Bobby Fischer and the Hero’s Journey

We are pleased to have a guest blog today by one of our regular participants, KAY DIBIANCA. Please check the bottom of this post for Kay’s background and links. Thanks, Kay, for agreeing to present this article.




Recently I re-watched the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. Although the story is based on the early life of a young American chess prodigy named Josh Waitzkin, the undercurrent is all about Bobby Fischer.

Fischer’s life was worthy of a Greek tragedy. Raised by a single mother, he received a chess set as a gift when he was six years old and the journey began. Fischer was amazing. Talented and obsessed with the game, he became the youngest ever U.S. Junior Chess Champion at thirteen and the youngest ever U.S. Chess Champion at fourteen. At age fifteen, he became the world’s youngest person to ever achieve the rank of international grandmaster.

One example of his extraordinary skill was a game he played in 1956, in which he scored a remarkable victory over a leading American chess master, Donald Byrne, in what came to be known as The Game of the Century. Writing in Chess Review magazine, Hans Kmoch called it, “… a stunning masterpiece of combination play … “ Fischer was thirteen years old.

But like many great protagonists, Fischer had a personality of extremes. With an IQ measured at around 180, he had all the mental acuity of a genius – and all the charm of a horned toad. The world simply did not conform to Bobby Fischer’s standards, and he insisted on pointing it out. He railed against the Russians who had dominated the chess world for decades, accusing them of rigging the competitions by playing each other to easy draws so that they could reserve precious energy to play people from other countries. (He was right.) But his fury extended far beyond the chess board. He was rabidly antisemitic even though he was himself Jewish (through his mother), and he left a long trail of broken relationships and burned-out bridges behind him.

However, despite his many flaws, Fischer was so talented and hard-working that most people in the American chess world longed to see him compete for the world championship. As he was reaching his prime in the late 1960’s, it seemed the 1972 world championship would be perfect timing.

But the road to the 1972 World Chess Championship for an American started at the 1969 U.S. Championship. The top three finishers there would move on to the interzonal competitions, and the winner of those contests would compete for the title. However, because of disagreements with the organizing body, Fischer sat out the 1969 U.S. Championship making him ineligible for the later tournaments.

Then a miracle occurred.

In a culture not known for the humility of its participants, one of the U.S. Championship finalists, Pal Benko, stepped aside to give his hard-won spot to Bobby Fischer because he knew Fischer was the American with the best chance to beat the Russian superstar Boris Spassky.

Like Achilles returning to the field of battle, Fischer took Benko’s place and raged through the qualifying rounds, destroying all opponents. The extent of his winning streak was unprecedented, and he earned a higher rating than any player in history up to that time. More importantly, he won the right to meet Spassky in Iceland for the World Championship. The stage was set. It would be a classic cold war battle between the lone American and the Russian machine. Cue the drum roll.

But with the world eagerly awaiting The Match of the Century, Fischer balked. He wasn’t happy with the conditions in Iceland and he threatened to stay away, prompting Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to call and appeal to his sense of patriotism. Finally, after additional histrionics that rattled the chess establishment, Bobby Fischer sat down at the chessboard in Reykjavik and won the tournament by an impressive 12 ½ to 8 ½ score. He returned to the United States a conquering hero and was given a ticker tape parade in Manhattan. He was invited on television nighttime talk shows and feted by celebrities and politicians. Bobby Fischer had arrived.

But a flawed character cannot frolic in the rarified atmosphere of celebrity for long, and Bobby Fischer didn’t disappoint. He disappeared. Having lived so much of his life on sixty-four squares, he seemed unwilling or unable to move to a larger stage. Always reclusive and erratic, his behavior deteriorated and he refused to defend his title in 1975.

He did come out of hiding in 1992 and announced he would play an unofficial rematch against Spassky. But that match was to take place in Yugoslavia, a country on which the United States had imposed sanctions, and Fischer was advised by the U.S. that he would be breaking the law if he proceeded. Unsurprisingly, Fischer ignored the warnings, played the match, and won. Then the U.S. government, which had so lovingly welcomed him home twenty years before, issued a warrant for his arrest.

He never returned to America, but continued living abroad and dispensing his characteristic diatribes. In 2004 he was detained in a Japanese airport for using an illegal passport and jailed for several months. Iceland’s parliament stepped in and offered Fischer citizenship. He moved there in 2005 and died of kidney failure in Reykjavik in 2008.

If Bobby Fischer had been a polite, genteel man, he would still have been remembered as arguably the greatest chess player who ever lived. But would he have captured the imagination of the entire world if he hadn’t carried so much baggage? Would people have invested part of themselves in him if he had just quietly made his mark? I think not.

