The Citizenship Odyssey of Bobby Fischer

written by A. L. Hart Havens on October 15, 2021

Bobby Fischer is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary people in recent world history. Regarded by many as the greatest strategic mastermind in the game of chess that ever lived, Fischer was also a prolific writer and a frequent guest on 1970s TV programs and specials hosted by the likes of Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Bob Hope.

And at the peak of his dominance of international chess, he appeared on the covers of prominent magazines and was often described as the most famous person on planet earth.

However, Fischer’s personal life was shaped by a grueling and protracted conflict with the US government that eventually escalated into an international manhunt, an extradition attempt, and a diplomatic row involving several foreign governments.

The combination of his quirky and eccentric personality, odd behaviors, and extremely high IQ garnered Fischer immense public attention, which was amplified by frequent suggestions by the news media that he suffered from mental health issues and harbored extreme anti-American and anti-Semitic sentiment (despite being born and raised in America by a Jewish mother).

This essay covers the incredible story of the combative, controversial, and enigmatic persona that was Bobby Fischer and touches on the pertinent themes of second passports, citizenship renunciation, extradition, and statelessness that Fischer experienced in his turbulent life and times.

In addition to the many parallels that can be drawn with the tumultuous life of the recently-suicided John McAfee, Fischer’s journey is one that also warrants discussion of Edward Snowden, Garry Kasparov, both presidents Bush, Boris Spassky, and Boris Johnson. So look forward to those honorable mentions below.

A High-Stakes Cold War Showdown

The height of the Cold War, the heated US-Soviet rivalry briefly shifted its focus away from proxy wars, space exploration, and Olympic medals toward the game of chess. The 1972 World Chess Championship held in Reykjavík, Iceland featured a matchup of the two superpowers’ best chess players – Boris Spassky vs. Bobby Fischer – in what was hyped as The Match of the Century.

In the leadup to the match, the fresh-faced 29-year-old Bobby Fischer boldly attributed the Soviet Union’s 24-year dominance of the sport to the rigging of world chess tournaments in an article he penned entitled The Russians Have Fixed World Chess. Unsurprisingly, the defending world champion Spassky was under tremendous pressure from the Soviet government to keep the winning streak alive.

And it looked like the 35-year-old Spassky would indeed claim victory after Fischer sought to leave Iceland after losing the first game and forfeiting the second. However, Fischer eventually agreed to continue after several demands were met pertaining to his complaints about loud camera noises and the brightness of the room lighting. The Soviet side responded with accusations that Fischer was using electronic devices and chemicals in an attempt to alter Spassky’s thinking.

When the third game finally got underway after a great deal of theatrics and distraction, Spassky encountered a much different Fischer who was focused and living up to his pedigree as world’s highest-rated player. At the completion of the 21-game match, Fischer had defeated Spassky soundly by a score of 12.5 to 8.5 and was crowned the new world champion of chess.

Fischer was celebrated as a superstar upon his return to New York, and his victory led to an unprecedented boom in the popularity of chess across the United States and the world. He was promptly offered a series of lucrative product endorsement arrangements (worth over $30 million in today’s money) but declined all of these offers for no apparent reason.

Fischer remained idle from competitive chess for the next three years due to a lack of quality challengers before Soviet contender Anatoly Karpov emerged in 1975 as a worthy opponent. However, when Karpov refused to agree to Fischer’s non-negotiable conditions concerning the number of games and other rules, the match was called off and Fischer was forced to forfeit his world champion title. He subsequently disappeared from the public eye for nearly 20 years, a period in which he briefly resurfaced in 1977 to play and easily defeat MIT’s new chess supercomputer.

Drawing the Ire of the US Government

A bearded and balding Fischer reemerged in 1992 after two decades of relative obscurity with an announcement that he would be playing Spassky again in what would be billed as The Revenge Match of the 20th Century. The contest was set to be held in Yugoslavia, which at the time was experiencing widespread ethnic violence and an impending breakup into smaller countries following the fall of communism.

