He’s front-page news where he comes from – “Teen star defeats all-comers” – but because chess means little to Americans, never mind that he’s national champ at just 15, the panel cannot guess his claim to fame.
Flash-forward 14 years and he has just beaten all Commies, most significantly the Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky. A Scotsman, the photographer Harry Benson, is first with the news. Due to snap Spassky during the epic contest in Reykjavik, Benson hears him concede: “There is another world champion and his name is Robert James Fischer.” So Benson informs Bobby, takes him up an Icelandic hill for an exclusive shot (in another Sofie jumper) and you’d think he’d be all smiles. Not exactly: more terrified.
The subject of Bobby Fischer: Genius And Madman had a lot to be terrified about. Before becoming champ he thought you could catch radiation from watching telly. After the triumph, when it all got too much, he became paranoid about many things, covered his windows with tin foil and prompted family members to remark: “We didn’t want to expose our children to the famous uncle who’d become a fulminating anti-Semite.”
Fischer was Jewish, of course, and his own family life, such as it was, must have contributed to the madman bit of him. He never spoke about his father, or fathers – the one on his birth certificate who walked out, the real one he never knew. And “difficult” doesn’t quite cover his relationship with his mother: nurse, welder and a Commie herself, with a 600-page FBI file to her name, who neglected her son to try to stop the Vietnam War.
Vietnam, remember that? Well, in 1972 both it and Watergate were pushed down the news schedules as finally Americans “got” chess. Fischer vs Spassky was like Ali vs Frazier but with added Cold War fear and loathing. Chess in the USSR had massive state backing. It became a pawn (ha ha) in Soviet strategy to demonstrate intellectual superiority over the decadent West. When Fischer wasn’t going to play, Henry Kissinger was brought in to mediate. When the Soviets suspected tampering (Spassky: “I felt myself quite unusually”), the hall had to be forensically examined, but only the corpses of two flies were found (next day’s mirthful headline: “Who killed the flies – and why?”). An incredible time – for chess, the world and “the second most famous person after Jesus Christ” – and an engrossing film.
I was still thinking about Bobby Fischer during the first of Vanessa Engle’s series about our attitudes to Money. Fischer’s fitness coach, in addition to grip-strengthening (“When I shake that little Russian’s hand I want him to feel it”), tried to get him to chant “I’m not a loser! I’m a champion!”, only for the chessman to quibble: “What’s with the ‘loser’ bit?” Money was all about wealth gurus placing great store by mantras who went about their strange work without demur.
Instead everyone got in line, shouted “I’m an excellent money manager!”, rubbed their ears (this is important), turned to the person on their right and offered a high-five and this reassurance: “You’re gonna be rich!” In conference centres all over Britain, apparently more and more of us are finding out how shiny Americans, usually from Arizona, can turn us into millionaires – a transformation that will begin just as soon as you’ve paid for all the courses and books.
Sarah is 18 but already £2,000 in debt to the gurus, and has also forked out £1,500 on mentors for her and boyfriend Rhys for their efforts to move into the buy-to-rent game (key advice for Rhys: “Smile more”). “Unlimited income appeals to me,” said Sarah. “The whole idea of having a job is quite ridiculous.” And this on the day George Osborne pledged £1 billion to help young people find employment.
Property, it seems, is the way to get rich. Hang on, I thought the bottom had fallen out of that market? The gurus have a supplementary income – manuals with sales of 28 million and counting – but Janice, £4,000 in debt and counting, must content herself with saying “Ker-ching!” every morning until the millions start rolling in. She’d give up nursery teaching to become one of the idle rich.
A former engineer and an ex-nurse own so many properties now they’ve lost count. Can society survive good careers being halted in pursuit of cash? Well, mansion-dwelling Maria is using some of her dosh to keep the toyboy in leather trousers so he can pretend to be a guitar hero – a valuable service to be sure.
Liverpool, home to Willy Russell, Roger McGough and other great men of letters, has now produced Jaiden, bitchy blogger and antihero of Desperate Scousewives, the latest scripted slice of regional reality, which seems to have used up all its wit in the title.
BOBBY FISCHER: GENIUS AND MADMAN
BBC4 Wednesday, 9pm
BBC2 Tuesday, 9pm
E4 Monday, 10pm
Reviews by Aidan Smith