It is a truth, not always universally acknowledged, that the intelligence which governs reasoning and that which governs emotion run along separate tracks in the brain, with very few interconnecting links. For instance, one can be a dab hand at solving puzzles but an absolute dope when it comes to figuring out why something you have just said has made someone cry. Conversely, one can be a warm, loving and empathic human being whose eyes glaze over when faced with a simple mathematical problem.
The case of Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players of all time, provides a good example of how high intelligence, emotional shallowness and paranoia can coexist in the same person. On the one hand, Fischer had a stupendous ability to store and retrieve a vast database of chess information. He could analyse positions in depth and with lightning rapidity and he could deploy his knowledge with unparalleled success against the strongest of opponents. On the other hand, his understanding of life beyond the chessboard was an emotional desert. Loving relationships meant nothing to him.
Chess was his all consuming passion. People either had to be corralled into supporting him in his monomaniacal mission to achieve chess supremacy or be destroyed if they chose to enter the lists against him, an action which gave him sadistic pleasure. He is reported as saying, ‘I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.’
I was alerted to Fischer’s virulent antisemitism by a fascinating book which centres on the epic battle for the world title fought between him and the Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky, in Iceland in 1972.The book, titled ‘Bobby Fischer Goes to War’, by David Edmonds and John Eidenow, is a first rate psychological thriller and you don’t have to be able to play chess to be riveted by its insights.
Fischer’s hatred crystallised around two groups of people: the Soviets and the Jews, and he took against both with delusional ferocity, although paradoxically, he got on passably well with some individuals from both groups. It was a case of the wry adage that ‘some of my best friends are Jews’, although friendship was not a word in his vocabulary.
There was no doubt that the Soviet regime had mustered a formidable army of chess players. Russian players dominated the game and were granted every privilege by the State. Their superiority in international chess was a matter of intense national pride and speculation was rife about the lengths to which they might go in order to maintain their dominance.
Small wonder, then, that when a lone figure from the United States came riding into the international arena, displaying phenomenal powers of play, there would be a closing of ranks on the part of the Russians, accompanied by the sort of planning and secrecy normally associated with an army’s preparation for war. Nevertheless, Fischer’s paranoia in relation to the Soviets assumed bizarre proportions. Obsessive by nature, he made fantastic demands on the organisers of the match, forcing them to jump through all sorts of hoops to ensure that he would be perfectly insulated against interference. His next-to-impossible stipulations about playing conditions exasperated all who were desperately trying to keep the match on the rails.
Fischer’s hostility towards the Russians had some basis in context of the Cold War, which had only recently begun to thaw. The game of chess had been designed as a military metaphor, and the two superpowers of the day, Russia and America, were still glaring at each other across an ideological abyss. It was all too easy to lose sight of the notion of sportsmanship in a game which in some respects resembled gladiatorial combat. But why his hatred of the Jews?
Here, we have to look more closely at Fischer’s personal history. He was a poor boy from Brooklyn, whose mother was of Jewish ancestry but had no identification with Jewish culture. She recognised her son’s genius early on and devoted her considerable energies to promoting him in the chess world. Bobby was a shy, awkward child who must have been hugely embarrassed by his mother’s aggressive campaigning on his behalf. When he was seventeen, conflict between the two of them flared up. She fled their apartment, leaving him in possession of it and giving him the opportunity to turn it into a squalid mess littered with chess paraphernalia.
His father, a German biophysicist, is only known by his name on Bobby’s birth certificate. One can speculate about the absence of a male role model in his early life and his mother’s fierce advocacy of his talent at the expense of a balanced life, but these circumstances are common enough without leading to the extreme aberration which took hold of Bobby’s personality.
To go further, one has to invoke some innate deficiency, a lacuna or gap in his mind between his emotional make-up and his reasoning abilities, which was only inadequately filled by his addiction to chess. A friend who recalled seeing Fischer taking delight in tormenting an insect he had captured, reflected, ‘ It was scary. If he wasn’t a chess player, he might have been a dangerous psychopath’.
It was this gap, I believe, which drove Fischer to extraordinary lengths to control his environment. He was sitting on a volcano of fear, which, from time to time would erupt into panic. An example of this impulsive, panic-driven behaviour arose when, after much prevarication about travelling to Iceland for the world championship he was about to board the plane when he caught sight of a throng of journalists waiting for him and bolted from the airport. It was as if there was a short circuit in his mind between his emotional and rational faculties. ‘Fight or flight’ is a protective device which we share with lower life forms. Untempered by reason, it can be self-defeating.
It is well known that an extreme ‘either or’ mode of thinking forms the basis of a paranoid belief system and that paranoia moulds itself around the prevailing cultural template. Fischer expressed his admiration for Adolf Hitler, and he once wrote an angry letter to the ‘Encyclopaedia Judaica’ on learning that he had been listed among the 200 most famous Jews, demanding that they correct their mistake. Later, his descent into antisemitism took the form of Holocaust Denial and a preoccupation with antisemitic tracts, such as ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ and ‘Mein Kampf’. Could his antisemitism have represented a deeply rooted antagonism towards his mother, or a wish to avenge some other grievance from his early childhood?
We will never know, but we can surmise that beneath Fischer’s antisemitism lay an existential fear, which he could only assuage by immersing himself in the infinite complexity of the game of chess. Whenever he could not triumph in this domain, his fear was translated into hatred. Perhaps there are some clues his story to the nature of prejudice in general and antisemitism in particular.