Killing Genius

Over the past several weeks, I have gotten addicted to chess. I can’t get enough. I got my chess set that had been stashed away for years in my closet so I could play my Dad, played people online, and even stayed up until the early hours of the morning watching videos and commentary of famous chess games.

I recently stumbled across a game now nicknamed “The Game of the Century.” In the game, a 13-year-old Bobby Fischer defeated Donald Byrne, one of the best American chess players in the 1950s and 1960s. Fischer sacrificed his queen early in the game so that he could later launch an offensive and capture many of Byrne’s other pieces, and ultimately checkmate Byrne. (If you know the basics of chess, I highly recommend watching this video. It explains the rationale of Fischer’s moves). I had always heard that Fischer was one of the greatest minds in chess, but I was in awe of the foresight he showed at the

age of 13. Fischer was like Mozart, like Shakespeare, like Monet. He was so innately skilled in his craft that he had become an artist. I had to know more about this mind.

I came across an article that showed that Fischer, like many geniuses, had an eccentric personality and a psychologically troubling life. Fischer was often described as socially “awkward, provocative, argumentative, and unhappy.” He was also fiercely paranoid. Fischer, a key source of American pride during the Cold War because of his ability to beat Russian Grandmasters, was concerned that opponents were trying to poison his food or that Russians intended on bugging his rooms and tampering airplanes that he flied in. In fact, he was so scared of Russians that he got the fillings in his mouth taken out so that nothing artificial was in his body that could potentially be used to pick up radio transmissions. He often made off-putting comments to the media, where he often revealed his deep anti-Semitism and even announced that he was jubilant about the September 11th attacks.

There are certainly genetic factors that suggest that Fischer might not have been completely stable mentally. Both of his parents are suspected to have had mental illnesses, and some of his other family members have committed suicide. He also had a difficult childhood. He struggled with his identity, as he was not certain who his biological father was. He underachieved in school and was eventually expelled for kicking his principal. His mother was under surveillance by the FBI, which exacerbated his paranoia. His relationship with his mother was also tumultuous, as she wanted him to be more “normal” and to “cure” his addiction to chess. Finally, he also had to deal with his celebrity status early in his childhood.

While it is impossible for me to say whether Fischer’s eccentricities were a result of genius or madness, his life serves as an interesting case study on how we do and how we should treat genius. While we cannot change someone’s genetic makeup, we can influence how people treat him. Most people are fascinated with individual brilliance. This is why there is so much coverage on geniuses and superstars such as Fischer, John Nash, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and LeBron James. There is so much at stake with these uber-talented people.

Although some live up to their promising potential and remain mentally sound, many others do not. We need to be more careful in how we treat them, especially in their youth. We probably cannot completely shut off the media from these people, but we should try to ensure that the media does not put even more pressure on these prodigies. Thus, the media should have really limited access to prodigies during their adolescence. Joseph Ponterotto, the author of the essay “A Psychological Autopsy of Bobby Fischer,” suggests that parents should also receive training on how to raise these types of children. He also advises that these people be taken under the wing of older, successful talents who have learned to manage their exceptional innate abilities with the rest of their life.

What if, in spite of precautions, prodigies lose mental stability? After all, some “madness” could be what is driving their brilliance. Who knows if Van Gogh, Hemmingway, or Nietzsche would have managed to produce such significant work had they been completely sane? Perhaps if Fischer had received extensive psychotherapy when he was young, he would have lost his obsession with chess and failed to achieve greatness. At the same time, perhaps Hemmingway wouldn’t have committed suicide had he received therapy earlier in life. Should people with these high abilities risk their potential and receive therapy? These are ethical questions I struggle mightily with. While I think all people should strive to reach their full potential, it is inhumane to blatantly withhold helping these people out of fear that they may lose some of their stellar productivity.

I think a decision to pursue therapy should be made by the prodigy himself. Fischer did not want to pursue this option. Many people had noted Fischer’s erratic behavior during his childhood, and when the board of governors of the Marshall Chess Club in New York City met to discuss whether they should find him a psychiatrist, they wondered:

What if therapy worked? What if treatment sapped Fischer’s drive to win, depriving the United States of its first homegrown world champ? Meeting adjourned. No one wanted to tamper with that finely tuned brain.

I agree with the Marshall Chess Club’s decision. Since Fischer did not want therapy and was still able to succeed in the thing he did best, forcing a psychiatrist upon him might have had dire consequences. After all, who wants to kill genius?

Shaunak Varma is a Program and Research Intern with the SISGI Group. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit


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