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Bobby Fischer
William Nack
July 29, 1985
While conducting a search that turned into an obsession, the author discovers a great deal about the chess genius who drifted into seclusion after winning the world title
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July 29, 1985

Bobby Fischer

While conducting a search that turned into an obsession, the author discovers a great deal about the chess genius who drifted into seclusion after winning the world title

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The day before, on April 2, I had gone to a Goodwill store in the city of Orange and purchased a disguise, clothes that would have suited any bum wandering around nearby MacArthur Park or the broken-bottle district of downtown L.A.: a $5 pair of baggy brown pants, marked down to $2.50, whose cuffs scraped the floor; a large gold shirt for $3; a white tie, with a bright yellow stain, for 15 cents; a pair of brown shoes, which I wore without socks or laces, for $5; and the ugliest sports coat in the store, a black number with red and white flecks, for $2.50. An accommodating friend stained the coat and pants with grease and glue to match the sorry tie. At a magic shop, I bought a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles and a can of gray makeup paint with which I liberally doused what was left of my hair.

Thus disguised on April 3, on my way to the library I stopped off to see Madame Lola. It was a sweltering day, about 85°, but the disguise and the promise of finding Fischer had buoyed me with a new sense of mission. I strode into her storefront chambers, apologized for my wardrobe, and within 10 minutes we were ensconced in a backroom cubicle adorned with religious paintings and statues. At Lola's request, I had brought several pictures of Fischer that I had been showing around restaurants and stores in Pasadena, hoping someone might recognize him. I also brought copies of papers bearing Fischer's handwriting, including the pseudonym Robert D. James, which appeared at the end of his 14-page pamphlet, I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse.

Fischer had written it in 1981 after he was arrested in Pasadena—he was mistaken for a bank robber—and jailed for two days. In this remarkable document, Fischer described his arrest and then detailed what happened to him in two days of incarceration, during which, he says, he was ordered to strip and was threatened with confinement in a mental hospital. The chapter headings include: Brutally Handcuffed, False Arrest, Insulted, Choked, Stark Naked, No Phone Call, Horror Cell, Isolation & Torture.

Madame Lola placed her hands on the papers and the photographs, tipped her head forward and closed her eyes. "He has been hurt in many ways by people in business," she began. "He feels that people are going to take advantage of him.... Have you tried looking toward the desert?"

"The desert?" I said. "No...what about Pasadena?"

Madame Lola opened and closed her eyes. "He's not there now," she said. "I feel him towards some place hot, very hot. Very, very warm. I feel a lot of sun...." Outside, it felt hot enough to roast a duck, but that was not what Lola meant. "It could be Nevada," she said. "This is what I'm picking up.... He is a very confused person.... He feels everyone is going to recognize him.... I feel you will find him when you least expect him."

Madame Lola looked up, fixed me with her eyes and said finally, "He's always one step ahead of you. I'd give up on the whole idea."

Moments later I was heading for the library in Los Angeles. Time was getting short. By now, the office was restless, and more than one editor had told me to write the story whether I had found him or not, but I was having trouble letting it go.

So what was I doing here, dressed up like an abject bum and looking for a man who would bolt the instant he knew who I was? And what on earth might he be doing now in the desert? Pumping gas in Reno? Riding a burro from dune to dune in the Mojave, looking over his shoulder as the sun boiled the brain that once ate Moscow? And what of his teeth? I had been thinking a lot lately about Fischer's teeth.

In the spring of 1982, one of Fischer's oldest chess-playing friends, Ron Gross of Cerritos, Calif., suggested to him that the two men take a fishing trip into Mexico. Gross, now 49, had first met Fischer in the mid-'50s, back in the days before Bobby had become a world-class player, and the two had kept in irregular touch over the years. In 1980, at a time when Fischer was leaving most of his old friends behind, he had contacted Gross, and they had gotten together. At the time, Fischer was living in a dive near downtown Los Angeles.

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