The Soviets were not amused. They dismissed the young American upstart as nyekulturni-literally, “uncultured.” This wasn’t far from the truth, and Fischer knew it. He lacked education, and had always been insecure about this. His deficiency was particularly glaring now that most of his interaction was with adults, many of whom were sophisticated and well-read.

The answer, Fischer thought, was to upgrade his wardrobe. So at sixteen, using his chess winnings, he traded in his uniform of sneakers, flannel shirt, and jeans for luxurious bespoke suits. He reveled in his new Beau Brummell image. When he traveled abroad for tournaments, he frequently visited local tailors and had suits cut for his gangly, broad- shouldered physique. He liked to brag that he owned seventeen such suits, which he rotated to ensure even wear. “I hate ready-made suits, button-down collars, and sports shirts,” he once said. “I don’t want to look like a bum. I get up in the morning, I put on a suit.”

The change did wonders for Fischer’s self-esteem. He boasted that once he had defeated the Russians and become the world champion, he’d take on all challengers. Like the boxing champ Joe Louis, he’d have his own bum-of-the-month dub. He boldly promised that he was “gonna put chess on the map.” He envisioned a rock-star existence for himself: a $50,000 custom-made Rolls-Royce, a yacht, a private jet, and a mansion–in either Beverly Hills or Hong Kong–” built exactly like a rook.” Asked what his long-term goals were, he replied, “All I want to do, ever, is play chess.”

But the sartorial faƧade of sophistication was a flimsy one. Those close to Fischer knew that when it came to art, politics, or anything else the cosmopolitan set talked about, he was at a total loss. “If you were out to dinner with Bobby in the sixties, he wouldn’t be able to follow the conversation,” says Don Schulte, a former friend. “He would have his little pocket set out and he’d play chess at the table. He had a one-dimensional outlook on life.”
This limited world view prompted Fischer to drop out of Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School midway through his junior year. It was hardly a case of a promising academic life being cut short. Pulling courtesy D’s, ostracized by the other students, Fischer was going nowhere. Many chess insiders have insisted that the poor grades were a direct result of an abnormally high IQ–that is, Bobby wasn’t stupid, he was just bored. (Although Fischer was a poor student, he was regularly reading Russian chess journals.) It’s a point that has long been debated. Everybody agrees that Fischer is no dummy, including Fischer himself (during one interview he said, “I object to being called a chess genius, because I consider myself to be an all-around genius who just happens to play chess”), but chess champions aren’t necessarily geniuses. What they need for success is powerful memories, the ability to concentrate deeply, refined recognition and problem-solving skills, decisiveness, stamina, and a killer instinct.

When he dropped out of high school, Fischer was living in Brooklyn with his older sister, Joan, and his mother, Regina. Regina was a registered nurse, a secular Jew, and a single mother with a bohemian lifestyle that included leftist politics and social activism but not chess. (When Fischer was born, his mother was married to Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist, who is generally assumed to be Bobby’s father, although Bobby’s paternity is the subject of some speculation.) Fischer’s relationship with his mother was strained, in part because of her politics, her religious heritage, and her general eccentricity. “Bobby’s mother was a cuckoo,” the New York Times chess columnist Robert Byrne says. “She was an intelligent neurotic full of far-fetched ideas.” As Fischer developed as a chess player, he distanced himself from his mother. In 1962, three years after dropping out of high school, he began living alone in the family apartment (his mother and Joan had moved out).

Fischer began to devote fourteen hours a day to studying chess. According to a 1962 interview in Harper’s, he had some 200 chess books and countless foreign chess journals stacked on his floor. He had an exquisite inlaid chess table, made to order in Switzerland, and three additional boards, one beside each bed in his apartment. As part of a Spartan training regime he would play matches against himself that lasted for days, sleeping in the three beds in rotation. Asked how he spent his free time, Fischer once replied, “I’ll see a movie or something. There’s really nothing for me to do. Maybe I’ll study some chess books.”

As Fischer became more successful, he began to generate more and more criticism. In a very short time he managed to offend and estrange almost everyone who was in a position to advance his career, including USCF officials, patrons, journalists, and sponsors. He frequently backed out of tournaments. He’d threaten a no-show unless the promoters ponied up more prize money. He also regularly groused about noise and light levels.

The press loved it. Fischer was labeled an insufferable diva and a psych- out artist who made life hell for tournament officials and tried to rattle opponents by complaining about, among other things, high-frequency sounds that only he and several species of non-human mammals could detect. The press also loved to talk about his greed. But Fischer never cared about money per se. “Bobby wanted to get all kinds of money for everything,” says Arnold Denker, a former U.S. chess champion, “and yet when he got it, he pissed it away. In Reykjavik [the site of the 1972 world- championship match between Fischer and Boris Spassky] the maids who cleaned up his room made thousands of dollars because he left money under the pillows and all over. He wanted money because to him it meant that people thought he was important.”

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