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COLUMN ONE : Has Chess’s Bad Boy Grown Up? : Under indictment in the U.S., Bobby Fischer lives as an enigmatic, millionaire recluse in Hungary. At 50, he’s seen as having mellowed--somewhat--with age, but still is haunted by old demons.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a faceless suburban hotel shaded by dying trees and neo-socialist high-rises, chess legend Bobby Fischer lives sequestered in a two-room suite with his longtime companions, hate and paranoia.

He has been banished from his American homeland by threats of jail, spurned in his attempts at a comeback with a radical new version of the game and jilted by the only woman ever known to have won his love.

But those who relish the thought of the infuriating genius suffering a comeuppance for the insults and injuries that he has dealt out over the decades may be disappointed.

On the contrary, say those who move in his small and ever-changing inner circle, the brilliant bad boy of the chess world may have come as close as he can to a sense of peace.

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Now 50, with thinning hair and thickening waistline, Fischer is largely left alone in this inwardly focused country, where the press is less intrusive and the public more respectful of the privacy and personality quirks of its famous eccentrics.

He now has the money to indulge in exquisite dining and the leisure to dabble with his pet project of “shuffle chess.” The reprieve from self-imposed poverty in which he lived for much of his adult life came with a $3.3-million purse that he collected a year ago for a scandal-plagued triumph over Cold War adversary Boris Spassky.

Even the failed romance with a Hungarian chess star 30 years his junior, Zita Rajcsanyi, has done more good than harm to the prickly and reclusive Fischer, friends say. They credit her with enticing him out of destructive isolation and launching him on a path that one day may see the renowned recluse develop a normal life.

“He now goes for walks on the Vaci Utca shopping street or in the Buda hills. He still hates to be approached, but he has come a long way over the past year, and the world should be glad to have this champion back, because he is a genius like Leonardo da Vinci or Shakespeare, in his own way,” said an enthusiastic Janos Kubat, who organized last fall’s Fischer-Spassky tournament in the Yugoslav resort of Sveti Stefan. That competition led to a U.S. federal indictment of Fischer last December on criminal charges of having violated U.N. sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia for fomenting the Balkan war.

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By lending his name and reputation to the tournament in exchange for money, the former world champion was deemed to be “trading with the enemy” for the benefit of the scorned Belgrade regime.

Fischer had replied to a warning sent by the U.S. Treasury Department before the tournament by spitting on the government’s letter in front of the international press.

“If he sets foot in the United States, he’ll be picked up,” said Treasury press officer Bob Levine in Washington.

Fischer faces trial on charges that could bring fines of up to $250,000 or as much as 10 years in prison, consequences he apparently has chosen to avoid by staying abroad.

Whether he would like to make amends with the American government so that he might one day return home is a mystery. He declined a request for an interview; at least that seemed to be the answer when he wordlessly slammed down the phone.

But his friend, fellow grandmaster and de facto bodyguard, Eugenio Tore of the Philippines, said he doubts that Fischer longs for reconciliation with his unloved homeland.

“In America, he has no chance against his opponents. He has lost many cases already because he is always fighting alone, and you can’t fight against such a system,” Tore said, alluding to Fischer’s claims at a Sveti Stefan press conference that the CIA and other government agencies have spied on and harassed him.

In 1981, Fischer published a pamphlet titled “I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse,” an account of two days he spent in jail when police mistook him for a robbery suspect. A 1985 Sports Illustrated article about Fischer said he had removed fillings from his teeth to prevent an electronic takeover of his brain.

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Is Fischer content to live indefinitely in exile, to stay out of the reach of the Treasury’s enforcement arm?

“I can’t say if he’s content. He’s a very deep person,” said Tore, who has kept constant company with Fischer since acting as his second at Sveti Stefan.

Kubat, who was Fischer’s manager until six weeks ago, contended that his taciturn ex-client remains haunted by hateful attitudes toward Communists and Jews but is better inclined toward some parts of society than at any time in the last 20 years.

“When he is playing chess he is happy, but at other times he is still confronting his prejudices and inner struggles,” said Kubat.

By way of example, Kubat recalled that Fischer dismisses current world champion Gary Kasparov’s success as the result of conspiracy and cheating, denying any possibility that the former Communist and Russian Jew might be a more gifted player.

The 20-year-old Rajcsanyi, who lived with Fischer much of the time until he left Yugoslavia for Hungary in midsummer, contends that he also distrusts women and considers their opinions and intellect inferior to his own.

“He is very suspicious of women. He believes they all want to cheat him,” she told the Budapest daily Kurir in a lengthy interview last week. She said he blames this attitude on his mother, who he says often left him alone when he was a child.

Rajcsanyi said in a brief telephone exchange that her comments to Kurir had been accurately reported, but she declined to give another interview or say whether she was paid for telling her story to the Budapest tabloid.

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She and Fischer met, she said, after she started a correspondence with him in 1991 that led to sporadic telephone conversations and finally an invitation to go see him in Southern California. She spent six weeks there last year, staying with one of his friends but meeting with him every day. She said she took walks with him, talked about chess and listened to tirades about his “constantly repeated” obsessions.

Her appeals to his ego, arguing that the world would benefit from another chance to see his prowess at chess, as well as the destitution he endured in his single-room hide-out in Pasadena, persuaded him to abandon seclusion for the hyped comeback at Sveti Stefan.

