At the chess board, he vanquished his opponents with breathtaking genius. In life, though, Bobby Fischer, who died at 64 on Jan. 17, seemed to fall victim to a more formidable foe—his own inner demons. Raised in Brooklyn by his mother, he began playing chess at age 6. By the time he was 15 he had become the youngest grand master in the game's history. In 1972, in the depths of the Cold War, he traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland to play Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union for the world championship. Fischer won, becoming the first American-born chess champion, as well as a national hero. After his victory President Richard Nixon sent him a congratulatory telegram that filled Fischer with delight. "He was proud to be an American," says Lubomir Kavalek, a grand master who helped Fischer during the match.

Already, though, signs of Fischer's erratic personality had begun to emerge. While in Reykjavik, he complained constantly about the lights and television cameras. As the new champ, he groused that he didn't get enough support from the American chess establishment. Fischer wound up retreating into his own world. For 20 years he dropped from sight and played no competitive chess. In 1992 he re-emerged, winning a rematch against Spassky in the former Yugoslavia, which was then under U.N. sanctions. His defiance got him in hot water with U.S. authorities, who issued a warrant for his arrest.

In 2004 he was detained in Japan for trying to enter the country on a revoked passport. From then on Fischer, born Jewish, became best known for his anti-Semitic and anti-American rants. The next year he settled in Reykjavik, where he lived quietly, reading and going for walks, visited by his longtime Japanese girlfriend. When he developed the kidney disease that killed him, Fischer resisted getting medical treatment. Yet for chess aficionados, nothing—not even Fischer himself—could negate his impact. "He was the Beethoven of chess," says his biographer Frank Brady. "His games will live forever."

  • Contributors:
  • Susan Keating/Washington,
  • D.C.,
  • Dietlind Lerner/Amsterdam.