If you’ve seen the film A Beautiful Mind, or even Rain Man, then you know that the most brilliant people in the world are capable of having mentally illness, and that the most mentally ill are capable of brilliant shit.
While Dustin Hoffman’s character is fictional, people like him really exist. In fact, recent studies are finding interesting links between creative genius and mental illness. Apparently, crazy and badass incredibly smart people share some of the same traits with those with mental illness, and scientists have discovered the biological basis that links creativity to mental illness.
This is somewhat guiltily reassuring for mediocre people like you and I. While we might not be brilliant physicists with the ability to calculate incredible problems at the flip of a dime or gifted with the ability to play chess like a machine, we “normal people” are socially integrated, fat, and happy.
Without further ado, the philistines here at Amog present our shout out to the craziest chess grandmasters of all time. We think there is something iconic and demonstrative of some of the best players that have ever lived which perfectly encapsulates the fine line between genius and insanity. Although determining who becomes a Grandmaster is a complex formula, only about the top .02% of all tournament players ever get to the top. Enjoy!
5. Carlos Torre-Repetto
One of the best chess players from south of the Rio Grande, Carlos Torre-Repetto was also mentally ill. Born in 1905 and dying in 1978, Torre-Repetto had a whirlwind career and made a name for himself by defeating then World Champion Emanuel Lasker in the 1925 Moscow international tournament. His other accomplishments were inventing the Mexican Defense, the Torre Attack, and being awarded the Grandmaster title in 1977. However, he only played professionally between the years 1924-26 before going nuts.
It seems Torre-Repetto suffered a mental breakdown because of a combination of losing a game to Edward Lasker (distantly related to Emanuel), and being jilted by his bitchy fiancée, and never played chess again. While in New York City, he took off all of his clothes after getting on a bus and later hospitalized. Something snapped in poor Carlos, and he was never the same again.
4. Akiba Rubinstein
This Polish Grandmaster, who lived between 1882 and 1961, abandoned at an early age his family’s plans for him to become a rabbi and chose to play chess full time instead. After learning to play at the age of 16, Rubinstein became a main stead on the world chess scene in 1912 after winning five major tournaments in a year. For the following couple of decades he remained a very strong player, many considered him for a time better than World Champion Emanuel Lasker. He was well known for being a talented endgame player.
However, our man Rubinstein, who started going off the deep end in the 1920s, quit playing tournaments altogether in 1932 because he started to go crazy. He began demonstrating such a profound fear of people and society, known as anthropophobia, that when the Nazis came to haul him off to a concentration camp during World War Two because of his Jewish heritage they left the poor old crazy bastard alone.
3. Alexander Alekhine
Russian born Alexander Alekhine, who spent most of his life in France, Portugal, and Spain, was the fourth World Chess Champion and widely considered one of the best chess players of all time. Born in 1892 and dying in 1946, by the age of 22 he was one of the strongest chess players in the world. Alekhine is best known as one of the best attacking players of all time; he penned the famous Alekhine Defense opening, and was and still is widely regarded for his other writings on chess.
Alekhine was also a huge dick. In order to save his own skin, he allegedly became a Nazi sympathizer during the Second World War and wrote anti-Semitic literature in which he claimed Jews played defensive, cowardly chess and the Aryan chess players played attacking chess that was aggressive and brave. After the War, he denied that he wrote the articles, but the manuscripts surfaced later in his own handwriting.
He literally drank himself insane: During 1943, he had to be put in a mental hospital.
2. Wilhelm Steinitz
The first world chess champion of the world and one off the greatest players of the 19th century, Wilhelm Steinitz was born in Austria in 1936, later became an American citizen, and died in New York in 1900. He became regarded as the first numero uno in 1866 after beating the competition, and defended his title successfully until 1892. He is known as one of the father of modern chess due to his advancements of positional chess, rather than the all out crazy attacks of his predecessors.
He was also hated by his contemporaries because of his big ego, and because he was both a bad winner AND a bad loser. Steinitz apparently once spat on an opponent who pissed him off. However, it should be noted he also formed many lifelong friendships and was as equally friendly with many of his competitors.
At the end of his life, he suffered a mental breakdown in and was forced to live in a Moscow nuthouse for 40 days in 1897, where he played chess with the other inmates and inevitably gloated how much better he was than they were. It is suspected the insanity of his later life was caused by syphilis, and he died penniless at the Manhattan State Hospital in 1900.
1. Bobby Fischer
There is nothing like leaving the best and craziest of the list for last. Born on March 9, 1943 in Chicago, Robert James Fischer grew up in Brooklyn, New York with his single mother and sister. As a six year old, Bobby Fischer and his sister taught themselves how to play chess from the instruction manual of the chess set he got from a local store. After looking unsuccessfully for other kids his age to play with, he joined and was mentored at one of the strongest chess clubs in America, the Manhattan Chess Club, and later attended other famous chess clubs as a young teen.
Fischer had innate ability. He became an amazing force of nature on the international stage, an undeniable chess talent that took over the world. His extraordinary talent was evident by the time he was an early teenager. In 1956, Fischer defeated International Master Donald Byrne in a match at the important Lessing J. Rosenwald Trophy Tournament, and the game was so outstanding a commentator dubbed it, and still considered by many, as “The Game of the Century.”
