Remembering Bobby – Part 1

by Nagesh Havanur
3/11/2016 – Eight years ago Bobby Fischer, American prodigy and World Champion passed away at the age of 64 (the significance of that number is not lost on our readers). Today he would now be 73, and to celebrate his birthday just passed on March 9th, we bring you a series of articles on the life and games of this legendary player. Let's start from the beginning.

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Question: If you could play one of all the players in history, who would you play?
Magnus Carlsen: "Probably Bobby Fischer at his best… The precision and energy
that he played with is just unmatched in the history of chess. So Bobby Fischer from
1970 to 1972."

Remembering Bobby: Part I

by Prof. Nagesh Havanur

It all began with wedding bells in Moscow. Regina Wender, a vivacious medical student met Hans Gerhardt Fischer, a handsome scientist in 1933. Regina was from the USA and Hans Gerhardt from Germany. Both were Jews. However, Hans Gerhardt had changed his name from Leibscher to Fischer to make it sound less Jewish even as anti-Semitism was on the rise in Germany. The two fell in love and were married soon.

Bobby Fischer's parents: Regina Wender and Hans Gerhardt Fischer

A few years later they were blessed with their first daughter, Joan. But soon they began to fear for their future with the Great Terror in Russia. By that time their marriage had also come under strain and eventually they were separated. Regina left Moscow for Paris. Hans-Gerhardt, not wishing to be far from his daughter followed. With the drumbeats of war resounding in France after Hitler's conquest of Austria and Czechoslovakia, Paris was no longer safe for the estranged couple and their child. Regina returned to the USA, taking little Joan with her. As Hans- Gerhardt was a German, he was not allowed to settle in the USA. So he found refuge in Chile. Regina received little or no help from him. For her now it was a question of survival. She moved from place to place in search of a job. In June 1942 she became pregnant with her second child. She sent her daughter to stay with her father, Jacob Wender. during her pregnancy. The second child was born in Chicago on 9th March 1943.The baby was named Robert James Fischer. Hans Gerhardt was listed as the father on the birth certificate, although he had never entered the United States.

As I read this account in Endgame, the well-known biography of Bobby by Brady, I was struck by the irony of it all.

The classic biography of the world champion

When Bobby was very young he avidly read Russian books and magazines. He admired the play of Soviet grandmasters. For him Russia was no less than chess heaven at that time. However, he developed a lifelong aversion to Moscow and the Russians after he met with rather condescending treatment on his one and only visit in 1958:

Yet who could deny that his roots went back right there? There would have been no Bobby Fischer but for Moscow. Then there is the greater irony: while both his parents escaped from anti-Semitism, it claimed him, their gifted son, and poisoned his existence to the end. Still, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Regina's travails had just begun after Bobby's birth. After the discharge from hospital she had nowhere to go. Finally, she moved into a hospice for single mothers. But when she got her daughter back to Chicago the hospice refused to let the elder child stay her and ordered her to leave. When she refused she was arrested by the police for disturbing peace and she, Bobby and Joan were forced to move out. She waived a jury trial, was ordered to have a psychiatric examination and found not guilty by a judge. Fortunately, she landed a job as a typist and managed to get a one-room accommodation. Not that this lasted long. The family wandered from place to place till it settled in Brooklyn, New York. Now comes the question: If Hans Gerhardt never entered the United States, was he really Bobby's father?

Regina claimed she’d traveled to Mexico in June 1942 to meet him and Bobby was conceived during that rendezvous. This appears a bit improbable, considering their strained relationship and the location of their rendezvous. If this “re-union” had to take place, Regina had to travel all the way to Mexico and Hans-Gerhardt also had to manage the distance from Chile. Regina’s version would have had greater credibility if Hans-Gerhardt had taken any interest in his son thereafter. But he never did. Hans-Gerhardt re-married and returned to Germany years after the war. He passed away in 1993. If Hans-Gerhardt was not the biological father, why did Regina get his name registered as the parent? She just did not want her child to be called illegitimate. Fair enough. Paternity is a sensitive issue.

In his book Brady plays it safe and writes the patrimony was never proved one way or the other. In retrospect it appears rather strange.

Peter Nicholas and Clea Benson from Phildelphia Inquirer

Way back in 2002 two enterprising reporters, Peter Nicholas and Clea Benson from the Phildelphia Inquirer had stumbled on some startling facts while researching material on Bobby’s background. Years later Peter Nicholas wrote how it all happened:

“Bobby was born in Chicago and raised in Brooklyn by a single mother, Regina Fischer. She told people his father was a German biophysicist named Gerhardt Fischer. The couple divorced when Bobby was a toddler. That's about all that was known.

The dearth of details about Gerhardt and his role in Bobby's life whetted my curiosity. What was he like? Did he share his son's intellectual gifts? What kind of relationship did they have?

FBI dossiers are often a rich source of information. I thought it unlikely the bureau had a file on Gerhardt, but Regina was well-known in her day. Whatever information the FBI had collected about her might shed light on him. I requested the file under the Freedom of Information Act. A few months later, it arrived in the mail -- 900 heavily edited pages reflecting the ideological phobias of a bygone era.

Regina married Gerhardt in Moscow in 1933, and the couple lived there for several years. She returned to the U.S. at the outset of World War II. The FBI, suspecting she was a Soviet agent, read her mail and tracked her movements for years. (In the end, agents concluded she was not a spy.)

The file has little to say about Gerhardt. But its pages are crammed with details about a man Clea and I had never heard of: Paul Felix Nemenyi.”

Paul Felix Nemenyi: Who was he? What was his connection with Bobby? 
We shall see next time. Watch this space!

To be continued...

Prof. Nagesh Havanur (otherwise known as "chessbibliophile") is a senior academic and research scholar. He taught English in Mumbai for three decades and has now settled in Bangalore, India. His interests include chess history, biography and opening theory. He has been writing on the Royal Game for nearly three decades. His articles and reviews have appeared on several web sites and magazines.


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