A Psychological Autopsy of Bobby Fischer
Chess player Bobby Fischer’s tortured life illustrates why promising young talents deserve better support programs.
At a 1958 tournament in Yugoslavia, Mikhail Tal, a legendary attacking grandmaster and one-time world champion, mocked chess prodigy Bobby Fischer for being “cuckoo.” Tal’s taunting may have been a deliberate attempt to rattle Fischer, then just 15 but already a major force in the highly competitive world of high-level chess.
But others from that world — including a number of grandmasters who’d spent time with him — thought Fischer not just eccentric, but deeply troubled. At a tournament in Bulgaria four years later, U.S. grandmaster Robert Byrne suggested that Fischer see a psychiatrist, to which Fischer replied that “a psychiatrist ought to pay [me] for the privilege of working on [my] brain.” According to journalist Dylan Loeb McClain, Hungarian-born grandmaster Pal Benko commented, “I am not a psychiatrist, but it was obvious he was not normal. … I told him, ‘You are paranoid,’ and he said that ‘paranoids can be right.’”
Robert James Fischer passed away of kidney failure at the age of 64 in January 2008 in his adopted home of Reykjavik, Iceland, where, 36 years earlier, he had captivated the world with his stunning defeat of Boris Spassky, the reigning world chess champion from Russia. As the first North American to win the world title after a half-century of Russian domination, Fischer gained enduring worldwide fame.
By most all accounts a brilliant mind, Fischer was perhaps the most visionary chess player since José Raul Capablanca, a Cuban who held the world title for six years in the 1920s. Fischer’s innovative, daring play — at age 13, he defeated senior master (and former U.S. Open champion) Donald Byrne in what is sometimes called “The Game of the Century” — made him a hero figure to millions in the United States and throughout the world. In 1957, Fischer became the youngest winner of the U.S. chess championship — he was just 14 — before going on to beat Spassky for the world title in 1972.
But Fischer forfeited that title just three years later, refusing to defend his crown under rules proposed by the World Chess Federation, and he played virtually no competitive chess in ensuing decades, retreating, instead, into isolation and seeming paranoia. Because of a series of rankly anti-Semitic public utterances and his praise, on radio, for the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, at his death, Fischer was seen by much of the world as spoiled, arrogant and mean-spirited.
In recent years, however, researchers have come to understand that Bobby Fischer was psychologically troubled from early childhood. Careful examination of his life and family shows that he likely suffered with mental illness that may never have been properly diagnosed or treated.
Any psychological evaluation of a person who is not alive must, of course, include a great deal of qualification. But the psychological history of America’s greatest chess champion clearly raises two profound questions, one specific to Fischer and chess and the other more general: What would Bobby Fischer’s life and career have looked like had he received appropriate mental health services throughout his life? And is there a way for society to help troubled, often defiant prodigies become less troubled, without diminishing their genius and eventual contribution to society?
To understand Bobby Fischer’s psychological makeup, it is important to understand his personal history, which began on March 9, 1943, when he was born in Chicago to Regina Wender, a Swiss native of Polish-Jewish heritage, and, most likely, Paul Felix Nemenyi, a Hungarian-born and -trained mechanical engineer who met Regina in 1942. He was also Jewish. (Hans Gerhardt Fischer, a German-born biophysicist whom Regina married in Moscow in 1933, is listed as Fischer’s father on his birth certificate, but FBI records released after Regina’s death and other documentation make it all but certain that Nemenyi was the biological father.)
Bobby had an older sister, Joan, born to Regina and Hans Gerhardt Fischer in 1937 in Moscow, where the couple was living at the time. Soon after Joan’s birth, the marriage between Hans Gerhardt and Regina began to fail, and in 1939, Regina and Joan came to the United States without him. He never entered the U.S. and by all accounts was totally absent in the lives of the Fischer children. In 1945, Regina legally divorced him.
Soon after Bobby’s birth, Regina Fischer moved the family from Chicago to Pullman, Wash., where Paul Nemenyi was then living, then to Moscow, Idaho, on to Portland, Ore., then south to Los Angeles, and on to the tiny town of Mobile, in the Arizona desert about 35 miles southwest of Phoenix. According to Frank Brady’s classic biography of Fischer, Profile of a Prodigy, Regina took odd jobs to support her family until eventually gaining employment as a teacher in Los Angeles and Mobile.