That match replayed the surrogate superpower clash of 1972, when Fischer defeated Spassky for the world chess crown. He was stripped of the title three years later for refusing to play Soviet challenger Anatoly Karpov.

Asked why she thought Fischer became interested in her, Rajcsanyi told Kurir: “Because I didn’t want anything from him.”

That apparently included marriage, since she claims to have rejected a proposal while the two were staying at a spa town in a predominantly Hungarian area of Serbia last spring.

“He was rough,” Rajcsanyi said of Fischer’s stunned reaction to her rejection. “His behavior was very, very bad. . . . I don’t want to go into details, but he hurt those I love.”

Kubat, an ethnic Hungarian from Yugoslavia who recently resettled in Budapest to escape the nationalist fever tearing apart his country, likewise declined to say why he and Fischer have parted company, except that it was over a “moral issue” and had something to do with Rajcsanyi.

Despite their differences, Kubat said he continues to admire Fischer and contended that the renowned spoiled brat of the 1960s has matured into a more likable middle-aged man with a conscience.

“Fischer says that if he had known what kind of company was putting up the money for the Sveti Stefan tournament--a bank that has done such harm to its depositors--he would never have played under its sponsorship,” Kubat said of the prize money that rescued Fischer from a life of poverty.

The matches against Spassky, who collected $1.7 million for losing, were bankrolled by a shadowy Serbian millionaire who earlier this year absconded with the liquid assets of the bank he built on a pyramid scheme. The sponsor, Jezdimir Vasiljevic, now lives in hiding in Israel.

Despite the spats with his Hungarian acquaintances, Fischer has resettled in Budapest and appears bent on rustling up support here for his campaign to boost “shuffle chess.”

Fischer has been working with Hungarian grandmaster Pal Benko on a revised approach to the game that would allow the players to vary each opening by arranging the pieces in any pattern they would like.

“In this way, you don’t fall into prepared openings. It brings out the real talent in chess, because the player has to think,” the 65-year-old Benko explained. “Nowadays they play out 30 moves very quickly, because they have it memorized.”

Like Fischer, Benko believes the world crown has been going to younger and younger players because older players cannot compete in memorizing the numerous openings.

If the pieces were shuffled and draws or overnight adjournments forbidden, they said, chess would become a truer test of genius.

“It would be a more accurate demonstration of skill and art,” Tore insisted in an interview in the lobby of Fischer’s hotel, which he patrols to keep unwanted visitors away.

Fischer began pushing the reforms before the Sveti Stefan tournament, along with a special clock he devised that allows players to accumulate bonus time for endgame moves by using less than the allotted time for the opening and mid-game play.

So far, though, the only interest expressed in the revised game has been from Laszlo Polgar, the controversial father of Hungary’s superstar sisters, Judit, Zsuzsa and Zsofi. Judit, the world’s top-ranked female player, became a grandmaster at 15, beating by a month the record set by Fischer as the youngest player to earn the title.

Hungarian Chess Federation President Peter Kunos has high praise for the skills of the Polgar sisters, while denouncing their father as “primitive” and motivated to promote his daughters solely by a thirst for money.

When contacted about a possible interview, 24-year-old Zsuzsa Polgar said the family members charge $1,500 for each half-hour of their time.

Hungarian journalists and chess sources said Fischer recently spent time with the Polgars at their vacation home in the Danube River resort of Nagymaros to discuss a possible shuffle match with Judit, now 17.

While in Boston last month for an exhibition match, Zsuzsa Polgar confirmed that such a faceoff between her sister and Fischer was in the works and said that only a sponsor was lacking. She said the contest would be held as soon as prize money of $5 million or so could be secured.

Kubat said he had been searching for sponsorship during the last few months that he acted as Fischer’s manager, but had concluded there is little commercial enthusiasm for the revised game.

Kunos and most officials of the World Chess Federation--known by its French acronym, FIDE--reject the notion of shuffle chess, saying it amounts to tampering with an ancient art.

“It would be like revising soccer so that there are three balls and five goals,” said Kunos, who suspects Fischer is pushing the reforms, at least in part, as an excuse to avoid playing Kasparov in a classic match that many experts believe the Russian would win.

While Fischer spurns the limelight and lucrative offers to return to traditional play, his style and personality still influence the world of chess.

Those who have spent enough time with Fischer to fathom his way of thinking say he believes he should share in the proceeds of any event that makes money by using his name, be it a news report of tournament play on network television or publication of game moves in newspaper chess columns.

Tore said his companion was “very upset” that a movie that debuted this summer, “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” made use of his reputation without compensation or his consent.

It is Fischer’s standing insistence on $1 million for an interview that has inspired the Polgars and other chess professionals to consider the media as another market.

And Fischer’s temper tantrums and boycotts that once stunned the serenely intellectual world of chess have become second nature among his successors to the crown.

Kasparov, who despises FIDE for sanctioning the breakup of his 1985 contest with then-champion Karpov when the challenger edged close to winning, has refused to defend his title at the official world championship this year. Instead, he is playing Britain’s Nigel Short in a rival claim to the world crown that is being bankrolled by the Times of London.

Meanwhile, old nemesis Karpov and Dutch grandmaster Jan Timman are battling it out in Amsterdam at the official tournament widely considered the lesser of the two contests.

With his infamous moodiness now prevalent among top players and the quest for honors supplanted by a hunger for money, it seems in this season of searching for Bobby Fischer that, at least in spirit, the living chess legend was never lost.


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