During those two months in Iceland, Fischer attained a folkloric celebrity that attracted millions of Americans to a game they had long associated with the relative obscurity of park benches and coffeehouses. Looking out from the cover of national magazines that wild summer, he was depicted as a gallant cold warrior, a solitary American genius taking on and crushing the Soviet chess juggernaut, with its Moscow computers and its small army of grandmasters arrayed against him.
The 29-year-old Fischer emerged a hero, of course, but he promptly rejected scores of offers, worth millions of dollars, to capitalize on his fame. In fact, though promising to be a fighting champion, he turned back every offer to play chess again. To this day, since Spassky resigned in the 21st and final game on Sept. 1, 1972, Fischer has not played a single game of chess in public. He forfeited his world title in 1975, turning down a multimillion-dollar offer to play challenger Anatoly Karpov in the Philippines when the world chess federation refused to meet all his conditions for the match.
So Bobby Fischer was gone. Ever since he won the championship, Fischer had been drifting quietly into seclusion, finding refuge in Herbert W. Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God in Pasadena, a fundamentalist cult that observes Saturday as the Sabbath and believes in the Second Coming. After several years of serving as what is called a coworker—Fischer hadn't been baptized—he left the church, too, and since then has retreated even further into his own private world. It is one in which journalists are not permitted. Indeed, his closest friends are sworn not to speak about him to the press, under the threat of Bobby banishing them forever from his life.
After Fischer relinquished the title, Karpov was named champion. Karpov still holds the title, but his crown has not been without a singularly painful thorn, for Fischer is still alive, out there somewhere in Southern California. No longer merely a former world chess champion, he has grown to almost mythic size, leaving behind him a trail of rumors and a chess world that is still reaching out for him in the void.
Much the same kind of effect was created in the 1850s when Paul Morphy, a New Orleans chess prodigy then recognized as the world champion, returned in triumph from Europe and soon simply stopped playing. Morphy was regarded as one of the game's true innovators. Fischer revered him. They are the only two Americans ever acclaimed as world chess champions, and there remains that striking parallel in their careers. "Fischer's like Morphy," says international master Igor Ivanov, a Soviet defector. "What's the story with you Americans'? You win the title, go home and don't play any more."
Later in his life, after abandoning chess altogether, Morphy suffered from delusions of persecution and withdrew into his own private world. Occasionally he strolled the streets of New Orleans, muttering, in French, "He will plant the banner of Castille upon the walls of Madrid, amidst the cries of the conquered city, and the little king will go away looking very sheepish." He died of apoplexy, at age 47.
But Fischer is still alive, and still very much on many minds. Until recently Robert J. Fisher lived in Pasadena, just about a mile east of where Bobby was arrested in 1981 for allegedly holding up a bank. Fisher installs cable television and spells his name without the "c," but over the years he has received telephone calls from all over the world, often at three in the morning, awakening to hear:
"This is the international operator, Mr. Fisher. You have a telephone call from Yugoslavia." Or the Soviet Union, or Czechoslovakia, or Bulgaria, or Germany.
Almost invariably, the voices speak broken English and cry out, "Boooby! Are you Booby Fischer, the chess player?"
To which Bob Fisher will sing back, "Wrong number! This is Bob Fisher, the cable-television guy."