The FBI investigated American chess champion Bobby Fischer in the 1960s after the Cold War icon created a controversy at a tournament in Cuba, where he famously played against Fidel Castro, according to newly disclosed documents.
The FBI dossier, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, shows the bureau’s Mexico City office began probing the one-time chess prodigy after a tumultuous headline-grabbing trip to Havana.
Fischer was a Cold War hero who would ultimately best the Soviets at a game they had dominated, at a time when beating Communists stirred national passions.
Before ascending to take the world crown in an historic 1972 match against Russia’s Boris Spassky, the Brooklyn-reared Fischer traveled the globe to play in chess tournaments.
Trip to Cuba
In 1966, Fischer flew to Havana, leading the U.S. delegation at the 17th Chess Olympiad, a top international competition. It was an era when Washington tightly controlled travel to Communist nations – U.S. officials, in fact, had rejected Fischer’s bid to compete there in a tournament a year earlier.
Once in Cuba, Fischer sparked an international stir when he refused to play against the Soviets because the match would be on a Saturday, conflicting with his religious practices. The Soviets were outraged and protested.
The controversy drew worldwide press coverage, and chess officials intervened. Fischer got his way and the match was rescheduled.
The FBI interviewed several sources it considered reliable about the incident. One unnamed source asserted the American chess team “had attempted to embarrass the Cuban Government in order to prevent any future world championship from being held in Cuba.”
Among the opponents Fischer faced in the rescheduled matches: Spassky. Fischer took an early lead but then made a crucial mistake and ended with a draw. The American team went on to take second place to the Russians largely due to Fischer’s extraordinary performance.
At another point during his stay in Cuba, Fischer played against Castro. Both sides got advice from chess masters, and Castro won.
The friendly competition, including a congratulatory handshake at the end of the event, was captured in news photographs. The documents released by the FBI do not discuss the Fischer-Castro meeting. It’s unclear whether the match is addressed in the passages withheld by the bureau.
The dossier is 12 pages, but portions were redacted by the FBI, which claimed sections should remain shielded from public view because of national security, privacy and other reasons.
Fischer’s refusal to play on Saturday was not the only part of his trip to raise questions in the FBI dossier. He did not leave Cuba with the rest of the U.S. team, and extended his visit. The FBI file does not document what Fischer did there after the matches were over.
One bureau report quoted an unnamed source who “felt it unusual that when the team returned to the United States, Fischer remained on in Cuba. He felt maybe Fischer wanted to see what the Castro regime was accomplishing.”
The FBI decided to re-examine whether Fischer’s 1966 trip to Cuba was “authorized.” The file later documented the trip to the tournament was valid.
FBI agents in Mexico City and Washington not only interviewed sources, they also combed through documents such as Fischer’s birth certificate, travel records, letters and other information on file at the U.S. Department of State’s passport office.
The FBI compiled a four-page biography of Fischer, from his birth in Chicago to his Brooklyn childhood and his chess triumphs. The bio recounts trips for tournaments around the world, including matches in Russia and Yugoslavia, and details how Fischer lost his passport in Buenos Aires in 1960.
The FBI also examined documents about Fischer’s proposed trip to Cuba a year before the events that spurred its investigation. In April 1965, Fischer was invited to compete in Havana at a tournament named after the legendary Cuban champion, Jose Raul Capablanca.
The documents obtained from the FBI detailed Fischer’s repeated attempts and subsequent rejections to compete in the tournament late that summer. Two publications wanted Fischer to write about his trip. One was the magazine Saturday Review, which wanted a story about Cuba. The second was Chess Life.
Though Fischer would go on to author a notable book about chess, he had little professional writing experience at that time.
Passport officials rejected his 1965 bid to visit Cuba. They noted U.S. rules at the time did not deem chess tournaments a valid reason to visit the Communist country. They also “doubted Fischer would qualify as a bona fide journalist.”
While Fischer did not travel to Havana in 1965, he still played in the Capablanca tournament, competing via telegraph from the Marshall Chess Club in New York. He tied for second through fourth places – an unusual accomplishment that helped put chess on the map in America.
When Fischer finally did go to Cuba in 1966, he did not pursue any journalistic ambitions. A review of magazine articles published by the now defunct Saturday Review show no stories about Cuba by Fischer in the aftermath of his trip. A spokesman for Chess Life said that while he did write a few stories for the publication, none were about the matches in Cuba.
There is another notable omission in the portions of the documents released by the FBI: There’s no mention that Fischer’s mother, Regina, had been tracked by the feds from about 1942 until 1967 for suspicion of Soviet espionage. That investigation never led to charges.
Fischer’s FBI documents were obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, which calls on the agency to release certain documents to the public once the person has died.
There is no evidence that the Fischer dossier ever reached the desk of then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, whose long tenure included amassing files on hundreds of public figures who had not committed crimes – a practice decried by many critics.
Fischer is largely remembered as the troubled boy genius who faded into solitude but never obscurity. In 1992, U.S. officials barred him from a rematch with his old rival Spassky in Yugoslavia, a country that was falling apart and, in the wake of Serbian domination, was the subject of a United Nations embargo. In response, Fischer infamously spat on the order, and left the United States.
He faced prosecution on tax charges. On occasion, he emerged to grant rare interviews, in which he would spew anti-Semitic and anti-American venom.
Fischer referred to the attacks of September 11, 2001, as “wonderful news” and repeatedly called for the toppling of the U.S. government and the imprisonment of the Jewish people. Despite his tarnished public image, Fischer is also remember by many as the greatest chess player in American history
Fischer died January 17, 2008 of renal failure at the age of 64 and is buried in Iceland.