Chess legend Bobby Fischer had a Pasadena history that included training his body along with his mind.
Bobby Fischer, chess icon and genius most known for his symbolic world championship victory over Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky during the Cold War in 1972, died of kidney failure at the age of 64 last Thursday.
Born Robert James Fischer, Bobby gained chess fame early on, winning the United States Open Championship the first of eight times at age 14 and being the youngest person awarded the title of international grandmaster at 15.
After being invited to give a chess seminar at Ambassador College in Pasadena, Fischer stayed in the area from 1972-79 and found a friend and trainer in Dr. Harry Sneider, a faculty member.
“Some people have said playing one game in a world championship chess match can be like running three marathons, mentally, psychologically and physically, so one of the things you have to have is a good, strong, healthy body,” said Sneider, who has trained Olympic athletes and worked with Jack Lalanne and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Swimming, weightlifting, soccer ball exercises and walks down the Arroyo were part of Fischer’s regimen with Sneider, who stayed in contact with Fischer throughout his life.
“Some of the things you develop with training are willpower, courage and focus and those are very important in chess,” said Sneider.
Eating well is also vital, said Sneider, who remembered Bobby drinking a half-gallon of carrot juice a day.
“One of the most unusual things was when he was going to play for the world championship he said, ‘I want to work on my grip’,” said Sneider. “He wanted to shake a Russian player’s hands and feel the bones break if he could, so it was a bunch of intimidation.”
While Sneider helped Fischer with his physical health, he was unable to prevent the mental abnormalities that Fischer later became known for, such as pro-Sept. 11 and anti-Semitic comments, despite Fischer’s Jewish descent.
“He was naturally secretive and paranoid about everything,” said Pasadena friend Bob Ellsworth. “When you’re at a genius level like that I think it distorts your personality’s ability to function in a normal way.”
Often, Fischer spoke about people trying to “get” him and referred to himself as “Dallas James”, the name on his driver’s license, though he had a bus pass and never drove.
“I tried to be an encouraging big brother and trainer and I really loved him for his great caring and giving side, but he would not reveal that to the general public,” said Sneider.
One morning, when Sneider went to Fischer’s apartment before a planned trip to Sea World with Sneider’s family, the phone rang. Sneider picked up and Henry Kissinger was on the other line.
“Kissinger said, ‘The President would like Bobby to visit him in San Clemente’,” said Sneider. “Bobby picks up the phone and says, ‘Henry, I’m going to Sea World. I can’t make it. Bye’.”
Later in life, Fischer got into trouble with the law, getting misidentified as a bank robber and being thrown in a Pasadena jail for two days in 1981. He later published a pamphlet, “I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!”.
In 1992, after defying U.S. sanctions against Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic by playing a rematch against Spassky in then Yugoslavia, Fischer was wanted by the U.S. government. He spent nine months in a Japanese prison from 2004 to 2005, threatened with extradition to the U.S., but was granted citizenship in Iceland.
Fischer spent his remaining years in Reykjavik, where he died from kidney failure that resulted from an unknown illness he refused to get treated.
“The last words he said to me two and a half months ago on the phone were, ‘Thank you, Harry, for being the best friend I’ve ever had’,” said Sneider. “Little did I know he’s dying because he didn’t tell me. He sounded like he was saying goodbye and I tried to get back to him but he’d cut off all phone and e-mail connections.”
Elusive until the end, Fischer was buried in an unmarked grave, as he requested, at a private service on Monday, according to Ellsworth.
Despite Fischer’s desire to be left alone and anonymous, Sneider said, “He’ll never be forgotten. It’s like Babe Ruth in baseball.”