From Arizona, the Fischer family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1949, where Regina, already a registered nurse, pursued a master’s degree in nursing education at New York University. When Bobby was 6, his sister bought him an inexpensive chess set from a candy store, and together they learned the moves. Bobby had always liked games and puzzles, and initially his interest in chess was unremarkable, as he reflected years later to Brady: “At first it was just a game like any other, only a little more complicated.”
It appears Fischer never adjusted well to the New York City school system. He was expelled from a public school in Manhattan when he kicked the principal, and he dropped out of high school. In contrast to this disinterest in school, Bobby developed an intense focus on chess. In fact, to say Bobby became obsessed with chess would be a wild understatement.
During Bobby’s childhood and early adolescence, Regina consulted with, or had Bobby meet directly, three different mental health professionals. According to Brady, Regina spoke with Ariel Mengarini, a New York City psychiatrist and chess master, about curbing her son’s “chess obsession,” and Mengarini responded: “I could think of a lot worse things than chess that a person could devote himself to and … you should let him find his own way.” Regina received a similar response from Harold Kline, who saw her son at the Children’s Psychiatric Division of the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital.
World-renowned chess grandmaster and psychoanalyst Dr. Reuben Fine noted in his book, Bobby Fischer’s Conquest of the World’s Chess Championship, that Regina consulted with him soon after her son won the 1956 U.S junior championship at the age of 13. “He came to see me about half a dozen times,” Fine wrote. “Each time we played chess for an hour or two. In order to maintain a relationship with him, I had to win, which I did. … My family remembers how furious he was after each encounter, muttering that I was ‘lucky.’ Hopeful that I might help him to develop in other directions, I started a conversation at one point about what he was doing in school. As soon as school was mentioned, he became furious, screamed, ‘You have tricked me,’ and promptly walked out. For years afterward, whenever I met him in clubs or tournaments he gave me angry looks, as though I had done him some immeasurable harm by trying to get a little closer to him.”
This exaggerated, perhaps paranoid reaction to Fine’s overture reflects a pattern in Bobby Fischer’s interpersonal style that would be a hallmark of both his adolescent and adult behavior. But according to the recollections of both Brady and Fischer’s brother-in-law, Russell Targ, Bobby never engaged in long-term psychotherapy with any mental health professional.
As Bobby grew into adolescence, he clashed with his mother frequently and directly. According to BBC journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow, who wrote a book about Fischer, eventually Bobby and Regina could no longer live together, and in the fall of 1960, when Bobby was 17, she moved out of their Brooklyn apartment to live with a female friend in the Bronx. In an interview with journalist Ralph Ginzburg in August 1961, Bobby discussed the circumstances of his break from his mother.
Fischer: “After that [becoming an international grandmaster in 1958], I quit school.”
Ginzburg: “How did your mother feel about that?”
Fischer: “She and I just don’t see eye to eye together. She’s a square. She keeps telling me that I’m too interested in chess, that I should get friends outside of chess, you can’t make a living from chess, that I should finish high school and all that nonsense. She keeps in my hair, and I don’t like people in my hair, you know, so I had to get rid of her.”
This “break” was, in fact, anything but permanent or complete; Fischer and his mother would have an on-and-off relationship throughout his life. (Interestingly, as Bobby lay critically ill in a Reykjavik hospital, he was thinking of his mother, his brother-in-law wrote in his 2008 autobiography, Do You See What I See?)
According to Brady, the Fischer biographer, his mother was a concerned and devoted parent but could be domineering. It was clear she was highly talented, well educated and multilingual; in fact, after her children were on their own, Regina returned to Germany to finish medical school, earning both a medical degree and an eventual doctorate in hematology.
But raising Joan and Bobby as a single immigrant parent in the 1940s and 1950s was challenging, and Regina was constantly short of money. “Regina was financially desperate, so much so that, through a Jewish charity, she attempted to place her daughter, Joan, with another family,” Edmonds and Eidinow wrote. But this arrangement fell through, the foster mother asking Regina to take Joan back. Interestingly, the foster mother became suspicious of Regina, having seen chemical formulas on documents that she had left among her daughter’s belongings, and reported her to the FBI, which in 1942 began surveillance that would last three decades.
It is not surprising that the FBI would investigate the foster mother’s report about the chemical formulas. It was early in the Cold War, and Bobby’s mother and presumed father at the time, Hans Gerhardt Fischer, had lived in Russia for an extended period of time; both had high-level scientific training. The resulting FBI reports on Regina Fischer and the two men in her life, Hans Gerhardt Fischer and Paul Felix Nemenyi, reveal no espionage. But they do shed light on the unusual psychology and behavior of the mother of America’s greatest chess prodigy.
