Bobby Fischer

By Hannah Wallace April 15, 2011

Got to see a Sarasota Film Festival documentary about Bobby Fischer yesterday.

Back in 2005, while I was living with my parents (“in-between jobs”) (…shut up), I watched a lot of SportsCenter in my pajamas. (Pretty much same as now.) What I knew of Bobby Fischer was next to nothing. I remember when Searching for Bobby Fischer came out, I had no context for the name, only a vague idea of a chess master, sometime, somewhere.

So I had nothing but mild curiosity when one morning, pajama-clad in front of my parents’ television, I watched a SportsCenter report about Bobby Fischer receiving asylum in Iceland. “ESPN’s [cuddly sports nerd] Jeremy Schaap was there,” said the intro. People danced on the tarmac, singing, as an elderly man with long hair and a long white beard was escorted into a limousine.

Next, a press conference, crowded with reporters: The old man was groomed, wearing a ball cap, but still hunched and wild. He went quickly from even-toned to agitated, railing about people stealing his books and letters, dirty Jews and whatnot. Then he points at someone off camera in the crowd.

BF: This guy here, what’d you say your name was?

JS (off camera): Jeremy.

BF: Jeremy what?

JS (OC): Jeremy Schaap.

BF: Your father was Dick Schaap, was he not?

JS (OC): Yes he was.

BF: He was a Jew, right?

JS (OC): Yes he was. [long pause] As are you.

BF: Am I?

The conversation’s approximate, obviously, but it had my attention. My parents had waxed nostalgic about Dick Schaap, and I had my own affections for Jeremy. Fischer would get distracted and ramble about something else, but ESPN edited the video to the point where he came back to Jeremy.

BF: You, what’d you say your name was again? Jeremy? Your father, is he dead?

JS (OC): He is.

BF: His father befriended me. He took me to—what was it?

JS (OC): Knicks games.

BF: Yeah, Knicks games.

JS (OC): You were 12.

BF: His father befriended me, and then, like a typical Jewish snake, turned on me. He said that I didn’t have a sane bone in my body. Typical Jew—

JS (OC): I have to object.

BF: Typical. Did you read it? Did you read that he wrote that? That I didn’t have a sane bone in my body?

At this point, whoever’s holding the camera takes it off of Fischer, and we see the crowd of reporters for the first time. It zooms in on Jeremy, whose voice is getting subtly louder in order to overtake Fischer’s rant.

JS: Y’know, honestly, I don’t remember if I read it or not. But honestly, I don’t think you’ve said anything here that would disprove that.

Silence, except for the clicking of cameras. Jeremy stands there in profile, in the silence, for three whole seconds, before turning and walking slowly out of the room. The camera swings back to show Fischer, hunched, chin down, staring.

It was right out of Sports Night, Sorkin and Schlamme—fathers and sons and Jews and sports. (Joshua Molina could totally play Jeremy Schaap.) Someone so measured hearing someone rail epithets against his dead father. You just don’t see a dramatic ballet executed like that in real life, especially not on ESPN.

That’s not an exact transcript, obviously, but I don’t think you can find that full segment anywhere—pieces of it are in Jeremy Schaap’s later, full report about Fischer, and pieces appear in the documentary. But seeing it in that context, between baseball highlights and coach interviews, like any other post-game press conference—it just blew my mind.

I had retained, since then, my mild curiosity regarding Fischer’s fame: What on earth had made this crazy old man such a big deal, that they continue to stick a microphone in front of him? The documentary went a long way toward answering that. People had always said Fischer had a screw loose, and between his celebration of Sept. 11 and the SportsCenter ordeal, I had no doubt. But earlier in his life, as a child and even early in his fame, there was charisma, I thought, seeing clips in the film. Maybe just relative to the later madness, but his smile, speaking carefully but telling jokes, wouldn’t have struck me as wholly egotistic (though the film presented plenty of evidence that that’s how he was viewed, and I can’t say there wasn’t ample evidence, somewhere, to justify those views). And then of course, framing his success against the Cold War, his chance to take down Spassky and win one for the U.S., beat the Soviets at their own game. The film took great pains to establish the reasons for his importance. No wonder the madness was so compelling.

Not a bad way to spend a Thursday afternoon, is what I’m saying.

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