REYKJAVIK, Iceland – “Chess,” Bobby Fischer once said, “is life.” It was the chess master’s tragedy that the messy, tawdry details of his life often overshadowed the sublime genius of his game. Fischer, who has died at the age of 64, was a child prodigy, a teenage grandmaster and — before age 30 — a world champion who triumphed in a Cold War showdown with Soviet champion Boris Spassky.
But the last three decades of his life were spent in seclusion, broken periodically by erratic and often anti-Semitic comments and by an absurd legal battle with his homeland, the United States.
“He was the pride and sorrow of chess,” said Raymond Keene, a British grandmaster and chess correspondent for The Times of London. “It’s tragic that such a great man descended into madness and anti-Semitism.”
Fischer died Thursday of kidney failure in Reykjavik after a long illness, friend and spokesman Gardar Sverrisson said Friday.
“A giant of the chess world is gone,” said Fridrik Olafsson, an Icelandic grandmaster and former president of the World Chess Federation.
Noted French chess expert Olivier Tridon: “Bobby Fischer has died at age 64. Like the 64 squares of a chess board.”
In another bit of symmetry, his death occurred in the city where he had his greatest triumph — the historic encounter with Spassky.
Chicago-born and Brooklyn-bred, Fischer moved to Iceland in 2005 in a bid to avoid extradition to the U.S., where he was wanted for playing a 1992 match in Yugoslavia in defiance of international sanctions.
At his peak, Fischer was a figure of mystery and glamour who drew millions of new fans to chess.
Russian former world chess champion Garry Kasparov said Fischer’s ascent of the chess world in the 1960s was “a revolutionary breakthrough” for the game.
“The tragedy is that he left this world too early, and his extravagant life and scandalous statements did not contribute to the popularity of chess,” Kasparov told The Associated Press.
Rival and friend Spassky, reached at his home in France, said in a brief telephone interview that he was “very sorry” to hear of Fischer’s death.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of the World Chess Federation, called Fischer “a phenomenon and an epoch in chess history, and an intellectual giant I would rank next to Newton and Einstein.”
An American chess champion at 14 and a grand master at 15, Fischer vanquished Spassky in 1972 in a series of games in Reykjavik to become the first officially recognized world champion born in the United States.
The Fischer-Spassky match, at the height of the Cold War, took on mythic dimensions as a clash between the world’s two superpowers.
It was a myth Fischer was happy to fuel. “It’s really the free world against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians,” he said.
But Fischer’s reputation as a chess genius was eclipsed, in the eyes of many, by his volatility and often bizarre behavior.
He lost his world title in 1975 after refusing to defend it against Anatoly Karpov. He dropped out of competitive chess and largely out of view, spending time in Hungary and the Philippines and emerging occasionally to make outspoken and often outrageous comments.
He praised the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying, “I want to see the U.S. wiped out,” and described Jews as “thieving, lying bastards.” Fischer’s mother was Jewish.
In 2004, Fischer was arrested at Japan’s Narita airport for traveling on a revoked U.S. passport. He was threatened with extradition to the United States to face charges of violating sanctions imposed to punish Slobodan Milosevic, then leader of Yugoslavia, by playing a 1992 rematch against Spassky in the country.
Fischer renounced his U.S. citizenship and spent nine months in custody before the dispute was resolved when Iceland — a chess-mad nation of 300,000 — granted him citizenship.
“They talk about the ‘axis of evil,'” Fischer said when he arrived in Iceland. “What about the allies of evil … the United States, England, Japan, Australia? These are the evildoers.”
In his final years, Fischer railed against the chess establishment, claiming that the outcomes of many top-level chess matches were decided in advance.
Instead, he championed his concept of “Fischerandom,” or random chess, in which pieces are shuffled at the beginning of each match in a bid to reinvigorate the game.
“I don’t play the old chess,” he told reporters when he arrived in Iceland in 2005. “But obviously if I did, I would be the best.”
Born in Chicago on March 9, 1943, Robert James Fischer was a child prodigy, playing competitively from age 8.
At 13, he became the youngest player to win the United States Junior Championship. At 14, he won the United States Open Championship for the first of eight times.
At 15, he became an international grand master, the youngest person to hold the title.
Tall and striking-looking, he was a chess star — but already gaining a reputation for erratic behavior.
He turned up late for tournaments, walked out of matches, refused to play unless the lighting suited him and was intolerant of photographers and cartoonists. He was convinced of his own superiority and called the Soviets “commie cheats.”
“Chess is war on a board,” he once said. “The object is to crush the other man’s mind.”
His behavior often unsettled opponents — to Fischer’s advantage.
This was seen most famously in the championship match with Spassky in Reykjavik between July and September 1972. Having agreed to play Spassky in Yugoslavia, Fischer raised one objection after another to the arrangements and they wound up playing in Iceland.
Fischer then demanded more money and, urged by no less than Henry Kissinger, he went to Iceland after a British financier, Jim Slater, enriched the prize pot.
“Fischer is known to be graceless, rude, possibly insane. I really don’t worry about that, because I didn’t do it for that reason,” Slater has said.
“I did it because he was going to challenge the Russian supremacy, and it was good for chess,” he added.
When play got under way, days late, Fischer lost the first game with an elementary blunder after discovering that the TV cameras he had reluctantly accepted were not unseen and unheard, but right behind the players’ chairs.
He boycotted the second game and the referee awarded the point to Spassky, putting the Russian ahead 2-0.
But then Spassky agreed to Fischer’s demand that the games be played in a back room away from cameras. Fischer went on to beat Spassky, 12.5 points to 8.5 points in 21 games.
In the recent book “White King and Red Queen,” British author Daniel Johnson said the match was “an abstract antagonism on an abstract battleground using abstract weapons … yet their struggle embraced all human life.”
“In Spassky’s submission to his fate and Fischer’s fierce exultant triumph, the Cold War’s denouement was already foreshadowed.”
Funeral details were not immediately available. Fischer moved to Iceland with his longtime companion, Japanese chess player Miyoko Watai. She survives him.