Former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer, was taken into custody last Tuesday, by Japanese immigration after allegedly trying to leave the country with an invalid passport. Fischer, now 61, was detained at Narita Airport outside Tokyo while trying to board a Japan Airlines flight for the Philippines. The U.S. Embassy confirmed Fischer was detained.
It’s not immediately clear if Fischer would be extradited to the United States, where he is wanted for playing a 1992 return match against Boris Spassky, in the former Yugoslavia in violation of international sanctions. Japan and the United States have an extradition treaty.
“He’s in custody in Japan, and we are awaiting a determination whether he’ll be deported back to the United States to face charges,” said Allan Doody, special agent in charge of the immigration agency’s Washington field office. The arrest capped a cat-and-mouse game between U.S. authorities and Fischer, who shuttled among several nations, including Japan, the Philippines and Hungary, to avoid arrest. A grand jury in Washington charged him with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act by going to Yugoslavia for the chess match against Spassky. The charge, handed up in 1992, carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
U.S. authorities, acting on the outstanding warrant, recently canceled Fischer’s U.S. passport after discovering that he had a 90-day visa to visit Japan. Authorities there detained him at the airport for failing to possess valid travel documents, U.S. authorities said.
Miyoko Watai, a longtime friend of Fischer’s, said she had talked to him in custody. “He didn’t know that his passport had been revoked,” said Miyoko Watai, a member of the Japan Chess Association. “He had been traveling frequently over the past 10 years, and there was never a problem. I don’t understand why his passport was revoked all of a sudden.” She said he was told he would be deported, but was planning to appeal.
Considered by many to be the best player ever, Fischer became a grandmaster at age 15. He became a Cold War hero in 1972, when he defeated Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union at a widely followed series of matches in Iceland to become the first American world chess champion.
Fischer surrendered the world championship in 1975 against Anatoly Karpov of Russia, refusing to play when conditions that he demanded proved unacceptable to FIDE, the International Chess Federation. He resurfaced for a dramatic rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia in 1992, beating him 10-5 to win $3.35 million.
In August 1992, the Treasury Department sent Fischer a letter warning him not to go to Yugoslavia to play Spassky. It explained that U.S. citizens were forbidden to get involved in “business or commercial activities” with Yugoslavia because of its role in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “We consider your presence in Yugoslavia for this purpose to be an exportation of services to Yugoslavia in the sense that the Yugoslav sponsor is benefiting from the use of your name and reputation,” the letter said. Fischer ignored the letter and headed off to Yugoslavia to square off against Spassky.
At a news conference in Yugoslavia in September 1992, Fischer held up the letter and spit on it. He went on to beat Spassky and receive $3.3 million. After that, the reclusive Fischer disappeared, living in secret outside the United States. The U.S. government accused Fischer of violating U.N. sanctions against Yugoslavia by playing the match. The sanctions were imposed on the former Yugoslavia for provoking warfare in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina.
While incognito, Fischer intermittently gave interviews with a radio station in the Philippines, often digressing into anti-Jewish rants and accusing American officials of hounding him. In the radio interviews, he praised the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying America should be “wiped out,” and described Jews as “thieving, lying bastards.” Amazing stuff, considering his own mother was Jewish.
He also announced that he had abandoned chess in 1996 and launched a new version in Argentina, “Fischerandom,” a computerized shuffler that randomly distributes chess pieces on the back row of the chess board at the start of each game. Fischer claimed it would bring the fun back into the game and rid it of cheats.
“He was like a child,” said Watai. “Chess had been his whole life, so he was sheltered from the world in some ways. Once he made up his mind, he would never change it, no matter what anyone said. That didn’t always make people happy.”
Fischer had long been rumored to be living in Japan, aided and sheltered by chess devotees, and is believed to have frequented a Tokyo chess club. “He came here often for short stays,” said Watai. “He also traveled to the Philippines, Germany, Switzerland and many places.” American officials apparently had been following his recent movements.
Ferdinand Sampol, Philippine airport immigration chief, said Immigration Commissioner Alipio Fernandez was alerted by the U.S. Embassy in Manila last week that Fischer might try to enter that country, but there was no request to exclude or remove him from the Philippines. Fischer is believed to have last visited the Philippines in 2003.
Filipino Grandmaster Eugene Torre, another longtime friend of the former champion, said Fischer had been planning to seek political asylum in Switzerland and was caught off guard by the arrest. “Poor Bobby,” he said. Fischer was still regarded as a fugitive even though the case against him was seen as somewhat problematic, due to the length of time passed and the question as to whether playing a match can really be called trade. Not to mention Fischer’s obvious mental problems. It really hadn’t been clear until now that the US was pursuing the case at all.
In the wake of 9/11, the BALCO scandals in the sports world, the crimes of high profile figures like Martha Stewart, and the zealousness of the administration to pursue anyone who threatens their policies, it was inevitable that Fischer would captured and be made an example of. Hopefully some compassion will enter into this latest episode. Otherwise, a man who was once given the key to New York City, lauded by Presidents, and revolutionized chess in the U.S., will be spending much of his time in a federal prison, for playing a game.
E. “Doc” Smith is a former Rhode Island Amateur Champion, and has won divisional titles in the U.S. Amateur Team Championships for Brown University as well as the Rhode Island Chess League Championships. He has also taught chess to kids in S.F. schools, where he has recently directed several successful citywide tournaments.