Chess history: Nineteen Hours with Bobby Fischer – Part 2

2/29/2012 – In 1981 the Film Board of Canada approached Bobby Fischer, hoping for his participation in a feature-length documentary on the game of chess. Last week we published part one of research writer Camille Coudari's harrowing encounter with the reclusive former world champion. In part two Camille describes the religious background that caused Fischer to think and behave the way he did.

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Chess Squares and Circular Thinking – Part two

Camille Coudari on nineteen hours with Bobby Fischer

I do not think it is a coincidence that Fischer did not feel drawn to conventional religious denominations, and that he was instead attracted from a very early age to the World Wide Church of God, an Evangelical sect that was quite well known after the war thanks to its radio broadcasts and its ubiquitous magazine, "The Plain Truth".

Even fundamentalist Evangelical churches viewed the World Wide Church as a fringe cult during its half century of existence, which is not surprising if one looks at just one of its basic tenets: Anglo-Israelism, or the notion that the real descendants of the Biblical Hebrews are the people who came to inhabit the English Isles and neighboring countries.

The holders of Biblical inerrancy, who believe that the Bible is the Word of God and that everything in it is literally true (although doors are often left conveniently open for interpretation) have always had a hard time reconciling Christianity's negative and often heinous attitude toward the Jews with the fact that God chose to reveal his Book to them.

Anglo-Israelism cuts this Gordian knot bluntly by claiming that only a small number of modern Jews are descendants of Biblical Hebrews, and that even those belong only to the “bad” tribes (Judah and Benjamin). All other Jews of modern times are claimed to be impostors and to have no direct link with the Jews of Biblical times. The only supposedly genuine Hebrews left are the scions of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who (Armstrong revealed to a supposedly benighted America) migrated ages ago to the British Isles and northwestern Europe.

Armstrong was not the first who devised this solution to the "I love the Bible but not the Jews" conundrum. The Lost Tribes of Israel have been an object of speculation for centuries, and have been located in the most surprising places, from Southeast Asia to Hawaii to British Columbia.

Besides "solving" the Jewish problem, Anglo-Israelism opens the door to an alluring proposition: it marks out all Americans of English and northwest European origin as "real Jews". From a religious point of view, it creates a direct relationship between them and Israel and gives them a claim on the Biblical Land. There is more than meets the eye in the current support for the state of Israel shown by many fundamentalist Christians, something that may seem surprising at first when one considers that many of them come from parts of the United States where not long ago the fiercely anti-Semitic KKK flourished.

This theory is a perfect example of circular thinking. It holds no water as a key to understanding history or the world, but it does give at least a partial understanding of how Fischer, a Jew himself, could justify his anti-Semitism in his own eyes: the world Jewry he loathed and denounced was not a body of authentic Jews, but was a bunch of traitors or impostors. He told me so himself; and went on about it at such length that before I knew it, night had turned into morning.

It was a relief when by noon a rested Hélène and Gilles finally came to my rescue and asked if we wanted to go for lunch. We went down to the hotel restaurant, and although it was still mostly empty at that hour, Fischer made a beeline for the remotest booth and sat against the wall so that he could keep an eye on anybody who came in. ("The FBI, you know!")

By the time we parted around 3 p.m., Fischer was showing interest not only in the chess documentary, but in the shooting of a fiction film Gilles was scheduled to start a couple of months later. Fischer said he had always been curious to see how movies were shot on location, and Gilles invited him to come and watch – all expenses paid, of course, and total anonymity guaranteed.

Fischer was very friendly by the time we left, and although he was still noncommittal, he showed a lot of interest in our project. We felt we had established a fragile but real bond of trust and that there actually was some possibility of his participation.

At any rate, as a parting gift, he suddenly whipped out three copies of the "Protocols" from his jacket and, all smiles, gave one to each of us!

Our hopes were dashed when we received a letter a few weeks later listing conditions that, based on our conversations, he knew very well could not be met. Among other things, he asked for a $50,000 honorarium, insisted on being billed in the movie and its publicity as the World Chess Champion, and, totally unrealistically, demanded to be paid rights for any stock footage in which he appeared and was used in the film.

So in the end, we had to do without Fischer, although the film, which came out in the summer of 1982 under the title of "The Great Chess Movie" in its English version, did manage to include some good documentary footage of his career. I recently found out someone has posted it in three parts on YouTube (see links below).

Reminiscing over my 19-hour marathon with Bobby (this was the only time I was to meet him), what stands out first of all is the memory of a lonely man who craved company as much as he tried to avoid it.

I remember, too, the very pleasant side of his personality. He was at his most friendly during the wee hours near dawn, when we were alone and he seemed to feel safe and at ease, talking very openly. I recall the distinct feeling of being in the presence of an emotionally very young and, in a way, very innocent person, and I could not help liking him even though he kept coming up with the most outrageous and repulsive opinions and remarks.

The deepest impression that remains, though, was that he was brainwashed and manipulated.

It was rumored in the chess world in the early '80s that after the fallout between Herbert Armstrong and his son Garner Ted Armstrong, Fischer had followed the latter in the splinter sect he went on to establish. My meetings with the Mokarows and Fischer did not give me enough evidence to say for sure which side Fischer actually chose. I asked Mokarow point-blank once, but he demurred.