According to various entries in the FBI reports, eventually made public by journalists and biographers, Regina was bright and articulate but difficult to deal with. Soon after Bobby’s birth, Regina received a mandated mental health evaluation after being arrested for disturbing the peace in an incident that occurred when Regina and baby Bobby lived at a Chicago charity for indigent single mothers, the Hackett Memorial Home. After Joan’s foster arrangement fell through, Regina tried to sneak her into the facility, even though she’d been told there was no room for another child.
In its evaluation, the Chicago-based Municipal Psychiatric Institute diagnosed Regina as a “stilted (paranoid) personality, querulent [sic] but not psychotic.” The FBI apparently also thought her troubled. According to FBI reports, the bureau, at one point, felt it had exhausted the usefulness of clandestine surveillance of Regina, noting, “It appears the only logical investigation remaining would be an interview of the subject, but due to her mental instability, this line of action is not recommended.”
Regina Fischer had ambivalent feelings toward her son’s chess career. Early on, she encouraged Bobby to broaden his interest and friendship base beyond chess. As Bobby’s genius for chess became more apparent, however, Regina did all she could to support his passion. She was often involved in protests and demonstrations relating to Bobby’s chess career and U.S. chess in general. In 1960, for example, she picketed the White House because the State Department refused the national chess team’s request to play in the 1960 Chess Olympiad in East Germany. Interestingly, the person now alive who knew Regina and Bobby best, her son-in-law Russell Targ, remarked to me that “Bobby would never have become world champion without Regina.”
Regina Fischer died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 84 in Palo Alto, Calif. Bobby’s older sister Joan died of a cerebral hemorrhage a year later. These two losses, coming so close in time, would have a significant impact on Bobby’s developing psychological state.
With Regina’s death, her 750-page FBI file became publicly available. The first to read it were former Philadelphia Inquirer reporters Peter Nicholas and Clea Benson, and their investigative research is groundbreaking. A critical finding gleaned from the FBI report concerns the identity of Bobby’s biological father. Though we cannot be 100 percent certain without genetic testing, there is a plethora of convincing documentary evidence — from the FBI file and from elsewhere — that Paul Felix Nemenyi, rather than Hans Gerhardt Fischer, was Bobby’s biological father. At what point Bobby came to know the truth about his father is unclear. Suffice it to say, whether or when Bobby learned of his biological father’s identity would also have implications for his sense of identity and psychological development.
From early childhood, Bobby Fischer was fiercely independent, eccentric and lacking in conventional social skills. Contemporaries often felt his conduct went beyond mere eccentricity. In his book on Fischer, psychoanalyst Reuben Fine reflected that for many years “chess players approached me with the request to try to help Bobby out of his personal problems. In spite of his genius, he was socially awkward, provocative, argumentative and unhappy.”
Bobby’s inner turmoil and frustration would at times erupt into violence. Mike Franett, writing for BobbyFischer.net in 2000, interviewed former Fischer friend and chess master Ron Gross, who described a car trip in 1957 when Bobby, sitting in the back seat, seriously bit fellow chess player Gil Ramirez on the arm. Gross reported that the bite marks were visible years after the incident. Later in his life, Bobby would also act out violently when, according to journalist Ivan Solotaroff, he assaulted a former Worldwide Church of God member who he felt had betrayed his trust.
Journalists Nicholas and Benson describe a meeting at the Marshall Chess Club in New York City in the late 1950s during which Bobby’s emotional stability was discussed by the club’s board of governors. “[N]o one doubted the teenager’s talent. But his prickly behavior was alienating some of the wealthy sponsors whose support he would need to rise to the top,” Nicholas and Benson wrote. “‘Some of what he did was so outrageous it was decided maybe he had emotional problems,’ says [Allen] Kaufman, [a chess master and Fischer friend] who attended the meeting. What to do? Board members talked about finding a psychiatrist. They considered Reuben Fine, himself one of the giants of the game. Then someone raised a question: What if therapy worked? What if treatment sapped Fischer’s drive to win, depriving the United States of its first homegrown world champ? Meeting adjourned. No one, Kaufman recalls, wanted to tamper with that finely tuned brain.”
