10 Child Prodigies


Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer, chess
Fourteen-year-old American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer plays Philippine champion Rodolfo Tan Cardoso at the Manhattan Chess Club, New York, as an official observes, 1957. Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

When Bobby Fischer was 6, his older sister Joan bought him his first chess set and showed him how each piece moved across the board. By the time Fischer was 12, he was practically living at New York City's preeminent chess clubs and holding his own with America's best players.

At age 14, Fischer outplayed 200 of the country's top-ranked players to win the U.S. Open Chess Championship in 1957 [source: Taper]. At 15, he became the youngest player at the time to receive the title of grandmaster, a feat achieved by beating other top chess professionals in international competitions [source: Friedel].

But the match that cemented Fischer as America's first — and arguably its only — bona fide chess superstar was his much-hyped trouncing of the Soviet chess master Boris Spassky in 1972 to become the reigning world chess champion. No American has claimed the title since.

Sadly, Fischer's preternatural genius at chess came at a cost to his personal life. With a reported IQ of 181, Fischer was bored and restless in school, dropping out of high school at 16. As a teen, he obsessed over chess every waking hour, pouring through the archives at New York City's Marshall Chess Club to replay thousands of old games and develop new strategies [source: Weber].

By the time he faced Spassky in 1972, the 30-year-old Fischer had grown paranoid, accusing opponents of trying to poison him. He joined the fringe Worldwide Church of God in his early 20s and was drawn to conspiracy theories about a global Jewish cabal. Later in life, he would disappear for years at a time and occasionally show up at international tournaments.

Fischer died in exile in Iceland at 64 years old, a fugitive from American officials for playing an unsanctioned chess tournament in Yugoslavia against Spassky for $5 million in 1992. (Fischer won.) His legacy stands as America's greatest chess champion and tragic reminder of the price of genius.