06.13.11

The Bobby Fischer I Knew

It was the chess match of the century. Harry Benson, author of a new book about the late, troubled champion, recalls his friend’s battle against Spassky, in this week’s Newsweek.

I got along with Bobby Fischer because I knew nothing about chess. Bobby thought anyone who knew about chess was a moron.

I met Bobby in Buenos Aires in 1971, while on assignment for Life magazine. He was out for a walk late at night. I caught up with him and said, “Would you mind if I walked with you?” He grunted. I told him I had just finished photographing a story about the New York Jets and Joe Namath. He said, “You know, I’m an athlete as well. You can’t sit at the chess table and not be physically fit.” Bobby wanted to hear all about the Jets. That’s how we became friends: I knew the last thing to talk to him about was chess.

In 1972, at the height of the Cold War, it was announced that Bobby would take on the Russian Boris Spassky for the title of world chess champion in Reykjavík, Iceland. I photographed him in the weeks leading up to the big event at Grossinger’s, the resort in the Catskills where Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis used to train. He let me photograph him in the swimming pool, in the shower, out for a walk.

When the Spassky match was set to begin, everyone went to Iceland. The world was waiting for Bobby, and there was a big question of whether he’d actually come. But at the last minute he finally arrived. Every night that we were there, Bobby would knock on my door at about 11, and we would walk until about 3:30 a.m. We would talk about sports and nuclear disarmament, but never about chess. All Bobby would say about Spassky was simply: “I’m going to crush him!”

During the match, which lasted for 21 games over weeks, there was a game where Bobby had made a real mess. Back in his hotel room he sat with five grandmasters, tracing and retracing his moves. He went through them one by one, until they said, “Bobby, that’s everyone. There’s no one left to play.” “No, it isn’t,” Bobby said, turning to me. “There’s Harry.” I didn’t know how to play chess, but Bobby demanded I play. I made a move, and they all laughed—except for Bobby. I had made a move he had never seen before in his life.

One night during the match, I had dinner with a grandmaster from Estonia. He told me what was at stake. “The last thing the Russians want to lose is the world championship of chess,” he said. “Chess is played in every hamlet and every village in the Soviet Union. But they especially don’t want to lose it to a Jew from -Brooklyn.” That’s what it was about, and Bobby was quietly aware of it.

Throughout the championship, Spassky had a team of people looking after him. No one looked after Bobby. The American Embassy didn’t even send flowers or a fruit basket to him. He said to me once, “They don’t even know I’m here, and they don’t care.” Just before the match, I went to photograph the Nixons in the White House, and President Nixon said to me: “Please give Bobby a message. Tell him he’s doing a great job.” I passed the message along, but all Bobby wanted was a photograph of the New York Jets. Before he played Spassky, I got him one, and I wrote on it: “Go get ’em, Bobby!” Bobby thought it was one of the Jets that had written that—but it was me. I don’t think he would have ever forgiven me if he had found out. But that was Bobby.

Postscript: Fischer became a national star after winning the match against Spassky, and became the first American world chess champion in more than a century.

As told to Isabel Wilkinson.

Henry Benson is the author of the upcoming Bobby Fischer, a book of photographs of the chess champion, which will be released by powerhouse Books.