13-year-old Fischer’s ability, according to International Master and journalist Hans Kmoch, showed “a stunning masterpiece of combination play performed by a boy of 13 against a formidable opponent, matches the finest on record in the history of chess prodigies.” By the time he was two months shy of his 15th birthday, Fischer became the youngest, and still is the youngest, United States national chess champion in history, and earned the title of International Master following the victory. He dropped out of high school shortly after at 16, because really, who needs school when you are already the shit.
Looking at Fischer’s tournament record, one can’t help but be stunned. He played in eight United States Chess Championships between 1957 and 1967, winning every single one. The precocious 15 year old Fischer, having no international experience and still not yet a Grandmaster, qualified to play in an important 1958 tournament in which chess observers felt he had little chance. Fischer flipped them the finger, stating, “I can draw with the grandmasters, and there are half-a-dozen patzers in the tournament I reckon to beat.” Fischer followed up his words by finishing tied for 5th/6th. When most of us at 15 and a half were popping pimples and chasing Mary Jane Rottencroch, Fischer became the youngest grandmaster EVER at the time, a record that held until 1991.
During the next twelve years, Fischer played in tournaments, performing very well in many of them. In these years his lifelong suspicion of Soviet cheating grew, something that would lead to a general fledged paranoia later in life. He became well known for being stubborn about match conditions. In 1970, Fischer redoubled his efforts to become World Chess Champion. He won a couple of important tournaments, and at one point had won 20 matches in row against the best players in the world, something only previously listed Steinitz had topped in the late 19th century.
In 1972, Fischer played Soviet Grandmaster Boris Spassky in what many saw as a Cold War battle beyond the chessboard. The Soviets had dominated international chess. However, Fischer kicked Spassky’s ass for red, white, and blue and became the 11th World Chess Champion. He instantly became a celebrity and blew up in the American media and American consciousness. Because of Fischer’s victory, chess in America exploded and became a popular game, with more people signed up for the United States Chess Federation than ever before or since in the early 1970s. Everyone wanted his or her kid to be Bobby Fischer.
However, Fischer’s slow descent into the bowels of crazy town had long since begun, manifested in his incredibly stringent demands for match conditions, paranoia, and anti-Semitism. Many also believed his victory directly led to his madness, because he reached the pinnacle of the chess world as was pathologically afraid of losing. Fischer voluntarily gave up his title only three years after winning because the international chess body wouldn’t agree to his demands. Fischer then fell off the face of earth.
Fischer didn’t play a public match for 20 years and went into virtual hiding. Police in Pasadena, California suspected Fischer, of all things, of robbing a bank in 1981, but police eventually cleared him of the charges. He periodically played friendly matches against his buddies, apparently still able to kick serious ass on the down low. Then Fischer came out of hiding for a very controversial rematch.
In 1992, Fischer and Spassky, his old nemesis, arranged a rematch in Yugoslavia, in what would be Fischer’s last public match ever. Even though the United Nations laid sanctions and an embargo against sporting events in Yugoslavia and the United States warned Fischer he would be breaking a Presidential order backing the sanctions, preventing US citizens from performing economic activity in the country, he did not care. In fact, Fischer publicly SPAT on the order.
The megalomaniacal Fischer, actually claiming he was still the champion because in his mind all of the championship matches since he forfeited were staged, wanted the event dubbed “The World Chess Championship,” even though his claims were obviously the rants of a paranoid recluse. Fischer won the tournament and two thirds of the $5 million prize, but his skills were apparently no longer top notch according to observers. Following the match the US issued an arrest warrant for Fischer, who promptly vanished from public life once again, traveling from country to country hoping to avoid extradition to the States. The government revoked his patent for the Fischer Chess Clock as well as any royalties he was to earn.
Fischer Goes Truly Nuts
Always a little obsessive-compulsive batty, in the last two decades of his life Fischer went over-the-edge crazy. Despite the fact his mother was Jewish, his lifelong suspicion and dislike of Jews boiled over in the 1980s and became the foremost topic of his public remarks for the rest of his life. Fischer claimed the US is “a farce controlled by dirty, hooked-nosed, circumcised Jew Bastards,” went as far as to send the Encyclopedia Judaica a nasty letter because it listed him as a Jew, and gave many anti-Semitic radio interviews in the 1990s. He became paranoid that Jewish agencies wanted him dead.
Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, he living in the Philippines. Fischer subsequently gave a radio interview in which he stated the attacks were “wonderful news.” He openly advocated a coup of the United States government and the execution of the Jewish overlords really running the country.
Probably most crazy of all, Fischer wrote a letter to Osama Bin Laden:
Dear Mr. Osama bin Laden allow me to introduce myself. I am Bobby Fischer, the World Chess Champion. First of all you should know that I share your hatred of the murderous bandit state of “Israel” and its chief backer the Jew-controlled U.S.A. also know [sic] as the “Jewnited States” or “Israel West.” We also have something else in common: We are both fugitives from the U.S. “justice” system.
In 2004, Fischer was arrested in Japan for using a revoked United States passport, and nearly extradited back to the US before Iceland took pity on insane former chess great. Iceland’s parliament gave him immediate citizenship and he moved there the following year. In one last interest saga in Fischer’s chess career, he called into an Icelandic television studio that was broadcasting a live match in order to point out a missed checkmate by one of the players. He died of renal failure in 2008.
Bobby Fischer best personifies the fragile line between genius and madness in not only chess Grandmasters, but humanity itself.
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