Reports | December 29, 2010 7:42

A Psychological Autopsy of Bobby Fischer

A Psychological Autopsy of Bobby FischerWhat 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? These and other issues are discussed in a Miller-McCune research essay.

Chess player Bobby Fischer’s tortured life illustrates why promising young talents deserve better support programs, argues Joseph G. Ponterotto in his research essay A Psychological Autopsy of Bobby Fischer.

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.’”

-->Read the essay here


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Peter Doggers's picture
Author: Peter Doggers

Founder and editor-in-chief of, Peter is responsible for most of the chess news and tournament reports. Often visiting top events, he also provides photos and videos for the site. He's a 1.e4 player himself, likes Thai food and the Stones.


noyb's picture

Poor recitation of old fiction and a few facts. "Smart Journalism"? Nay, Sad Rehash!

Wim's picture

Excellent narrative story. And self explaining looking at life nowadays!

Moyvore's picture

If Fisher's issues were reviewed in the context of the scientific journals Biological Psychiatry and Biological Psychology, there would not be any discussions of possible psychotherapy protocols that might have been deployed.

Instead, there would likely have been predictions of brain oxidative stress / inflammation and EEG connectivity aberations.

(Both involved in schizophrenia and autistic spectrum disorders.)

There are now emerging protocols to address DSM-IV issues of this type that have nothing to do with talk therapy or prescription drugs. (Antioxidant cocktails / anti-inflammatory lipid combinations and sophisticated EEG biofeedback connectivity training.)

Unfortunately, most garden-variety shrinks haven't received training in or are even aware of these interventions.

Of course, unless you're a threat to either yourself or others, everything requires patient / client consent. Unless Fisher was somehow persuaded that EEG training might improve his working memory capabilities or anti-oxidants might address his physical ailments, it is very unlikely he would consider them.

So far as he was concerned, he was perfectly sane.

Vooruitgang's picture

Perhaps it was it "heightened awareness" and not paranoia concerning his fear of the FBI, KGB and the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union.

Septimus's picture

Nice find! That was quite a detailed essay.

Calvin Amari's picture

Part of the tragedy is that this drivel is probably about as incisive as psychiatry gets.

Septimus's picture

Really? I take it that you are now the expert?

Jock Doubleday's picture

Well said, Calvin Amari. The medical magi will soon classify everything as a disease -- even success. Did you know that doing an excellent job is now classified as OCD? Yes, it's true.

Heraclitos beggar's picture

Just another ‘What if…’ scenario about Fischer with no particular scientific basis. A mishmash of ‘psychiatric’ theories and most certainly arbitrary conclusions.
The theory that Bobby ‘suffered’ from the Asperger’s disorder (a mild form of autism) is perhaps the only theory with some serious probability.
Asperger’s disorder is quite common among gifted persons with particular inclination towards specific subjects (Mathematics by a percentage of 95%) and the typical symptoms are also very much typical for Fischer’s idiosyncrasy.
What would have happened, had he been provided with ‘Help’ e.t.c is pure mathematical Chaos and therefore cannot be answered.
Linking one’s spiritual achievements and performance with his autism is as evident and natural as saying: we live because we breathe (and vice versa).
Exceptional (out of the ordinary) chess talent is a natural charisma that cannot be manipulated. Either you got it, or not, whether you are ‘normal’ (like say Capablanca, Botvinik ,Kramnik) or ‘disordered’ (like say Morphy,Rubinstein ,Ivanchuk).
Thus, it is my belief that the most serious deduction is the one by the great Reuben Fine that ‘Chess is the best treatment for Bobby’ , meaning that he had the extremely rare luck –for an autistic person- to be able to take life in his OWN hands ,early enough, doing what he was bound to do (by mother nature and not by being the guinea pig of Psychiatric and Psychoanalytical Labs), having of course a certain social approval and consent for what he did best.

Anthony's picture

Psychobabble of the worst kind.

The fact that Fischer was pissed of with the world just shows that he was saner than most.

It is also useful to keep in mind that it was the Soviet Union that made the first great headway with using psychiatry as a tool to quell dissent.

In this day and age of growing awareness of Mossad/CIA involvement in 9/11 Bobby stands vindicated.

It's better for mere mortals to start doing some soul searching on why they actually believe they are well off and live in a 'free country'.
Better than explaining away Bobby's unpleasant convictions away as mental illness.

The simple fact is: it is not a sign of good health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

Mark McCready's picture

Voyeuristic, uninformative and unfocused from start to finish.

Doesn't tell us anything new at all.

Frits Fritschy's picture

"Poor recitation of old fiction and a few facts." "Voyeuristic, uninformative and unfocused from start to finish." "Psychobabble of the worst kind."
Well, these are really well-documented opinions. I like the effort you put in finding counter arguments, and the way you leave your opinion open to doubts.
It's you lot that really impressed me!

Rob Brown's picture

A typical pop psychology article, but interesting, especially the anecdote about Fine only being able to keep Bobby coming to therapy by beating him at chess.

Dan Warren's picture

I can never know but my son is high functioning autistic and I would be surprised if Bobby Fischer wasn't somewhere on the spectrum. Obviously on the high functioning end. In the documentary I saw the way he was described could have been my boy. I just hope it ends up working out better for my boy when I have passed away.

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