Much to Fischer’s dismay, the International Chess Federation refused to designate the match as a world championship, as Garry Kasparov of Russia was now the officially recognized world champion. But with the two legends both staking a claim to being the world’s premier player, the prospect of a Fischer-Kasparov showdown loomed large over the Spassky rematch, as Spassky’s play had declined over the years and he was not viewed to pose a serious challenge to Fischer.

However, prior to the start of the rematch, Fischer received notification from the US Treasury Department that his participation would be considered illegal and in violation of the UN embargo on commercial activities in Yugoslavia, which then-president George H. W. Bush signed into US law via Executive Order 12810.

Completely undeterred by the threat of prosecution, Fischer commented in a televised press conference that “this is my reply to their order not to defend my title” before defiantly spitting on the Treasury Department’s letter. A video clip of this provocative and amusing incident can be found on Youtube.

Fischer indeed kept his word and showed up focused and ready to play. And as expected, the rematch was less competitive and less intriguing than the 1972 contest, with Fischer this time cruising to victory against Spassky (who incidentally had acquired French citizenship since the first meeting).

This would set the stage for Fischer vs. Kasparov – the greatest clash of titans that the sport of chess had ever seen. In fact, both Fischer and Kasparov are still to this day often regarded to be among the top three chess players of all time (alongside the longstanding current world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway).

The highly-anticipated match with Kasparov was not to be, however, as Fischer’s reemergence from seclusion proved to be very short-lived. Following his victory over Spassky in Yugoslavia, the US government issued a warrant for Fischer’s arrest, prompting him to go into hiding as a fugitive.

Fischer would spend the next dozen years in different countries successfully eluding capture, predominantly in Hungary, Japan, and the Philippines, where he would occasionally appear as a guest on radio shows. His animosity toward the US government boiled over on September 11, 2001, when on a Philippine radio show he emphatically praised the 9/11 attacks that had taken place several hours earlier as “wonderful news.”

This obviously did little to help Fischer’s cause. And the US government, which would soon be emboldened by the tremendous powers afforded by the Patriot Act, was certainly in no mood to let Fischer off the hook.

Japanese Prison and Icelandic Sanctuary

In July of 2004, Fischer’s stint as a fugitive came to an abrupt end when he was apprehended at the Tokyo-Narita Airport while boarding a flight to the Philippines. The Japanese authorities – likely at the behest of the US authorities – arrested and jailed Fischer for the crime of presenting an invalid passport.

Fischer, who was now sporting a longer beard and a quite disheveled appearance, was unaware that the validity of his passport had been revoked several months earlier in connection with his outstanding arrest warrant (due to his participation in the 1992 Yugoslavian chess match).

Now holed up in a Japanese jail cell, Fischer grew desperate to avert his impending deportation to the United States, where he was facing a lengthy prison sentence if convicted. During this time, he unsuccessfully attempted to renounce his US citizenship via a handwritten letter. This declaration, combined with the revocation of Fischer’s passport, has given rise to the frequently asserted but false claim that Fischer actually lost his US citizenship.

As an aside, it is notable that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden never lost his US citizenship despite the government’s cancellation of his US passport. And after more than eight years of residency in Russia, Snowden is now reportedly pursuing Russian citizenship.

Fischer and the news media were seemingly oblivious to the difficulty of renouncing US citizenship, as prospective renunciants must (among other things) demonstrate a squeaky-clean tax-compliance record before they are permitted to renounce, and even then the process can take up to a year to complete. It is highly unlikely that Bobby Fischer had been properly filing US tax returns every year while living a fugitive lifestyle abroad.

The federal government website Quarterly Publication of Individuals Who Have Chosen to Expatriate contains a list of the first, middle, and last names of all individuals who have renounced US citizenship since 1997. It arguably constitutes nothing more than a name-and-shame list aimed at discouraging renunciation and a departure from the US tax net, as there is no other discernible reason for the government to make this information publicly available.

