Bobby Fischer, the eccentric chess champion who was born into a Jewish family but became an outspoken anti-Semite as he aged, spent some time at Yeshiva University four decades ago.
Actually, an hour.
In 1963, Fischer, at 19 already an international grandmaster and U.S. champion, was invited to play the members of the Yeshiva College Chess Club — all 30 simultaneously.
Thirty boards were set up around the YU dining hall; Fischer walked from table to table, moving his pieces.
Fischer, who died last week in his adopted Iceland home at 64 from an unspecified illness, was probably younger than some of the YU students he was facing; he was dressed in suit and tie and was polite but quiet. “During the game there was total silence,” says Monty Penkower, a retired history professor who was one of Fischer’s victims … er, opponents. “He took it very seriously.”
“It was a rout — the score was 30 to nothing,” says Penkower, who made aliyah six years ago and lives in Jerusalem. The competition was over quickly, in probably no more than an hour. “He didn’t stop for more than a second or two. I don’t think anyone gave him a challenge.
For Penkower, a lifelong chess buff, playing someone of Fischer’s ranking was “a once in a lifetime thrill.” It is common, he says, for great players to play many games at once. “Any grandmaster can play multiple boards.”
Fischer, who later denied his Jewish roots and ranted against an international Jewish conspiracy that he said plotted against him, was not an anti-Semite early in his career, Penkower says. “If he was, YU would never have invited him. If he was, he would never have gone to Yeshiva College.”
Fischer, who spent his last years in self-imposed exile in Iceland, was a “recluse,” says Penkower, but in 1963 he was “very normal.”
No one has convincingly explained why Fischer, who became world champion by defeating Russia’s Boris Spassky in 1972, later became by any definition a self-hating Jew. He asked Encyclopedia Judaica to leave him out of its pages, claiming that Jews had committed mass murder of Christian children, and stating that the Jews “Invented” the Holocaust in order to make money.
His behavior showed the signs of a bipolar personality, according to medical experts. “His whole end was very tragic,” Penkower says.
These days, the Yeshiva grad’s chess competition is with his children and grandchildren. No multiple-board games a la Bobby Fischer, he says. “I’m lucky if I get through one.”