We are attracted to heroes who are complicated. They may thrill, shock, or disappoint, but they never bore us. They connect with life in a profound and mysterious way, and we’re like voyeurs, watching as they crest the ridge or wrestle the dragon.  We applaud their triumphs, weep at their failures, mourn their loss, and in the end, we acknowledge and value the impact they have had on us.

“What is chess, do you think? Those who play for fun or not at all dismiss it as a game. The ones who devote their lives to it for the most part insist that it’s a science. It’s neither. Bobby Fischer got underneath it like no one before and found at its center, art.” Ben Kingsley in the role of Bruce Pandolfini in “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”

So TKZers. What flaws does your protagonist have? Will he/she conquer them, succumb to them, or just manage to get through and live to fight another day?




 I am deeply grateful to Steve Hooley for inviting me to guest post, and to all the TKZ community for the information and inspiration I have found on this site over the years.

Kay DiBianca is a former software developer and IT manager who loves to create literary puzzles in the mystery genre for thoughtful readers to solve. Her debut novel, The Watch on the Fencepost, won a 2019 Illumination Award for General Fiction and a 2019 Eric Hoffer Award for Mystery. Her second novel, Dead Man’s Watch, was released in 2020.

An avid runner, Kay can often be found at a nearby track, on the treadmill, or at a large park near her home. Kay and her husband, Frank, live, run, and write in Memphis, Tennessee.

You can connect with Kay through her website at

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About Steve Hooley

Steve Hooley is the author of seven short stories published in four anthologies, a Vella serial fiction, and is currently working on the Mad River Magic series – a fantasy adventure series for advanced middle-grade to adults. More details available at:

30 thoughts on “Bobby Fischer and the Hero’s Journey

  1. Kay! Welcome to the other side of TKZ. It’s wonderful to read your extended contribution after all of your wonderful comments over the years.

    Even though I hadn’t been born that far back (…) I remember all of the events that you discussed very well. Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky were irrevocably joined at the hip in the public mind. Life Magazine, as I recall, really ginned that initial confrontation up. High school chess clubs gained a strange new respect.

    I don’t know if it’s a flaw but my protagonists tend to be fishes out of water. Something like me.

    Enjoy your run today! I used to jog to but the ice kept dropping out of my glass. And Steve, thank you for sharing your spot today with Kay!

    • Good morning, Joe. It’s wonderful to be on either side of TKZ!

      I have heard that Bobby Fischer was singularly responsible for those high school chess clubs suddenly getting strange new respect. It’s interesting that one person can change the landscape so completely.

      Fishes out of water are my favorite kind of character. I can identify.

      My running is a lot like my writing — I’m not fast, but I’m very determined. At least I’m moving forward. 🙂

      Have a great day!

  2. Good morning, Kay. And thanks for presenting today’s blog post. Great story, and great example of a flawed hero. I never learned to love chess, and had my nose deep in the books during the 70s and the 80s, so I didn’t get caught up in the events around Bobby Fischer. I want to go back and watch the movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer. I recently enjoyed the movie, The Queen’s Gambit, which had a similar plot, with a female hero.

    Flaws in my protagonist? I write middle-grade fantasy, and my protagonist is a skinny kid on crutches (with muscular dystrophy) who is impulsive and often struggles with accepting his handicap. But he has a whole gang of cousins who are his partners in crime and set him straight. Kids tell it like it is.

    Thanks for doing the post. Have a great day!

    • Good morning, Steve, and thank you again for inviting me to post today. Contributing on TKZ is an honor.

      I hope you will watch the movie and let me know what you think. I found the acting to be very good, the plot was well constructed, and there were some very funny scenes. It also touches on the expectations parents have for their children, especially when a child begins to show special talent. Since you write middle-grade fiction, you would probably enjoy the story of the young boy.

      Your protagonist sounds very interesting. Kids are such great raw material for stories.

      Thanks again for inviting me today!

  3. An interesting post, Kay, and welcome to this side of the curtain. Your bring up some questions for me. How flawed can characters be and still have readers care enough about them? A lot, I think, depends on genre. I’m not sure Bobby Fisher would ever be accepted as a romance novel hero (although never say never–it all depends on the story and the writer’s skill.)
    My current wip is a romantic suspense, and at the moment, most of their conflicts are of the external nature, but now you’ve made me stop and think about expanding their basic character flaws without making them unlikable.