Grandmasters Robert Byrne and Pal Benko told Bobby directly that he should consider seeing a psychiatrist. Their comments are supported by observations of odd behavior made throughout Bobby’s life. In his New York Times obituary of Fischer, Bruce Weber noted that the chess champion made “outlandish demands on tournament directors — for special lighting, special seating, special conditions to ensure quiet. He complained that opponents were trying to poison his food, that his hotel rooms were bugged, that Russians were colluding at tournaments and prearranging draws. He began to fear flying because he thought the Russians might hide booby traps on the plane.”
For his book, Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was made into a motion picture, Fred Waitzkin interviewed Gross, who shared the following memories of a fishing trip to Ensenada, Mexico: “He looked terrible … clothes all baggy, wearing old beat-up shoes. … Then I noticed that he was favoring his mouth, and he told me that he’d had some work done on his teeth; he’d had a dentist take all the fillings out of his mouth. … I said ‘Bobby, that’s going to ruin your teeth. Did you have him put plastic in the holes?’ And he said, ‘I didn’t have anything put in. I don’t want anything artificial in my head.’ He’d read about a guy wounded in World War II who had a metal plate in his head that was always picking up vibrations, maybe even radio transmissions. He said the same thing could happen from metal in your teeth.”
After winning the world chess championship in 1972, Bobby lapsed into a period of isolation and growing paranoia, manifested primarily in virulent and vitriolic anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. These rants could be heard on radio broadcasts Bobby made in the Philippines and Hungary. Of course, Bobby’s mother and his probable father, Nemenyi, were Jewish. Edmonds and Eidinow, the BBC journalists, wondered whether some of the roots in Bobby’s hatred of Jews stemmed from rejection of his mother. In his 2003 mini-biography of Bobby, former 15-year world chess champion Garry Kasparov suggested Bobby’s anti-Semitism might be related to his conflicts with Jewish-American grandmaster Samuel Reshevsky, as well as his dislike of other Jews involved in the chess community, including wealthy sponsors and journalists. Kasparov adds another interesting observation: “I think Fischer’s anti-Semitism mania, which increased with the years, was largely associated with the domination of ‘Soviet-Jewish’ players. It seemed to him that they were all united against him with the aim of preventing him from becoming world champion. I remember Reshevsky telling me how, during the Interzonal tournament on Palma de Mallorca, with burning eyes Fischer informed him that he was reading a ‘very interesting book.’ ‘What is it?’ Sammy asked innocently. ‘Mein Kampf!’ Bobby replied.”
Regardless of the origins of Bobby’s unspeakable anti-Semitism, his anti-Jewish rantings, in time, alienated the majority of former allies, friends and supporters. That’s to say nothing of his comments following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made via a radio station in the Philippines. According to a 2002 Rene Chun article in The Atlantic Monthly, Fischer announced, “This is all wonderful news. I applaud the act. The U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians, just slaughtering them for years. Robbing them and slaughtering them. Nobody gave a shit. Now it’s coming back to the U.S. Fuck the U.S. I want to see the U.S. wiped out.”
The goal of a psychological autopsy is to assess the feelings, thoughts, behaviors and relationships of an individual who is dead. Such an evaluation is usually conducted without the benefit of direct observation, but often with more access to historical records and archives than would be available in a standard psychological assessment.Bobby Fischer was not a patient of mine, and I have not had access to any mental health records on him or his mother, save for those uncovered by journalists who obtained FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act. It is inappropriate of me to proffer a formal psychological diagnosis of Fischer, and in writing this assessment, I am guided by the ethical code of the American Psychological Association, which says that practitioners in my position should “document the efforts they made and the result of those efforts, clarify the probable impact of their limited information on the reliability and validity of their opinions, and appropriately limit the nature and extent of their conclusions or recommendations.”
With those qualifications and limits well in mind, I have come to believe Bobby had a genetic vulnerability to develop a mental illness, and that this predisposition — in concert with early life trauma and the burden of relentless media pressure — eventually led to serious mental health problems. My mental-illness hypotheses should be considered speculative and in need of independent scrutiny from other mental health professionals, who, in time, will have access to expanded archival documentation on the life of Fischer and his family.
Still, enough is known about Bobby Fischer’s life and family history — including the mental health history of his relatives — for me to reach some general conclusions.
