nobody even gave a (censored by network). Now, it's coming back to the U.S. (Censored by network) the U.S. I want to see the U.S. wiped out.

BLOCK: A spokesman for Fischer says he died after a serious but unspecified illness. We're going to talk about Bobby Fischer's influence on the chess world with Russian Grandmaster Garry Kasparov, who joins us from Moscow. And Mr. Kasparov, you are what, about 9 years old during that 1972 Fischer-Spassky match?

Mr. GARRY KASPAROV (Former Chess Grandmaster): Yes, I was 9 years old. I was the rising young star in my native town, Baku, in the Soviet Union. And we're all following Fischer who offered us a new source of inspiration.

BLOCK: New source of inspiration. Why is that?

Mr. KASPAROV: Fischer's chess was very refreshing. And we sensed - we were not great experts yet to understand it fully and appreciate it, but we sensed it was a new style, a new strategy, a new tactic, something that will form in a new type of the game of chess.

BLOCK: And what would that new type of game be?

Mr. KASPAROV: Again, it was very difficult to be specific at that time. It's, it was more of feelings of the 9-year-old boy in Baku and hundreds of sons and fathers who followed Fischer. But we sensed that Fischer played a different chess. He pioneered many new ideas in the openings and also in the middle game. And his style was a combination of chess enthusiasm, full concentration, and also, elements of the psychological warfare. He dedicated himself to the game of chess to be part of the game of chess and to be on the winning side.

BLOCK: That psychological warfare, you talked about, he was known for his demands, his eccentricity, his walking out of matches, coming late, making demands about lighting and cameras. He said he'd like to make his opponents squirm.

Mr. KASPAROV: Absolutely. And - but it, it was part of a chess personality. He was a great individual. And yet, for his chess fans in the Soviet Union, it is not clear - as for his chess fans in America - that the match was an element of the Cold War because we didn't care very much about the ideological differences. But Fischer was seen as an individual who was taking on a very mighty, all powerful sort of chess mission.

BLOCK: Bobby Fischer's name, of course, is also going to be linked to someone who descended into extreme paranoia and vitriol. How damaging is that side of Bobby Fischer to his reputation and his legacy?

Mr. KASPAROV: It is damaging for the game of chess because for many people, it was another sign that the game chess could be potentially detrimental for mental health. But I don't think that today it's going to damage his reputation as one of the greatest chess players. Obviously, up to 1972, when he was just 29, he left my field of expertise. And since I'm not an expert in psychiatry, I, I can offer very little explanation of his sort of actions. It was very sad period of his life. And I think the only good news about the last years of Bobby Fischer was it eventually ended up in Iceland, the country where he is a national hero, the man who've always remembered as the greatest chess player and nothing else.

BLOCK: Well, Garry Kasparov, thanks for talking with us today.

Mr. KASPAROV: Okay. Thanks, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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