In search of chess recluse BOBBY FISCHER

For STEPHEN MOSS, a fan of Fischer's since he was a boy, the opportunity to track him down at last was too much to resist. But would the former champion stop ranting for long enough to give him an autograph?

MOST of the people who are willing to be interviewed are not worth interviewing. The uninterviewed are the ones you really want — the recluses, the crackpots who disappeared from public view decades ago and retain an aura of inaccessibility, perverseness, danger even. Forget Hello! Magazine, think Goodbye.

The novelist J. D. Salinger would probably top the most-wanted list, but another American is up there too — Bobby Fischer, for whom the world has been searching since he quit chess as world champion in 1975. Dozens of journalists have gone in pursuit of Fischer — Holy Grail or Loch Ness Monster, depending on your point of view. Now, today (March 28), he is mine.

Or at least he will be shortly. I have tried for years to meet Fischer, as he zigzagged between the U.S., Germany, Hungary, the Philippines and Japan. Now, finally, I have him to myself in an airport departure lounge for four hours. He will be arriving in Copenhagen en route for Iceland, which by granting him citizenship has rescued him from a Japanese detention centre and helped him elude the clutches of the U.S. authorities, who wanted him deported for alleged sanctions busting, tax evasion, money laundering and, perhaps most of all, congratulating Al-Qaida on their handiwork on September 11, 2001. This flight from Japan may be the most audacious move of Fischer's career.

I have lived with Fischer for as long as I can remember. I was one of those nerdy boys who found chess more straightforward than dating girls, liked to hang out with squares — all 64 of them. Fischer was an inspiration. "The beauty of his games, the clarity of his play and the brilliance of his ideas have made him an artist of the same stature as Brahms, Rembrandt and Shakespeare," wrote David Levy in 1973 in How Fischer Plays Chess. But is it possible still to lionise this crazed anti-semite with his theories that every Grandmaster game is fixed (by the Jews, of course), that conventional chess is played out (he proposes an alternative version called Fischer random chess), that the CIA has been targetting him for 30 years, that he is right and the rest of the world is wrong?

I have followed Saemundur Palsson, the policeman who acted as Fischer's minder during the famous 1972 world championship match against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik and who has led the campaign for Fischer to be given a safe haven, from Iceland to Copenhagen. I have worked out that, having flown over with Icelandair, they will have to take the 8 p.m. flight back.

Fischer arrives from Tokyo at 4.15 p.m. That leaves me, Saemi (as Palsson is universally known in Iceland) and Bobby together in the departure lounge for enough time to write a short biography. OK, there are a handful of friendly Icelandic journalists and Fischer's chess-playing Japanese fiancee, Miyoko Watai, too, but I'll settle for that. I tell my newspaper's picture desk to expect world exclusive snaps of Fischer dozing while he waits for the plane for Iceland.

Then catastrophe.

One of these oh-so-friendly Icelandic journalists turns out to be a big shot from the Channel 2 TV station. They have bought up the rights to Fischer; they have padlocked Palsson; worst of all, they have hired a private jet to whisk Fischer to Iceland. When the plane from Tokyo arrives, he and Watai are bundled into a van and driven away. The Icelandic journalists scatter, searching for him. They are furious with Channel 2, especially the man from Channel 1, whose job may be on the line.

By a stroke of luck, fog means that Fischer's 12-seater private plane can't land and he has to take a taxi to Malmo in southern Sweden, where the jet will be waiting. As he is leaving Copenhagen, he is cornered in a car park by the agitated man from Channel 1 and gives some characteristically robust quotes — to summarise, death to the Jews, death to Japan, death to America, death to George Bush. (Probably death to Tony Blair, too — Fischer refused to fly via London because he feared he would be grabbed by the police there.) Anyway, Fischer has let off steam, the Channel 1 man's job is saved, we have a news story.

And where was I, ace sleuth, while the car-park encounter took place?

