Searching for Bobby Fischer’s search for the Catholic Church

My boyhood summers – when there was still such a thing as boyhood – were in large part spent in Montana and N. Wyoming, running like a brown animal, riding bare-back, swimming, biking, and going to minor league ballgames with my grandfather.

My grandfather was bridge builder and bridge player, both, literally.  He had a superb memory, being able to recite long poems of Robert Service and chapters of the Bible, with cool, keen, inventive, tactical mind for games.  He was good at what he did, whether it was building massive bridges in the mountains or pasting people at the bridge table… or teaching his grandson how to play chess.

A few years after my learning the basics, came 1972 and the Match of the Century: Fischer v. Spassky in Iceland for the World Championship.

Every day I was so wrapped with excitement about the match’s progress that I nearly vibrated until I saw the morning newspaper’s account of the most recent game and… its notation.   Of course I had to play them through.  More than once, sunshine and bicycles be damned.

I played chess hard for quite some time, in tournaments and other venues. Eventually, as one does, I slipped away into other things that drew the vast majority of my energy and time.

Chess is pulling me back in.

Chess renewed my seduction on a chance Saturday morning in Washington DC just before I had to go to the airport.  As I was checking out of the venerable DC club where I was staying, I noticed a sign that their chess club was meeting at that very moment.  Having a little time to kill, I went to investigate.

There they were.  Four boards going, one person kibitzing.   I watched respectfully from afar for a few minutes.  The kibitzer asked if I would like a game.

Never underestimate the power of an invitation.

After a brief chat and introduction, during which I said that I hadn’t played for quite a while, I drew black.  He went at me with a Queen’s Pawn opening, probably to shake a rusty opponent.  It worked.  I struggled through that game and lost, not without making him frown hard and mutter, “You have played before.”   I won the next game.

In the car to the airport, I found myself grinning.

When you discover yourself to be grinning, pay attention.

Since then, I played a only couple OTB games with a priest friend and I’ve started to work chess problems, reviewing openings which I’ve all but forgotten.  I had had the intention of getting a chess club going. You readers were magnificently kind in sending sets and clocks.*   It was not to be.

Life happened.

I’d make an arch remark about a certain chess piece, but suffice to say that now I’m a backward, isolated pawn.  Nay rather, from my devotion to the Queen of the Clergy, perhaps I’m an isolano**.

Why the chess reminiscence today?  Here’s the tabiya.

Church Militant (HERE) has quite the essay on the late Bobby Fischer.

It seems that Bobby Fischer, at the time of his death, was involved almost as a catechumen investigating the Catholic Faith.  He requested to be buried as a Catholic. I wouldn’t rule out baptism of desire.

Knowing what I have known about his biography, this news left me somewhat gobsmacked.  If you look up his entry in Wikipedia, it’s right there.  Surprise.

While there is breath there is life and there is a chance for conversion.

And life goes on here.  The Chess Match over Traditionis custodes is not over.

There are some good chess movies out there, though some of them have some less than virtuous moments.

Let’s start with …

Searching for Bobby Fischer


Pawn Sacrifice


Queen of Katwe


Critical Thinking


Queen To Play


Life of a King


Honorable Mention
The Coldest Game

*I still have everything, of course, lovingly packed and brought to my new BOQ.  We’ll see. Maybe I can get something going here.  TLM, pot luck, and chess?

**An “isolano” is a isolated pawn (one having no friendly pawns on adjacent ranks) on the Queen’s rank. 

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. mbutton says:

    Traditionis custodes reminds us of the valuable chess principle, when down material.


  2. Thomas says:

    Thanks for this. Great story all the way through. My grandfather and I were very close.

    “The Chess Match over Traditionis custodes is not over.” This is becoming more and more evident.


  3. TheLanguageMan says:

    Fascinating, that definitely sounds like a baptism of desire. Let’s pray for him! Just the other day I came across this interview Bobby had with Johnny Carson after defeating Spassky:

  4. Thomas S says:

    Don’t forget the chess scene in From Russia With Love. ?