  4. Good morning, Terry. It’s very nice to be on this side of the curtain!

    You bring up a good point about just how flawed a character can be and still have readers care about them. To me, Bobby Fischer was the epitome of the flawed personality, and yet he remains a hero to many people. Although he wasn’t likable, he was inspiring and people cared about him. I guess if we can figure out how to mix the right cocktail of personality traits, we can produce another Captain Ahab or Scarlet O’Hara. Or fictional Bobby Fischer type.

    The main characters in my cozy mysteries are reliable, decent folks. They’re more likely to have personality quirks than serious flaws. I save the flaws for the villains. But I’d really like to go deeper.

  5. Bobby Fischer is the reason I learned to play Chess, and while I never came anywhere near mastering the game, I did teach several kids the game.

    Perfect characters are boring, but I agree with Terry–it would take a really good writer to make Bobby Fischer a likable hero. 🙂

    • Good morning, Patricia!

      Bobby Fischer inspired so many people to play chess. My husband started playing competitive chess when he was a teenager during the Fischer ascendancy. He still occasionally pulls out a book and replays one of Fischer’s games.

      Although Fischer wasn’t likable, there was something about him that was engaging. Maybe it was the combination of many things.

  6. Kay, you bring back memories of Fischer-mania, which I was completely caught up in the year I entered college. My dad had taught me chess, but that summer I dove into the game full force, and over the next couple of years got to be pretty good. Fischer was an inspiration and a hero in the sense that he took on a much stronger opponent (the entire Soviet chess machine) virtually by himself…and won. It is indeed sad that he never played to keep the title, but he was not wrong about Soviet chicanery (gee, who would’ve thought?)

    In those days he appeared on Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson, and did have some charm and wit. You can find those clips on YouTube. Makes it all the sadder that he deteriorated the way he did. Thus, I would place him in the “tragic hero” category.

    • “Tragic hero” is the perfect definition for Fischer. The image of the chessboard at the bottom of this post is the checkmate position in The Game of the Century. When I put that image in the blog post, I couldn’t help but think of Fischer’s extraordinary ability to put his opponent into checkmate. And his inability to protect himself from personal decline.

      I also agree that his willingness to stand up to the Russians made him a true hero.

      I think I remember a scene in one of the Mike Romeo books where Romeo is surveilling a house and wants to find a way to keep his mind engaged, so he replays one of the Fischer-Spassky games over in his mind! Did I remember that right?

      • Ha! Right you are, Kay. In Romeo’s Rules.

        BTW, that Game of the Century, which Bobby won when he was thirteen, I love replaying it because what made it so remarkable was not just a combination, but one that he thought out many moves ahead and precipitated by a Queen sacrifice!

    • An interesting study of a flawed character who fell on hard times, kind of like an over the hill boxer. I thank you for it, Kay.

      My stepmother was a Russian emigre and the Russians all think they’re chess masters. Day after day she’d give me a hiding. I knew how to move the pieces but that is all. I was kind of a kamikaze player.
      Well, one day the impossible happened and I won a game. I said to her “I am never going to play chess again with you or anyone else.” That was 1972. I haven’t to this day.
      I haven’t accomplished a lot in life but my chess streak is unbroken.

      • Bravo for you, Robert! An unbroken streak is worth protecting.

        No doubt about it – the Russians ruled the chess world for a long time. I think it’s their national pastime.

  7. Interesting post, Kay. And welcome to the other side of TKZ! Flaws help readers connect with characters. We don’t necessarily need the character to be likable as long as they’re relatable or empathetic in some way. I have a serial killer character who readers adore because I show his humanity. That’s key, IMO.

    • Good morning, Sue, and thank you for the welcome. It’s nice to be on any side of TKZ!

      You make a very good point that a character can resonate in a positive way even if he/she isn’t likable. Like you, I think readers want to see the humanity in our characters, even if they’re deeply flawed.

  8. I really loved the adaptation of the Fisher story into the Queen’s Gambit. I love how inner turmoil plays on plot and character progression.

    As for your question, (and I believe I said this before), the character in my upcoming debut novel will have two tragic flaws. Here’s a snippet of my pitch.

    Reid Harris is a firefighter who has seen better times. Still healing from his last act of heroism, the marks of third-degree burn have impacted his emotional and physical wellbeing. With a crippling injury on his right leg, and living with post-traumatic stress, Reid is still desperate to keep working in the only career he ever knew. To keep his life on track, Reid travels to Azurbar in the Middle East, where he doesn’t have to pass any physical or mental tests.

    • Ben, it looks like you’ve successfully tapped into the flawed mc. I imagine you have a lot of material for the plot given your character’s experiences.

      All the best for your upcoming debut novel! I look forward to hearing when it’s released.

