Essays - Spring 2017

The Ultimate Pawn Sacrifice

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My brother’s life mirrored that of Bobby Fischer, the deeply troubled chess master

The author and his younger brother in New York City, circa 1945. Robert became “floridly psychotic” as a teenager. (Courtesy of the author)

By Jay Neugeboren

March 6, 2017


 

In the fall of 1957, soon after my younger brother Robert entered Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School, he joined the chess club. Bobby Fischer entered Erasmus that year, and he too joined the chess club. By then, Fischer was United States Junior Chess Champion, yet whenever Robert tried to get Fischer to play with him, Fischer refused, saying, “With you, Neugeboren, I don’t play.”

“Why not?” I’d asked my brother at the time.

“Because,” Robert said, “he said I played crazy.”

Watching Pawn Sacrifice, the 2014 movie about Fischer’s 1972 victory over Boris Spassky for the World Championship, I kept thinking about how young and gifted my brother and Fischer were once upon a time, and of the wonder, waste, and sad trajectories of their strangely parallel lives.


I gave Robert his first chess set. Bobby Fischer’s sister, Joan—like me, five years older than her brother—gave Bobby his first chess set. Fischer’s mother, Regina, was a registered nurse. So was our mother. Having divorced Fischer’s father when Bobby was two years old, Regina raised her two children as a single parent. Our parents never divorced, though they constantly threatened to do so, but because our father—blind in one eye and legally blind in the other—failed at every business he tried, it was our mother, often working double hospital shifts, who supported our family.

Robert recalled coming home from school one afternoon to find our mother standing in the middle of the living room, hammer in hand.

“Am I the only man around here?” she asked.

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Jay Neugeboren is the author of 22 books, including Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival, a memoir about his relationship with his brother. His stories and essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and The New York Times and have been reprinted in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.


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