Bobby’s likely biological father, Paul Nemenyi, was highly intelligent, an established mechanical engineer and technical author who, at one point, collaborated with Albert Einstein’s son, Hans Albert Einstein, on hydrology theory. But after emigrating from Hungary to the U.S. in 1939, Nemenyi had trouble adjusting, and at least a couple of his colleagues thought quite negatively of his character.
Nicholas and Benson uncovered documents in which Nemenyi was described as “an unstable and undesirable person” by a committee member of the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars and as “a misfit” by fellow Hungarian immigrant Theodore von Karman, a respected aeronautical scientist. Nicholas and Benson wrote that Nemenyi’s colleagues told them that he always walked around with soap in his pockets, frequently washed his hands and was very careful not to touch door handles. He also had an aversion to wool and would go to work in the winter with his pajamas sticking out from underneath his clothes because, he said, he was layering to keep warm.
According to the FBI files, staffers at Jewish Family Services in Los Angeles, with whom Nemenyi was sharing his concerns about the mental health of Regina and Bobby in 1947, reported that the “agency did not completely trust Nemenyi, as they considered him somewhat of a ‘paranoid type.’” The information on Nemenyi is limited, and the assertions in documents uncovered by Nicholas and Benson do not constitute definitive evidence of mental disorder.
The available anecdotal psychiatric evidence on Regina Fischer is more detailed. As I noted earlier, Regina’s FBI file documented a diagnosis of “stilted (paranoid) personality, querulent [sic] but not psychotic.” This diagnosis reflected the parlance of the mid-1940s and would be considered outdated today. Using the terminology of the current revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Regina Fischer exhibited traits consistent with paranoid personality disorder, a non-psychotic mental illness. (Keep in mind, however, that Regina had good reason to be suspicious; she was, in fact, kept under surveillance by the FBI for roughly three decades. And, according to Regina’s son-in-law, Russell Targ, the ongoing FBI surveillance hindered her ability to find steady employment.)
Assuming Nemenyi to be Fischer’s biological father, the chess champion had two half-siblings: a sister, Joan, born to Regina Fischer and Hans Gerhardt Fischer, and a brother, Peter, who was born to Bobby’s likely biological father, Nemenyi, and his wife. Like his father Paul, Peter was a gifted intellectual; he earned his doctorate in mathematics from Princeton and authored a respected book on statistics. According to Nicholas and Benson, however, Peter’s “end was unhappy. Sick with prostate cancer, he killed himself [in 2002]. He had been living alone in a Durham, N.C., apartment crammed with statistics papers. Friends say they often spotted him pushing a collection of shopping baskets around town, wearing oven mitts for gloves.” Again, there is not enough evidence to be confident of Peter Nemenyi’s mental state throughout his life, but in his final years it was certainly problematic.
I have found no information suggesting that Joan, Bobby’s half-sister, suffered from any mental disorder. In fact, it is clear that Joan was a reliable and consistent source of support for her brother, and it appears Bobby was as close to his big sister as he could be, given his interpersonal difficulties, general mistrust of others and paranoid tendencies.
It is my clinical intuition that Joan’s death, coming only a year after their mother’s passing, was a devastating loss to Bobby. His own grief process was further complicated: He could attend neither his mother’s nor his sister’s funeral for a very realistic fear that he would be arrested on arrival in the U.S. because of his violation of U.S. sanctions against Yugoslavia when he played his rematch against Spassky there in 1992.
A variety of authors have speculated about Bobby Fischer’s mental state. For example, Valery Krylov, a specialist in the “psycho-physiological rehabilitation of sportsmen,” who is cited in Garry Kasparov’s mini-biography of Fischer, believed Bobby suffered from schizophrenia. Krylov had worked with former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov for two decades and arrived at his diagnostic conclusion based on an examination of correspondence to and from Fischer, and published articles related to Fischer. A more recent and popular diagnosis surfacing in the literature suggests that Bobby suffered from Asperger’s Disorder.
In attempting to enhance the reliability and validity of a psychological assessment, clinicians form “differential diagnoses” that help to screen in and screen out potential “best bets” through a systematic, decision-tree process. In hypothesizing about Bobby’s mental status, a differential diagnosis could include the Asperger’s Disorder and schizophrenia (paranoid type) just mentioned, as well as paranoid personality disorder and delusional disorder.