  5. Kathleen10 says:

    Fr. Z., do you intend to mean you are an isolated pawn? If you do, you’re in good company, some of the best people have been isolated for one reason or another. Maybe God or Our Lady want you to themselves right now. You have so many online friends, I know it’s not the same, but still, it’s not nothing. We care.
    I never learned to play chess but for some odd reason I have felt like learning it lately. The movies look great except…ugh…Disney (she hissed)…Disney is vile, now promoting LGBT to children.

  6. Kathleen10 says:

    Sorry. I forgot my point. For heaven’s sake, write that book! You have a gift!
    Make it a tell-all of what you know and you’ll singe eyelashes.

  7. acardnal says:

    There was a Netflix original movie this year entitled “The Queen’s Gambit” which I thought was very good.

    Also, for those wanting to learn how to play there is a very good course available via The Great Courses or its online version The Great Courses Plus now known as Wondrium: “How to Play Chess”

  8. _Dan_ says:

    This leads one to ask a very important question of Fr. Z: 1.e4…?

  9. adriennep says:

    Now I want to learn chess!

    Father Z does so good with the brilliance he adds to another’s post. You gave us so much here.

  10. adriennep says:

    Thanks to following this, I just discovered about William Lombardy, a chess master who resigned from tournaments to become a Catholic priest. Fischer apparently hired him as coach in 1972.

    Unfortunately Lombardy also left the priesthood in later years.

  11. benedetta says:

    About a decade ago I started a homeschool chess club in my house which was very well attended, at one point having about 30 kids all around my home playing chess with rotating groups based on ages and levels and a magnetized board hung up in the dining room for me to teach openings and to work through some historic matches. We even had several of our club members compete locally. Fast forward to today: my homeschooler is now grown and planning to transfer to Franciscan University to major in theology in the fall. I’m going to use Fr. Z’s link to check amazon for a portable set he can bring with him to school.

  12. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I’d just been thinking of bringing a portable set to coffee after Mass to give the lively under-10s another interesting thing to do: I am further encouraged by these histories!

  13. Kent Wendler says:

    FWIW (likely not much), back at the “turn of the decade, 60’s/70’s) after I had graduated from college, my parents sprang for me to take a solo trip from our Kansas farm to visit my California relatives. On my flight back on the SF to Denver leg, I sat next to someone who certainly looked like him and was wearing a tie clasp like the one on the Johnny Carson video above.

    Knowing that we were probably roughly equal on the “introversion scale”, I never spoke to him, nor he to me.

    So I guess I’ll never know for sure – at least not in this life.

  14. JonPatrick says:

    Both Mrs. JonPatrick and our youngest son are avid chess players so I get the opportunity to play occasionally. I am somewhat of a mediocre player being at that stage of “OK I have done the opening thing, now what do I do?”. I would like to learn to be a better player and better competition for my family. Perhaps that course suggested by acardinal might be a possibility. In the past I obtained some books which helped, although I got stuck thinking in the old chess notation e.g. KB3 and have a hard time adapting to the new notation.

  15. I would posit…taking a page from some of the courses that I was privileged to attend (as a civilian who was designing automated sand table exercises at the CGSC in Leavenworth), that also having a good understanding of Backgammon as a strategy game of a constantly shifting battlefield may also be a useful addition to our mental ‘combat’ readiness. It would seem that, dealing with the crew that we are currently observing…a somewhat more kinetic response to constantly shifting deployments and inside threat games is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Could never ‘get’ Chess, but appreciated the thought that had to go into a well-fought match.

  16. JonPatrick says: I got stuck thinking in the old chess notation e.g. KB3 and have a hard time adapting to the new notation.

    Me too. The gears grind in my head every time. But it is getting easier.

  17. Neal says:

    Our chapel has a kids’ chess club. Since all the kids are homeschooled, I entered them into a citywide chess school tournament, in which they performed quite respectably. Anyway, if anybody else has a junior team and they’re looking for some competition, please respond here.

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