It Seems Like Yesterday

Bobby Fischer with Horse new scan_ USE lg

Bobby Fischer was actually the opposite of what I expected.

The impression everyone had before meeting him was that he was effete and small, but the chess genius was actually tall, standing 6’2”, a strong, healthy man who worked out regularly and drank nothing but orange juice. His actions were big and lumbering until, amazingly enough, he touched his chess pieces with the softness of a wand. He would pick them up and put them down gracefully with no fanfare, no banging of the board.

When I was with him, Bobby wanted to talk about sports constantly: Joe Namath, the New York Jets, and Mohammed Ali. I’m sure that’s why we got on together—along with the fact that I knew nothing about chess, which he liked. I knew not to discuss chess as he considered those who approached him with questions or theories, including the Grandmasters, to be, in his own words, “morons.”

While in Iceland during the World Championship match in 1972, we would go out walking on the lava field, and occasionally he would stop in the middle of a conversation, go into his inside pocket, take out a mobile chessboard, look at it, make a couple of moves, and then return it to his pocket without saying a word.

After our walks, we would go back to the hotel, have an early breakfast, and Bobby would take a nap before the day’s chess match. Every day before the match, he would laugh and tell me, “I’m going to crush him.” And he usually did.

Bobby and I would walk in the lava fields each night around 3 a.m. in the midnight sun, as there was less than an hour of darkness each night. One night, several wild horses in the distance came toward us. At first, Bobby was slightly apprehensive, until a white horse came over to Bobby and started to rub his cheek. “He likes me, Harry, he really likes me,” Bobby said, surprised.

I also had the pleasure of telling Fischer he was the new world champion. That day, before the match began, I was to photograph the Russian chess champion Boris Spassky at the Saga Hotel where he was staying. Spassky and I walked into the lobby at the same time. He came over to me and said, “There is a new world champion: Robert James Fischer,” and I replied, “I am going for a walk in the fresh air.” I rushed over to Bobby’s room at the Loftleider Hotel and gave him the news.

I then went to the hall where they were supposed to play the match. The New York Times reporter was there, and I told him Fischer was the new champion. My story made the front page of the Times the next day. The reporter told me I had gotten “the exclusive of the summer.” It was the end to an incredible summer that remains unforgettable.