Providing a detailed differential diagnosis of Bobby Fischer would require a much longer treatment of the topic than is possible here. I do provide such an expanded consideration in a book-length project in progress. For present purposes, suffice it to say that I believe Bobby did not meet all the necessary criteria to reach diagnoses of schizophrenia or Asperger’s Disorder. The evidence is stronger for paranoid personality disorder, which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) says “may be first apparent in childhood and adolescence with solitariness, poor peer relationships, social anxiety, underachievement in school, hypersensitivity, peculiar thoughts and language, and idiosyncratic fantasies. These children may appear to be ‘odd’ or ‘eccentric’ and attract teasing.”
In addition to paranoid behavior, in adulthood, Fischer clearly manifested the kind of non-bizzare delusions characteristic of the persecutory type of delusional disorder, which the DSM describes this way: “[T]he central theme of the delusion involves the person’s belief that he or she is being conspired against, cheated, spied on, followed, poisoned or drugged, maliciously maligned, harassed, or obstructed in the pursuit of long-term goals. Small slights may be exaggerated and become the focus of a delusional system. The focus of the delusion is often on some injustice that must be remedied by legal action (‘querulous paranoia’), and the affected person may engage in repeated attempts to obtain satisfaction by appeal to the courts and other government agencies. Individuals with persecutory delusions are often resentful and angry and may resort to violence against those they believe are hurting them.”
This DSM language appears to describe Bobby’s later life with a high degree of accuracy. Bobby did experience delusions that the Jews were out to destroy him, he was often involved in filing lawsuits (none of which he won), and he did turn violent on at least three occasions.
So my hypothesis about the course of Bobby Fischer’s mental illness can be summarized in this way: Bobby’s family history — particularly his mother’s possible mental illness — modestly predisposed him to paranoid personality disorder. Bobby had no father figure and perhaps did not even know who his real father was until later in life; he was raised by a single mother experiencing financial hardships and daily stress from FBI surveillance. These circumstances added to Bobby’s level of psychosocial stress and increased his vulnerability to mental illness. The stress and vulnerability were further magnified by his celebrity status and the unremitting media pressure that accompanied it.
As Bobby moved out of regular tournament play in the 1970s, he isolated himself, and his paranoia intensified. In some ways, the structure, demands and focus of chess tournaments may have confined or contained his paranoid thoughts and behaviors. In 1973, in what now seems almost a prophetic statement, Reuben Fine wrote, “Chess seems to have been the best therapy in the world for him.”
The psychosocial stressors on Bobby intensified in the 1980s and 1990s. He was named in an arrest warrant the State Department issued in connection with his Yugoslavia “rematch” with Spassky; he suffered the untimely loss of his mother and sister; he was arrested in Japan in 2004 in connection with the 1992 warrant; and he struggled for years to find a safe haven from U.S. arrest, finding one only in 2005, when he was granted full Icelandic citizenship. These varied and intense psychosocial stressors contributed to the presence of non-bizzare, persecutory delusions that were superimposed on a pre-existing paranoid personality disorder.
Over the half century since Regina Fischer first brought her son to the Children’s Psychiatric Division of Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, the fields of psychology and psychiatry have advanced considerably. If Bobby Fischer had been born in this decade, he and his family would, at least in theory, have access to a variety of psychological assessments and interventions.
First, the daily stress Regina Fischer suffered as a subject of FBI surveillance could have been reduced with appropriate treatment. She might have received supportive and cognitive-behavioral counseling to help her develop coping strategies for dealing with that stress, and she might also have gained access to legal or financial support from civil liberties groups. Given Bobby’s temperament, Regina could have benefited from parent training and support programs. Bobby’s sister Joan might have benefited from personal counseling, given the burdens of her responsibility for troubled relatives. And clearly, family counseling — something far more likely to occur today than in the 1940s, particularly with working-class families — could have helped the Fischers as a group.
If the hypothesis posited in this article is correct — that Bobby suffered from a genetically predisposed paranoid personality disorder — he could today receive treatment that includes the long-term individual psychotherapy often required to make progress with patients exhibiting paranoid symptoms. Generally speaking, such patients are difficult to treat, given their mistrust of the therapist and therapy process.
With regard to schooling, a 21st-century Bobby Fischer would likely receive special support services, including individual and group counseling, which he probably did not receive at Public School 3, from which he was expelled, or at Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School, from which he voluntarily dropped out at age 16. Too little is known about Bobby’s day-to-day behavior and affective state in elementary or high school to confidently recommend a particular medication regimen. But depending on the presence and intensity of coexisting symptoms — anxiety, depression and attention deficits in some subject areas — Bobby might well be prescribed a psychotropic medication.
