Search for Bobby Fischer ends at Japanese airport, with fugitive chess king captured

Friday, July 16th 2004, 8:51 am
By: News On 6

TOKYO (AP) _ It wasn't a smart move.

After decades of evading the public eye and U.S. justice officials, former world champion Bobby Fischer _ possibly the best and certainly the most eccentric chess player ever _ has been taken into custody by Japanese immigration after allegedly trying to leave the country with an invalid passport.

Fischer, 61, was detained at Narita Airport outside Tokyo while trying to board a Japan Airlines flight for the Philippines on Tuesday, according to friends and airport officials. The U.S. Embassy confirmed Fischer was detained.

It was not immediately clear if Fischer would be extradited to the United States, where he is wanted for playing a 1992 chess match in the former Yugoslavia in violation of international sanctions. Japan and the United States have an extradition treaty.

But Fischer's detention _ and a possible handover to U.S. authorities _ gives Japan a chance to show it is cooperating with the United States just days before Japanese officials plan to bring an accused U.S. Army deserter, Charles Robert Jenkins, to Tokyo for urgent medical treatment.

Jenkins, whose Japanese wife was kidnapped by North Korea in 1978 and returned home in 2002, is wanted by Washington on desertion charges for allegedly defecting to North Korea in 1965. Jenkins is suffering from problems following abdominal surgery in North Korea.

Miyoko Watai, a longtime friend of Fischer's, told The Associated Press she had talked to him in custody. She said he was told he would be deported, but was planning to appeal.

``He didn't know that his passport had been revoked,'' said Watai, a member of the Japan Chess Association. ``He had been traveling frequently over the past 10 years, and there was never a problem. I don't understand why his passport was revoked all of a sudden.''

Considered by many to be the best player ever, Fischer became a grandmaster at age 15.

He became a Cold War hero in 1972 when he defeated Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union at a widely followed series of matches in Iceland to become the first American world chess champion.

He forfeited the title in 1975, refusing to play when conditions that he demanded proved unacceptable to the International Chess Federation. He resurfaced for a dramatic rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia in 1992, beating him 10-5 to win $3.35 million.

After that, the fiercely private Fischer disappeared, living in secret outside the United States.

The U.S. government accused Fischer of violating U.N. sanctions against Yugoslavia by playing the match. The sanctions were imposed on the former Yugoslavia for provoking warfare in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina.

While incognito, Fischer intermittently gave interviews with a radio station in the Philippines, often digressing into anti-Jewish rants and accusing American officials of hounding him.

In the radio interviews, he praised the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying America should be ``wiped out,'' and described Jews as ``thieving, lying bastards.'' His mother was Jewish.

He also announced that he had abandoned chess in 1996 and launched a new version in Argentina, ``Fischerandom,'' a computerized shuffler that randomly distributes chess pieces on the back row of the chess board at the start of each game.

Fischer claimed it would bring the fun back into the game and rid it of cheats.

``He was like a child,'' said Watai. ``Chess had been his whole life, so he was sheltered from the world in some ways. Once he made up his mind, he would never change it, no matter what anyone said. That didn't always make people happy.''

That he would turn up in Japan was not a complete surprise.

Fischer had long been rumored to be living in Japan, aided and sheltered by chess devotees, and is believed to have frequented a Tokyo chess club.

``He came here often for short stays,'' said Watai. ``He also traveled to the Philippines, Germany, Switzerland and many places.''

American officials apparently had been following his recent movements.

Ferdinand Sampol, Philippine airport immigration chief, said Immigration Commissioner Alipio Fernandez was alerted by the U.S. Embassy in Manila last week that Fischer might try to enter that country.

``But there was no request to exclude or remove him from the Philippines,'' he said.

Fischer is believed to have last visited the Philippines in 2003.

Filipino Grandmaster Eugene Torre, another longtime friend of the former champion, said Fischer had been planning to seek political asylum in Switzerland and was caught off guard by the arrest.