Volume 77 / Number 37 - Feb. 13 - 19, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Shoshanna Bettencourt

Frank Brady, president of the Marshall Chess Club on W. 10th St.

Mentor helped young Bobby Fischer make right moves

By Caroline N. Jackson

The Marshall Chess Club in the West Village was once the stomping ground for Bobby Fischer, America’s first and only world chess champion, who died Jan. 18 in Iceland.

Although the chess grand master became known for his controversial comments later in life, Frank Brady, the nonprofit chess club’s president, remembers him as a tenacious, respectful young man who was dedicated to the game.

Marshall has been home to many greats and is one of the city’s oldest chess clubs. Here Fischer devoured Brady’s chess publication collection, played chess in the backroom by the fireplace with Brady, and competed in the 1965 Capablanca Chess Tournament in Havana, Cuba.

Frank J. Marshall started the club in 1915 with a group of fellow chess players.

“Frank J. Marshall was a U.S. champion, grand master and a great man,” Brady said. “In effect, all he did was play chess.”

The club started out above the venerable Keen’s Chop House on E. 36 St., and for a short time moved farther uptown.

As Brady recounted, in 1936, a group of wealthy men got together and bought the club’s current building at 23 W. 10th St.

“They wanted to have an upscale chess club with an apartment above for Marshall to live,” he said. Marshall lived there until his death. He gave exhibitions and would come downstairs to play. Now a large bust of him sits prominently in the second-floor chess room. Tenants now live above and their rent helps to pay for taxes, heat, upkeep and cleaning. “We just break even every year — and not even sometimes,” Brady said.

Brady met the chess master-to-be when he was in his late teens and Fischer was 10 or 11. Brady saw a group surrounding a table where Fischer was playing a quick match between tournament games. Brady said a man asked Fischer why he made a certain move and Fischer exclaimed, “Please, this is a chess game. This is brain surgery. Don’t ask me that.”

“It had a great impression,” said Brady. “He had this intensity and ability.”

As an executive at the United Chess Federation, one part of Brady’s job was to collect money to help chess players go overseas. Fischer would come to the office with his mother.

“She would come often. She was as bright or brighter than him and nice, too,” said Brady.

Fischer continued to visit Brady at the Marshall Chess Club, where Brady was writing the magazine Chessworld out of the office before he became the club’s president. They would play speed chess, though Fischer would give Brady twice as much time to make his moves. He said Fischer would read chess books 12 to 14 hours a day and could memorize numerous, entire games.

“He was like a Zen Buddha — he devoted his life to chess,” said Brady. “Going into a tournament with 12 players, he knew what each of them played two weeks ago and two years ago.”

In 1965, Fischer wanted to play in a big championship in Havana but the U.S. wouldn’t let him visit that country. The Cubans sent a 100,000 A.P. teletype machine to transmit Fischer’s moves and he played from the Marshall Chess Club. Brady refereed the tournament and Fischer came in second.

“He played 18 faceless opponents and it took a long time,” Brady said. “It was really grueling on him”

Fischer won the World Chess Championship against Russian Boris Spassky in 1972. It was the first time an American had won and ended the Russians’ long dominance of the championship.

“When I sat in the crowd when he was getting the World Championship award, my eyes welled up,” said Brady. “He was Bobby, he was an American, he was my friend. He was the greatest player this country ever produced and probably the best player ever to live.”

Fischer didn’t play another game professionally until 1992 when he and Spassky had a rematch in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. By going there, Fischer ignored a United Nations embargo, and he never returned to the U.S. He went on to become known for his anti-Semitic and anti-American statements made via overseas radio. Fischer was Jewish himself.

Brady said Fischer’s “aberrant” comments upset him but that is not why their friendship ended. Brady’s book on Fischer, “Profile of a Prodigy,” upset him.

“Bobby didn’t like my book. One reason was I said he was Jewish,” Brady said. “Our relationship soured from that point on.”

Brady has a couple of theories about why Fischer may have become anti-Semitic later in life. He said Fischer often complained to Brady about his mother’s Jewish friends and their intellectual conversations.

“He didn’t like talk. You could spend hours with him and not talk,” said Brady. “He wanted to split from his Jewish mother.”

A man who accompanied and financed many of Fischer’s trips around the world to play in chess tournaments may also have influenced his ideology. E. Forry Laucks was a multimillionaire who Brady says wore a swastika on his lapel and had Nazi flags in his home.

“He had a good heart but he was a neo-Nazi,” said Brady. “I’m jumping to conclusions but it’s possible he was influenced by this man.” Brady said that when Fischer was younger he never heard him make an anti-Semitic comment and he was very respectful of religion.

At the end of his life, Fischer had someone write Brady for him after seeing a YouTube video in which Brady talks about Fischer. In the video, Brady was describing a memory of Fischer where he was eating a caviar sandwich and drinking a Lowenbrau at the club even though alcohol is not allowed, but Brady couldn’t bring himself to tell him to stop.

“He liked that I remembered that little thing about him,” Brady said. “He was really reaching out, he was on his deathbed.”

Brady says Fischer changed the game, and although he sees some youngsters coming up at Marshall Chess Club, including Hikaru Nakamura, the youngest American to ever become a chess master, he doesn’t see an American player winning the World Chess Championship in the near future.

Brady said Fischer’s impact on the game was like that of no one else.

“We’re all still affected by Fischer,” he said. “The fact that every weekend there are 50 chess games played in this country and there were five before ’72 is because of him. A lot of kids still want to be the next Bobby Fischer.”

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