Years before Bobby Fischer became an international chess star, and decades before he was arrested last week in a Tokyo airport, Arnold Denker knew him as an insecure boy with serious anxieties about his ethnic background.
A former American chess champion who served as a surrogate father of sorts to the fatherless Fischer, Denker told the Forward that young Bobby would sneak out the back door of the exclusive Manhattan Chess Club to avoid the embarrassment of being seen with his Jewish mother, Regina, when she came to pick him up. Knowing this, Denker, himself a Jew, was not entirely surprised by the antisemitic vitriol for which Fischer has become famous in recent years.
Fischer’s latest jab at the Jews appeared just days after he was taken into custody last week at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, in the most recent posting to what is widely believed to be the ex-world chess champion’s Web site: “Bobby Fischer does not wish to return to the Jew-controlled USA where he faces a kangaroo court and 10 years in Federal prison,” read the post.
The Japanese authorities detained Fischer July 13, a dozen years after he violated U.S. executive order 12810 by playing a lucrative chess match in Serbia. The match, which violated sanctions against Slobodan Milosovic’s Serbian government, was a rematch of the famous 1972 battle with Soviet chess star Boris Spassky. That match had ended with Fischer becoming the world champion.
The United States is seeking to extradite Fischer. Through his Web site, Fischer has asked for political asylum in a third country.
Some media accounts of Fischer’s arrest make brief mention of his stated hostility toward Jews. What has not been well documented is the degree to which, judging from Fischer’s public interviews and writings during the past decade, antisemitism has come to frame his thinking. Not simply a peripheral hang-up, Fischer’s anti-Jewish sentiments appear to serve as the fundamental pillar of his worldview.
In sporadic interviews on Philippine radio during the past five years, Fischer has used almost every question to launch into another diatribe about the global Jewish conspiracy directed against him and the need for an extermination of all Jews.
“The f——-g Jews want to destroy everything I’ve worked for all my life,” Fischer said during a January 1999 interview with Baguio City’s Bombo Radyo. “There was no Holocaust. The Jews are liars. It’s time we took off the kid gloves with these parasites.”
Fischer has developed a straightforward narrative of a Jewish world conspiracy, but his antisemitism is more complex than first appears. In the strange pathology of Fischer’s hatred, his antisemitism has remained at a remove from his relationship with the many individual Jews who have populated his life and with whom he has maintained good relationships.
Denker continued an almost weekly telephone correspondence with Fischer during the 1970s. In the 1990s, when Fischer was on the run from American authorities, he lived for a time at the summer estate of the Polgars, a Jewish family in Budapest. The Polgar family had two beautiful daughters with whom Fischer would endlessly analyze chess matches. The older daughter, Susan, who in 1991 became the first female international grand master, remembers arguing with Fischer endlessly about his ideas on Judaism.
“It was very strange because a lot of his friends were Jewish” said Polgar, who now runs a chess center in Queens. “He would get around that by saying, ‘He is a nice person despite the fact that he is Jewish.’”
This disconnect has been on display in his recent pronouncements. Fischer rarely uses his antisemitic commentary to attack individual Jews. Instead, he uses “Jew” as a label against his enemies, whatever their ethnic background. Fischer called the American Chess Journal and Time magazine “Jew-controlled rags,” and has labeled Bill Clinton a “secret Jew.”
However, Fischer believes his biggest enemy to be Robert Ellsworth, the previous owner of a temporary storage facility in California. Fischer accuses Ellsworth of selling the memorabilia and correspondence in Fischer’s storage space, in what Fischer has called “a giant conspiracy of the Jewish world government.” He labeled Ellsworth a “dirty Jew,” though the two met through Fischer’s involvement, during the late 1970s, in the Worldwide Church of God — a fundamentalist Christian sect based on the observance of many Jewish ritual laws.
Fischer’s mental disposition and aptitude for chess has frequently allowed for his antisemitism to be forgiven, even by Jewish admirers. Felix Berkovich, the author of “Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps,” states the normal equation simply: “He is a great player. Every genius is a little crazy.”
It often appears that Fischer’s antisemitism has become bound up with his increasingly erratic behavior, but according to John Eidinow, co-author of the recent book “Bobby Fischer Goes to War,” the chess master’s interest in Hitler and white-supremacist ideology began during his teenage years — long before the onset of what Eidinow describes as Fischer’s current mental problems.
Fischer’s own ethnic heritage has been a matter of some dispute. In a 1962 interview with Harper’s Magazine, Fischer acknowledged that his mother was Jewish, but in 1984 he wrote to the Encyclopedia Judaica asking them to remove the entry on him, explaining that he was not circumcised. In condemning his past inclusion in the encyclopedia, Fischer wrote: “I suggest rather than fraudulently misrepresenting me to be a Jew… you try to promote your religion on its own merits — if indeed it has any!”
The encyclopedia willingly complied with Fischer’s request. But recently released documents show that not only was Fischer’s mother Jewish, but his biological father probably was also.
Generally, Fischer’s biological father has been thought to be a non-Jewish German named Gerhardt Fischer. Gerhardt left Bobby’s mother three years before Bobby was born, and in researching “Bobby Fischer Goes to War,” Eidinow and David Edmonds discovered 900 pages of FBI documents that strongly suggest Bobby’s father was, in fact, the Hungarian-Jewish physicist Paul Nemenyi.
In looking for an explanation of Fischer’s paranoia that goes beyond his current mental state, Fischer’s friends and biographers often have looked to the chess star’s difficult childhood without a father figure or a stable mother figure. At least once, Regina attempted to put Bobby’s sister in foster care through a Jewish social service agency.
Eidinow says that he and Edmonds, who are both Jewish, came to the tentative conclusion that Fischer’s future antisemitism “was part of his rejection of his mother, with whom he had a very turbulent relationship.”
Denker, who now lives in retirement in Florida, has his own idea. When Fischer was young he would frequently get picked on because of his mother’s ethnicity, “and it turned him,” Denker said.
But, Denker says, “I can’t hold it against him, because I know that he’s not a bad person. But this is it. He’s a little fruitcake.”