Bobby Fischer (Robert James Fischer) is nowhere to be found in this database, although it does contain some other notable people such as the NYC-born UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who renounced in 2017 after being hit with a giant tax bill from the IRS despite not having lived or worked in the United States. This is due to the US government’s policy of citizenship-based taxation. After an initial reaction of defiant outrage, Johnson eventually paid the bill and was only then permitted to renounce US citizenship and avoid incurring any further US tax obligations.

It is worth noting that a successful renunciation would not have helped Fischer in his bleak situation, as the US government can prosecute former Americans as US citizens for crimes committed when they were still citizens.

With his options running out, Fischer decided to petition the Icelandic government for help. Iceland, which remained grateful for the international notoriety it received from Fischer’s unforgettable match against Boris Spassky 33 years earlier, condemned the treatment of Fischer by the US and Japanese authorities and magnanimously granted Fischer Icelandic citizenship in March of 2005.

After some negotiation, the Japanese government agreed to release Fischer upon his naturalization as an Icelandic citizen. Now in possession of a valid international travel document and finally a free man after nine months of detainment, Fischer wasted no time in utilizing his newly acquired vibrant-blue Icelandic passport to embark upon a journey to his new home in Reykjavík.

There is a three-minute Youtube video of an interview given by Fischer during his flight to Denmark en route to Iceland, in which he denounces the US, Japanese, and Israeli governments in undiplomatic fashion.

Then, at a press conference held upon his arrival in Iceland, Fischer took the opportunity to mock then-president George W. Bush, invoking Bush’s 2002 Axis of Evil designation (referring to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea) by branding the United States, England, Japan, and Australia as the Allies of Evil (also available on Youtube).

After the initial media circus, Fischer quickly settled into a reclusive lifestyle in Reykjavík, where he remained until his January 2008 death at the age of 64 due to kidney failure, a medical problem for which he had refused any treatment.

A Fine Line Between Dual Citizenship and Statelessness

Although Fischer’s numerous provocative, questionable, and seemingly unnecessary actions and statements throughout his life undoubtedly contributed to his many woes, it should be emphasized that it was his participation in a chess match that prompted the US government to pursue him to the ends of the world as a wanted criminal.

A prime example of the political games played by government bureaucrats which place foreign-policy interests above international sports competitions can be seen in the Carter Administration’s threats to US athletes who sought to partake in the western-boycotted 1980 Moscow Olympics (a topic which Liberated Services covered in an article entitled Dual Citizenship as a Game Changer in Olympic Sports).

Drawing on the comparison to the saga of John McAfee made at the beginning of this article, it should be noted that Fischer did not come into possession of a second citizenship until three years before his death, whereas McAfee held both US and British citizenship his entire life. And despite the UK’s typical willingness to serve as the US government’s loyal lapdog, McAfee’s British citizenship nonetheless presented a formidable obstacle to the US authorities’ efforts to make his life difficult. This holds true despite the fact that Fischer ultimately died a free man and McAfee did not.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether Fischer was aware that his renunciation attempt, if successful, would have rendered him stateless. This is worthy of mention because statelessness almost always constitutes an undesirable status, as individuals holding zero citizenships face immense challenges with regard to residency rights, international travel, and banking opportunities, among other things. In spite of this, some digital nomads actually prefer statelessness due to the legal tax-avoidance benefits that this can provide as part of a carefully structured offshore game plan.

At any rate, Bobby Fischer seemed to be completely indifferent to the prospect of statelessness. It is therefore ironic that shortly after his unwitting attempt to become stateless, an unexpected stroke of good fortune bestowed the privilege of dual citizenship upon him.

Finally, if there is any crucial lesson to be learned from Bobby Fischer’s incredible odyssey, it is that securing additional citizenships and residency permits sooner rather than later will place a person in a much more advantageous position to cope with any unanticipated adversity that may arise in today’s increasingly uncertain and unfree world.