And even though Bobby had an ambivalent relationship with his mother, he certainly could have used intensive grief and support counseling in 1997 and 1998, when his mother and sister passed away. Regina and Joan were Bobby’s lifelong advocates, and despite his struggles and challenges, he felt emotionally close to them.
Would Bobby Fischer have become a world chess champion if he had been involved in long-term individual psychotherapy, family therapy and special support services and, possibly, been prescribed a psychotropic medication? This question I cannot answer.
Perhaps psychological intervention and the structure it provides would have stabilized Bobby’s life and chess career. Psychological treatment could have equipped him with stress- and media-management coping skills; it could have provided techniques to bring his cognitive distortions and anti-Semitism under more control; it could have given him insight into his family history; and it could have supported him in developing and maintaining friendships and romantic partners.
If this cadre of interventions were successful, even in part, Bobby Fischer might very well have been world chess champion for a decade, rather than just three years, and a much happier person throughout his life.
But there is also the possibility that psychological intervention might have distracted Bobby from his chess focus and sapped the drive — the almost superhuman focus — that is a hallmark of genius. And this possibility is at the center of the larger question that Bobby Fischer’s troubled life raises: What can be done to help our most brilliant and talented citizens get the mental health treatment they need and deserve while ensuring that genius is not suppressed in the process?
Unfortunately, Bobby Fischer’s dramatic rise to world pre-eminence and equally dramatic descent into isolation and mental instability is a life path not unique to him or to chess. To be sure, Paul Morphy, the New Orleans chess prodigy who played a century earlier than Bobby, also lapsed into a state of delusion, in his case centered on belief that he was being persecuted by his brother-in-law, the executor of his father’s estate. But outside the field of chess, one can find countless examples of prodigies who succumbed to stress and intense career expectations. The musical genius of Michael Jackson, the acting and singing gift of Judy Garland, and the poetry and prose brilliance of Sylvia Plath represent but a few examples of promising talent undermined by mental health problems insufficiently dealt with, or left untended altogether.
Part of the psychological challenge for American “genius,” in particular, lies in this country’s cultural value system. It’s a system that places high emphasis on individualism and individual accomplishment, rather than group effort. The chess, math or piano prodigy senses early on the extreme pride that family members, coaches and teachers have in his or her “unique” ability. At the same time, the prodigy also may learn that he or she will be excused for untoward behavior because adults are reluctant to take any action that might slow or derail the development of a “star.” But that prospective star will likely also understand, very early on, the downside of life as a prodigy: Acclaim and special privileges continue only as long as genius shines.
Given stable childhoods and average genetic predispositions for dealing with stress, many prodigies manage such pressures well and become successful in their fields while achieving at least a semblance of life balance. Some prodigies, however — including Bobby Fischer, who had an unstable early family life, the pressure of early fame and, perhaps, a genetic tendency toward psychological difficulties — are not equipped to navigate life’s challenges without counseling intervention.
I won’t try here to describe all the programs and interventions that might foster psychological health in young people with special talents. Instead, I offer a brief outline of two primary areas in which early intervention could create better chances for our gifted and talented to achieve balanced lives.
Compared to young people who are identified, early on, as being at risk for learning disabilities or emotional-behavioral problems — to give just two of many possible challenges — children who have special intellectual or artistic talents are often assumed to be OK, psychologically, so long as their general academic performance is satisfactory. Because of their gifts, they are often left to their own devices and given few or no special support services.
Because the pressures on the exceedingly gifted are obvious and too often debilitating or deadly, I suggest that schools take formal steps to identify talented students early on and then to provide them with support systems that promote their special talent while, simultaneously, helping them connect with other spheres of academic and social life. Such support services could include individual counseling, parent training, and support and group counseling with other gifted students.
I also favor the creation of mentoring — or “big brother” and “big sister” — programs for extremely gifted children. At an awards show last fall, young musical sensation Justin Bieber thanked an older friend — Usher, who’d also been a musical phenomenon at an early age — for acting as his mentor on professional, personal and life-balance issues. Such one-on-one mentoring can be very beneficial to young talents as they learn to navigate the challenges a life of high expectations and achievement poses, and I see no reason schools can’t be more active in encouraging such pairings. There is already a wide literature on programs for gifted and talented youth and adolescents, and this is a critical area for continued research. But in some cases, at least, it may well take a genius to help a genius in the making.
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