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On Chess: Hall Of Fame Exhibit Peeks Inside The Complex Mind Of Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer competes in the Piatigorsky Cup matches in 1966.
Provided by the World Chess Hall of Fame

The name Bobby Fischer is synonymous with outstanding intellect, intimidating competitiveness and intense focus.  His is a uniquely American success story that nearly everyone has heard - even if they can’t tell a rook from a bishop.

So what makes Fischer so captivating?

The staff at the World Chess Hall of Fame (WCHOF) has spent years looking at Bobby from every angle, examining how he became one of the greatest chess players to ever sit down at a board and why his life has resonance with such a wide audience.  Our latest exhibition, “A Memorable Life: A Glimpse into the Complex Mind of Bobby Fischer,” looks at his career as a whole: from his remarkable time as a child prodigy to his determination during his rise to fame, and finally his descent into exile.

Fischer showed an aptitude for puzzles and analytical thinking at a very early age and became obsessed with chess from the moment his older sister gave him his first $1 set.  Only six years later, in 1956, he became the youngest person to win the U.S. Junior Chess Championship at the age of 12. By the end of 1957, he had also claimed the U.S. Chess Open and the U.S. Chess Championship titles.  He was the U.S. chess champion for the next eight years and won the 1963 tournament with a perfect, undefeated score of 11-0, a feat that has never been replicated.

My 60 Memorable Games, which Fischer authored in 1969, is widely considered one of the greatest pieces of chess literature ever written. He made valuable contributions to opening theory and was renowned for his opening preparation and endgame technique alike.

Fischer won an all-time record 20 consecutive games in world championship qualifying events between 1970 and 1971.  He is best remembered, however, for his win at the 1972 World Championship where he defeated Soviet superstar Boris Spassky in the most famous match of modern times. This made Fischer the first non-Soviet player to earn the title in 24 years, which was especially notable as the contest became a symbol of the Cold War tensions between the two countries. His victory created a surge of interests in the United States, bringing the popularity of chess to never-before-seen heights.

Unlike modern players, Fischer was able to make all of these remarkable achievements in a time when there were no computers that could make his studying easier. He literally retained libraries of information, devouring texts whenever he could get his hands on them and memorizing complete volumes that contained notations of his opponents’ games. He learned Russian so he could study some of the best chess theory in the world. Visitors to the WCHOF can see some of Fischer’s study materials with his notes, which reveal his opinions on his opponents and his game strategies.

Fischer’s rise was especially notable because he became a champion in a time when there was no organized funding in the U.S. for chess players. Unlike his Soviet opponent Spassky, who was making more money than his parents by age 11 due to state sponsorship, Bobby relied on help from a handful of private donors and his family’s support.

Bobby Fischer died in 2008 at the age of 64, his last years filled with controversy and, unfortunately, not a lot of chess. Inevitably when his name comes up, the conversation begins with his brilliance and ends with a remembrance of his difficult personality and anti-Semitic tirades.

Yes, Fischer was difficult. Yes, he tried to sue people and organizations over chess matches. He tried to change rules. He spoke out very publicly. The press often described him as spoiled, self-centered, offensive, vulgar and greedy. But even with all of the difficulty he brought on himself, it is still impossible to overshadow his incredible impact on the game of chess.

A Memorable Life: A Glimpse into the Complex Mind of Bobby Fischer

When: July 24, 2014 - June 7, 2015

Where: World Chess Hall of Fame, 4652 Maryland

Cost: Free

Information: www.worldchesshof.org

Shannon Bailey received a master of arts in art history and museum studies from the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Museum of Art Joint Program. She is the chief curator at the World Chess Hall of Fame and also has experience teaching art history classes at Saint Louis University and a number of other universities across the country.