Chess legend Bobby Fischer makes a point while speaking to the press for the first time since landing in his new home at Reykjavik, Iceland.-AP

Drinking a beer and composing a short piece about failing to find Bobby Fischer. I tell the picture desk not to expect world-exclusive pictures of Fischer asleep in a departure lounge. My Pulitzer prize for journalism is on hold.

I arrive back in Reykjavik at 10.45 p.m., exhausted, depressed, ready for bed. But there are developments: Fischer's plane has been delayed in Sweden and will not arrive until 11.15 p.m. I am at the international airport 50km from Reykjavik; he will be arriving at the domestic airport in the city itself — he refused to arrive at the larger airport because of its proximity to a U.S. airbase. I have a chance to redeem myself.

A photographer drives me, at top speed in teeming rain, to Reykjavik.

Fischer's arrival, treated as a state visit, is being broadcast live. There are civic dignitaries, a few hundred people waving chessboards and "Welcome Bobby" signs, and a group of drunken teenagers eager to party.

This will be a great moment. Except that it isn't: Fischer does not kiss the ground, Pope-style; he does not emote; he makes no speech of thanks. In any case, I'm not even there: the fast car hasn't been fast enough. When we arrive, cars are streaming away. I catch a glimpse of a dishevelled figure getting into a Range Rover; we follow the car; we lose it at the first set of lights; we are crap. I am changing my mind about people who are willing to be interviewed.

One person who will talk to me is Gudmundur Thorarinsson, the organiser of the 1972 Fischer-Spassky encounter, whom I meet the following morning.

Thorarinsson got to know Fischer well in 1972 and has been a key member of the group that secured his passage to Iceland. He is not afraid to confront the central question concerning Fischer: is he mad?

"There is a grey area between a genius and someone who is insane," says Thorarinsson. "I don't think he is insane, but he is not like most people." Thorarinsson says that by devoting his teens and his twenties to chess, Fischer "sacrificed" his life — he never had the chance to develop the social skills needed to deal with the world beyond the chessboard.

Fischer has an obsession with detail that, to my non-medical eye, appears autistic. When he recites his suffering at the hands of the U.S. and now the Japanese, every letter he has received is cited, dated, described exactly. His is a world of tiny details; it is the bigger picture that eludes him, so he falls back on one stupid overarching theory — the world Jewish conspiracy. The Icelandic view that he is a lovable eccentric is a cop-out. He is a paranoid fantasist. But he is deluded not dangerous; Howard Hughes rather than Adolf Hitler. Mastery of detail, obsessionalism, relentless concentration, the ability to shut out the world are advantages in chess; in life they can be a disaster, especially when there is no between what you say and what you think.

Thorarinsson also has a theory about why Fischer never played again after 1972 (apart from the controversial return match, played for a fat cheque, against Spassky in the former Yugoslavia in 1992 that is the source of the sanctions-busting allegations). "He was very much afraid of losing," suggests Thorarinsson. "It seemed to fill his mind. Once he sat down at the table he was very secure, but before it was like his mind was full of all the possibilities that he would make a mistake."

Former British champion Bill Hartston once observed that "chess doesn't drive people mad, it keeps mad people sane." Fischer was obsessed by chess and his goal of becoming world champion. "All I want to do, ever, is play chess," was the mantra of the young Fischer. When he stopped playing after 1972, he lost the cornerstone of his life and his world crumbled. In the late 1970s he turned to religion — in the form of the Pasadena-based Worldwide Church of God — to fill the vacuum, but God was no substitute for chess.

Palsson will also be interviewed, and I have almost forgiven him for the debacle. He hadn't seen Fischer for 33 years until they met recently, separated by a glass panel, in the Japanese detention centre near Tokyo where Fischer was held for almost nine months. While enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, Palsson is visibly embarrassed by Fischer's views on the Jews — or the "stinking Jews", as Fischer always calls them — and hopes he can persuade him to moderate his language.