Mokarow himself, who can now be found giving his latest take on the Bible on YouTube of all places, claims he stopped working for the Worldwide Church of God in the late '70s and went on to become a very successful businessman. I do not know if he ever made a clean break with that organization, and the whole picture remains blurred as there were rumors at some point in the '80s of a reconciliation between Fischer and Armstrong Sr. (Fischer had donated a lot of money to Armstrong and was very upset when his doomsday prophecies failed to materialize in 1972).

Still, I was left with the strong feeling that, far from being merely Fischer’s representatives, Arthur and Claudia Mokarow exerted a great influence on his decisions. I would go so far as to say that the 180-degree change in Fischer's position on the documentary or towards the invitation as a guest of honor at Gilles' shooting location was the work of people who were loath to let Fischer out of their grip for any length of time. Brady describes the couple as a "kind of buffer for Bobby" and says that they were in a position of "considering offers (and rejecting them) without even discussing them with Bobby".

I am not implying that Fischer was a lamb-like victim and that "they" (whoever it was who ultimately manipulated him) necessarily had sinister motives. Fischer was a needy, unbalanced, and difficult person, and it is possible, I suppose, that those who used and/or encouraged his feelings of persecution sincerely felt that they were doing the right thing by keeping him away as much as possible from the secular values of the chess world and the stress of a professional player's life.

On the other hand, Fischer, with his immense aura and fame, was literally a godsend for any group or individual engaged in the business of recruiting members and saving souls. Apart from his being potentially a great source of money, the bizarre worldview of the milieu into which he was plunged cannot be ignored. Who knows if his beating the Communists was not interpreted as a sign from above, or if he was not seen to play a role in an imminent "prophecy"? In any case, he was too much of a prize to risk losing to outside influences, and the Mokarows' role of gatekeepers gave them the power not only to keep people out, but to keep Fischer in.

Fischer eventually seems to have distanced himself from the Mokarows, if only because after 1992, he could not return to the States and remain in their entourage. He went on to graze in other "spiritual" pastures, though he was never able to shed the paranoia and fringe ideas that were ingrained in his mind since adolescence.

There will be some who will use this fact to defend the role religion played in his life. They will say that he was emotionally unbalanced to begin with. That maybe it was chess which was deleterious, and that whatever balance he managed to achieve was due to religion's positive influence.

But chess players know that this is hogwash. Despite the stereotypes, chess does not drive anyone mad; if anything, it keeps madness at bay. It may be abstract, but it is real and true, and keeps the mind grounded. No matter how much we would like to get rid of that queen, we know it is a queen, not a spy; and that pawn about to check our king is not an agent of Satan, it is doing just what a pawn is supposed to do!

Chess is the very antithesis of circular thinking. It is supremely rational, whereas religion is, by definition, non-rational.

One of the motifs of "The Great Chess Movie" is that chess and chess players have always reflected the times and places where the game flourished. Fischer is no exception. The parallel between his life and certain aspects of post-war America is striking. He had all the drive and ambition of America, its readiness to defy authority, and, like the archetypal Hollywood hero, the determination to single handedly fight the system and win against all odds.

But his life also embodies the dark side of these wonderful qualities: emotional and intellectual isolation. Since its beginnings, America has always been a grand battleground between rationalism and religious utopia, and Fischer's life mirrors the accelerating slide from one to the other in American society since WWII.

In a country where Creationism has been endorsed by a President, where a significant proportion of people believe that Man walked with the dinosaurs, and a nuclear war in the Middle East is viewed by many as a necessary prelude to Rapture, ideas such as Anglo-Israelism now no longer seem so over the top. Unique in his talent and a loner as a person, Fischer was yet a true child of the country he came to hate and reject. In a twisted way, Fischer's post-9/11 rants may have been unpatriotic, but they showed how very American he was.

I remain convinced that his involvement with sects and the influence of religious zealots had a determining role in the tragic course of life, and turned his promising reign as world champion into the greatest waste of talent in the game's history. Few lives better illustrate the self-destruction that ensues when a great brain falls victim to irrational thinking.

In conclusion, I am intrigued by the fact that, among the many theories Brady gives for Fischer's anti-Semitism, Anglo-Israelism is never mentioned. I find it even more curious that the nature of Fischer's relationship with the World Wide Church of God and the Mokarows is never seriously discussed in Brady’s otherwise rather thorough biography.

It appears almost as if, in exchange for some skin-and-bones information on Fischer's whereabouts and living habits, Brady had to vow not to come close to the elephant in the room: the devastating impact Fischer’s association with cults must have had on all his life and career.

Perhaps this smacks of paranoia, but then again, maybe I did pick up a thing or two from Bobby Fischer.

Camille Coudari
Montreal, December 2011


About the author

Camille Coudari is a retired chess player, author and organizer, active from the mid-sixties to the early eighties. He represented Canada on the Bronze medal winning team at World Students' Team Championship 1971, represented Canada at the 1978 Olympiad, and became an IM in 1979.

Camille participated in the organization of the Man and his World Tournament in 1979, which featured one of the strongest fields up to that time. His book on openings for amateurs, L'Ouverture aux échecs, was published in 1972 and sold over 100,000 copies. He lives in Montreal, Canada.


The Great Chess Movie on YouTube – if some music organisations are blocking a
segment below you can watch it by using an anonymzing service like Hidemyass.com

Copyright Coudari/ChessBase


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