Cavett and chess buffs replay Bobby Fischer’s story

By Caroline N. Jackson

A memorial for Bobby Fischer at the Marshall Chess Club last Sunday drew a standing-room-only crowd and Dick Cavett, the former TV talk-show host, who had some of the most memorable interviews of the enigmatic chess champion. Fischer died earlier this year in Iceland.

Frank Brady, president of the W. 10th St. club and one of Fischer’s early mentors, Cavett, who interviewed Fischer numerous times, and fellow chess champions, friends of Fischer’s and chess enthusiasts shared their memories of the brilliant but eccentric chess master. This was the only memorial event for Fischer, who, became as well known for his bizarre and incendiary statements as his chess skills.

“When they buried Bobby in Reykjavik, only five people attended, and that’s probably how he wanted it, but there are definitely more than five people here,” Brady said.

The room where then-13-year-old Fischer once played against Donald Byrne, launching Fischer into the professional chess world, was packed, with many people forced to stand.

“The ‘Game of the Century’ was played right in this very room,” said Brady of that game with Byrne. “So the spirit of Bobby Fischer is here today, I think.”

The memorial was held on what would have been Fischer’s 65th birthday. Brady recalled when he and Fischer’s friends tried to throw him a party for his 20th birthday but the often-reclusive Fischer was reluctant.

“Finally, he said, ‘I’ll come to my birthday but you’ll have to pay me,’” Brady said. “That’s really, truly what Bobby was about; he knew chess players should be paid for what they do.”

Asa Hoffman, Fischer’s friend and a prominent chess champion himself, said Fischer dreamed big, talking about buying a big house with a spiral staircase in the shape of a rook, but his demanding nature inhibited him.

“He said he wanted the money, but he would turn down these big tournaments,” said Hoffman. “He could have lived the fantasy but he changed his mind.”

Cavett and Brady, as well as audience members, hypothesized about what drove Fischer to the schizonphrenic behavior that characterized the end of his life. Brady personally felt it wouldn’t have made a difference if he had been able to talk to Fischer, but Cavett thought perhaps he could have helped break through to Fischer.

“He seemed to like me more than he liked just about anyone,” Cavett said. “I always will feel guilty for not getting ahold of him, though there aren’t a lot of people walking around with paranoid schizophrenia.”

The two, who were close with Fischer, lost contact with him — as most people did — toward the end of his life after he had sought refuge in Iceland after running afoul of the U.S. government for playing chess in Yugoslavia, which was under a strict United Nations embargo. They wondered if they could have helped Fischer prolong his life if they could have only convinced him to go on dialysis. Fischer’s behavior seemed to suggest otherwise, but the prospect was discussed throughout the event. Fischer suffered from degenerative kidney failure.

“He despised Western medicine,” noted Brady. “Bobby was Bobby. He marched to his own drummer.”

In the end, the memorial didn’t provide many answers for Fischer enthusiasts who attended. Instead, it was a forum to talk about a man whose actions ultimately remained inscrutable.

“A lot of people said I deserved a medal because he wasn’t very forthcoming in talking,” said Cavett. “But I didn’t feel that then. I thought he had a lot of things to say.”

In the second half of the event, Cavett showed interviews with Fischer at the zenith of his career. The tall Fischer was self-assured, confident he would be a superstar as no other chess player had been before him.

“I’m different. I intend to be really good for another 30 years,” Fischer, 28, told Cavett in one of the taped interviews. “But normal people go downhill at 40.”

The chess prodigy also emphasized that he should be highly compensated for his upcoming World Championship bout with reigning champion Boris Spassky.

“I’m going to go for a pretty high bid,” he told Cavett.

He was unconcerned that he might lose the match that would see him snatch the title from the Soviet champion. When asked by Cavett, “What would it do to your ego if you by some misfortune lost this game?” Fischer replied, with a smug grin, “I would realize it’s a fluke.”

Fischer demonstrated memorable strategies he had used in recent tournaments that led to his match with Spassky, recalling the exact moves from his famously accurate memory. Fischer’s long fingers gingerly lifted the pawns and with a swing of his wrist, slapped them down on the chessboard.

“It was almost like a piano virtuoso the way he played,” said Brady. “He hated to lose and that drove him to greatness.”