"I will try to calm him down," Palsson says in the lobby of the Loftleidir hotel, where Fischer has again been installed in the presidential suite, which he occupied throughout the two months of the 1972 match. "We are friends and he will have to listen to me. He is his own worst enemy. Citizenship brings with it responsibilities: Icelanders don't usually talk in such a hostile way about other people. I hope he will stop blaming Jews and Americans for everything."

"So what about meeting Bobby?" I casually suggest. "He's tired," says Palsson. "He has to have lunch and get his haircut. Try in a couple of hours." I stress I have come as a fan, an admirer of his chess; I'm not here to get him to rehearse his maniacal theories. I play what I hope will be my masterstroke. I hand Palsson my dog-eared 1972 copy of Bobby Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games, the most famous chess book of all time, and ask if Fischer will sign it for me. Palsson says he will see what he can do.

I spend the couple of hours I have to wait for my book to be signed at the sports hall, which hosted the 1972 match. The hall is full of sweaty footballers; the stage on which Fischer and Spassky sat is hidden by a black curtain; there is a book with their signatures, cartoons from that tense summer of '72, a small plaque marking the occasion. "The match put Iceland on the map," everyone agrees, which is why Fischer has been given his lifeline. Already, said one paper, after two days of citizenship, he is the second most famous Icelander after pop singer Bjork.

And I bet Bjork can't play the Caro-Kann defence.

So the endgame. I head back to the Loftleidir. Fischer has finished lunch, trimmed his beard, had a haircut. He has decided to give a press conference to the 20 or so journalists camped in the lobby. The presence of American sports journalist Jeremy Schaap adds a frisson. He is the son of Dick Schaap, a New Yorker who was a close friend of the young Bobby but later declared that Fischer was mad. Fischer quickly makes the connection (Schaap's TV channel, sports broadcaster ESPN, may have planned it this way). "I knew your father," he drawls to the young, dark-haired Schaap.

"He said I didn't have a sane bone in my body: I don't forget that."

I ask about chess; a Russian TV crew asks about Kasparov; the Icelanders ask whether Fischer likes herring, but the Schaap affair won't go away.

Fischer insists on returning to it, and things suddenly turn ugly. "Let me get back to this guy," says Fischer, pointing at Schaap. "I hate to rap people personally, but his father many years ago befriended me, took me to see Knicks games, acted kind of like a father figure, and then later, like a typical Jewish snake, he had the most vicious things to say about me."

Schaap snaps at that, says, "I don't know that you've done much here today really to disprove anything he said," and walks out. All on camera. Maybe it's a made-for-TV set-up, maybe not, but it certainly chills the air: Fischer groans and there is a half-minute silence before the woman from

Icelandic radio can get things back on track with another question about herring. The human being starts to emerge from under the baseball cap, then bang, he's off again with another lengthy exposition of his intricately wrought, completely bonkers theories, usually rounded off with: "It's all on the internet! Why don't you go look it up?"

He speaks for an hour; he is getting tired; so are we — the herring questions are starting to dominate. Saemi calls time and I make my last, desperate pitch. I stand beside Fischer as a dozen cameras click, tell him what a fan I am, how gripping the 1972 match was, how pleased I am that he is a free man, a proud Icelander, almost as famous as Bjork. He shakes my hand, if not tenderly with a certain warmth.

"And the book, Bobby. Will you sign my copy of your wonderful book?"

"No way," he says loudly. "I only sign copies of the 1969 Simon & Schuster edition. This was published in 1972 by Faber & Faber, and they made numerous unauthorised amendments. I've always hated this edition. You should have brought the original!" And with that he turns and flees from the room. But I am satisfied. OK, no "To Stephen, love Bobby", but I've shaken his hand, looked squarely into those intense, staring eyes. It's a scoop — of sorts. It can grow in the telling. I will authorise amendments. Now where is that email address for J. D. Salinger?

� Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005