“Chess doesn’t drive people mad, it keeps mad people sane.” – Bill Hartston, British chess champion

The Bobby Fischer biopic Pawn Sacrifice implies that a brilliant mind obsessed with chess is at risk for madness: the threat is that closed system of logic with a massive amount of possibilities can bring you close to some kind of edge of sanity, a rabbit hole towards a maddening peak at the true vastness of the universe. Peter Sarsgaard’s Fr. William Lombardy ominously predicts Bobby’s unraveling by recounting a story about 19th century American chess legend Paul Morphy, who also had a short and illustrious chess career followed by a life of personal failures and mental illness. But, while Bobby Fischer’s antics were highly documented, extreme and political, Paul Morphy’s supposed madness is a bit more of a myth grown larger in the shadow of Bobby Fischer’s rocky life.

Paul Morphy

Paul Morphy

By the late 1850s, Louisiana-born Paul Morphy had proved himself on the world chess-playing stage. He had challenged every strong player in Europe, and was heralded by many to be the best in the world. By the time he returned home in 1859 at age 22, he had already resolved to retire from chess and focus on a law career. Unfortunately, two years later his law practice halted because of the American Civil War. After the war ended, he was unable to reestablish his law career, and settled into living on his family’s fortune, but still refused to return to chess, possibly because at the time chess players were considered to be on the same level as gamblers. Despite his seeming embarrassment over it, he continued to be interested in chess until he died. Until Bobby Fischer, who lived and breath chess, Morphy seemed to see it more as a hobby, possibly a guilty pleasure.

As for his madness, according to some stories circulating he suffered from a delusion that his brother-in-law had defrauded him and was trying to poison him. Several letters from his best friend Charles Maurian note Morphy had been “deranged,” and “not right mentally.” In 1882 his mother, brother, and a friend tried to commit him to a Catholic-run sanitarium called Louisiana Retreat, but he was so well able to argue for his rights and sanity that they sent him away.

Two years later he was dead at 47 from a heart attack he suffered after going for a long, hot walk and immediately getting into an ice-cold bath. His niece Regina Morphy-Voitier later published a pamphlet detailing some of his strange behavior which includes a claim that the bath he died in was surrounded by women’s shoes, and that he had a similar arrangement in his bedroom. Chess historian Edward Winter, however, calls Morphy-Voitier’s pamphlet is full of “lurid figments,” and that the shoes arrangement in his living quarters were his own. Another of Morphy-Voitier’s claims is that at one point her uncle had taken to pacing around his porch saying, “He will plant the banner of the Castille on the walls of Madrid, screaming : The city is conquered and the little King will have to go.”

Although there seem to be some parallels between Morphy, and Fischer, Bobby Fischer’s obsessions, delusions, and skewed worldviews seemed to go much deeper. In 1962, at age 19, he wrote an article for Sports Illustrated titled “The Russians Have Fixed World Chess.” In 1967 he left a tournament because he was asked to play a game on the Sabbath. This early kernel of suspicions against the Russians, led him to suspect other large swaths of humanity, including Jews, the United States, and the entire world.


“[In chess] what is only complex is mistaken for what is profound.” – Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders of Rue Morgue”


At one point Fischer has all the fillings taken out of his mouth to prevent the CIA from spying on him. Like depicted in Pawn Sacrifice, he would regularly take apart hotel rooms looking for bugs, complained of cameras being too loud during the 1972 showdown with Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, and then asked the match to be played in a ping-pong room.

After he won the significant championship, he told the press he needed to play more chess because he felt he hadn’t played enough, but by the end of the year, his world was starting to shift. He told Johnny Carson, “I woke up the day after the thing was over and I just felt different, like something had been taken out of me.” Unable to center himself in a world not oriented with chess at it’s center, Bobby turned his obsessions to religion and politics. For a while he was involved with an extremist end times religious group called the Worldwide Church of God, but lost faith in them after their prophecies didn’t come true. Until his death January 17, 2008 in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he received asylum from a U.S. warrant against him for violating UN sanctions by playing a 1992 game in Serbia against his long-tim antagonist Boris Spassky, he harbored a deep hatred for Jews and the United States.

In 2001, Fischer said the 9/11 attacks agains the U.S. was “wonderful news . . .I was happy and could not believe what was happening,” he said in a radio interview. “All the crimes the US has committed in the world. This just shows, what goes around comes around, even to the US.”

While chess contains a dizzying array of possibilities and is fueled by the self-challenging drive of competition and defeat (Bobby Fischer said that he liked breaking his opponent’s ego,) the rest of life is frighteningly less predictable and controllable than a game of chess. In Fischer’s case, his international and racial paranoia both helped give meaning to his drive to winning after already proving himself against the best players of the world, and helped him make sense of a world dizzyingly more ambiguous than chess. Conspiracy theories are psychological comforts we cling to when we feel uncertain about our situation. When we feel overwhelmed and out of control, even if we are usually skeptics, are more inclined to cling to something, anything, to make sense of everything.

The myth of genius is often linked to intense psychological difficulties, and there is some degree of truth to this connection. Brains who can make more connections than others can solve more problems, and be more creative, but an increased ability to make connections can send brains down dangerous paths, unable to filter which connections are valid, or just better not thought about.

As the movie suggests, Fischer grew up with his Jewish Russian immigrant mother who was involved in leftist movements. It’s implied that he turned to chess to focus his mind while listening to adults in his apartment discuss large and terrifying things. The chess obsession may have offered momentary comfort, but not dealing with the fear associated with his childhood peak into a scary adult world might have led to his later spiral out of control.

What exactly was troubling Bobby Fisher was never formally diagnosed, but the film uses the paranoid and anti-Semitic letters he sent his sister, and his obsession with being bugged and watched, to suggest that he was paranoid, delusional, and psychotic. This behavior could suggest schizophrenia, or something called paranoid delusional disorder. Either way, his problems left him isolated and destitute for most of his life.

There can be many metaphors and insights made from gameplay, but all the truth we can find is not isolated in the game of chess. It is too neat, too clean. Games of logic are in many ways an escape from our strange world that even the most brilliant minds cannot wholly make sense of. Fischer once said that he devoted “98 percent” of his mental energy to chess,” which indicates an unhealthy obsession that could trigger or exacerbate any underlying psychiatric problems. Our bodies (including our brains) thrive on some degree of balance, and devoting ourselves so wholly to any one thing can leave us starving in some degree or another.

Read more about Bobby Fischer, chess, and madness:



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