  9. Lots of insight in this post, Kay!

    What’s admirable or memorable isn’t always likable. Stanley Kowalski or Hannibal Lector are immediately recognizable but how many people want to live next door to them?

    A hero who’s unlikable can at least be understandable if the writer is skillful at showing his/her deeper dimensions.

    Another character can also act as a foil for the hero. The female lead in my series of small-town thrillers is a smart but dyslexic, compassionate woman who is too trusting. The male lead is a brilliant, cynical, obnoxious attorney. Her kindness tempers his harshness; his sarcastic pessimism counters her naivete. They yin and yang each other through the books. They tease out each other’s deepest secrets, which sometimes surprise me and, I hope, the reader.

    • Good morning, Debbie!

      Hmmm. Living next-door to Hannibal Lector. Just the thought makes me want to check that the doors are locked. 🙂

      I like your phrase “if the writer is skillful at showing his/her deeper dimensions.” Interesting people are multi-dimensional. It seems to me that the more important the character is in the story, the more critical it is to show the various layers of his/her personality. You do that so well in your Tawny Lindholm thrillers. The Tawny-Tillman duo adds depth and dimension to the stories.

      Have a great and multi-dimensional day!

  10. Nicely written and well presented piece, Kay. Flawed hero – I immediately thought of General George Patton. History shows he was a brilliant military tactician but a difficult being. In many ways, Patton’s heroic tactics were based on chess moves but his behavior was flawed by ego.

    • Good morning, Garry! Thank you for the kind words.

      General Patton is another great example of a brilliant person with a singularly difficult personality. It’s interesting that real people often wouldn’t be believable as fictional characters! They’re too extreme!

      Have a great day.

  11. Terrific post, Kay! You knocked this one out of the park. Very well-written and thoughtfully put together. I really enjoyed the read. I knew a bit about Fischer, and this gave me a much better idea.

    I was never a real chess player but have played “hex and counter” war-games since I was 14, which are similar, albeit with a random element. I enjoy the narrative of such games, though of course winning is always fun, too 🙂

    The hero of my library cozy mystery doesn’t so much have flaws as quirks. Mostly, she’s involved and concerned for those around her, which gets her into all sorts of trouble.

    Enjoy your run today! I used to run regularly, but had to give it up, so now Zumba instead.

    Thanks again for a fabulous guest-post today!

    • Good morning, Dale! Thank you for the kind words. I truly enjoyed writing this piece. I thought I knew a lot about Bobby Fischer but some of the details I learned while researching are fascinating.

      I like characters who have quirks. They are often the likable ones that we enjoy reading about.

      I’ve never tried Zumba, but I hear great things about it. I’ll probably stick with running as long as I can keep moving forward. 🙂

      Thank you again for your kind words. Have a wonderful day.

  12. Really enjoyed this, Kay. Thanks to Steve for adding you to the TKZ guest list.

    We played chess at my house when I was a high school tadpole. I graduated in 1972, and I remember Dad talking about Fischer, how he couldn’t figure out why such a genius at chess was such a loser at life. And that’s a great description of many novel heroes, right?

    In one of my current WIP, the protag begins her journey on a tightrope of fear, and ends on the wings of imagination. She’s conflicted by her wretched past . . . always trying to answer the why question, and then she comes to believe that her three-year-old daughter, Nora, has it right. Sometimes there are no answers, and you just have to go to the park and swing it all away.

    • Hi Deb! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      Fear is a great emotion to explore in fiction, right? I know the characters you write about have some serious baggage, and I expect you’ll take full advantage of that in your stories.

      I like three-year-old Nora’s advice. Just go to the park and swing it all away. Out of the mouth of babes …

  13. Great article. Since you mentioned the movie, “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” and you are a bookwriter yourself, I have to mention the BOOK, _Searching for Bobby Fischer_. The movie only covers half the book, leaving out most of the actual search for Bobby Fischer. Josh Waitzkin’s father was a sportswriter. The book documents Josh, his dad’s, and Bruce Pandolfini’s trip to Russia to visit Russian chess grandmasters, including a Jewish grandmaster that the Waitzkins had to visit by hopping fences in Russian back yards. Really! They left that out of the movie!

    Again, great article. One of these days, I am going to make the more than 90-minute drive to Collierville and visit CCW, Kay. I have stayed on the CCW mailing list.

    • Thank you, Paul, for the kind words. And thank you for the info on the book. I had not read it and didn’t know anything about the trip to Russia by the Waitzkins and Pandolfini. Amazing stuff.

      I hope you’ll make the trip to a CCW meeting in the near future. Since you’re on the email distribution, you’ll get the reminders. I look forward to seeing you there!

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