It's become a bit of a cliche that child prodigies fly high then fall fast, or at least develop some rather strange habits. Bobby Fischer, the international chess champion who died yesterday in Iceland at age 64 after a long illness, certainly did his part to keep this impression alive. Indeed, he was the quintessential troubled genius, seemingly misunderstood by most people, achieving great things while finding himself unable to live within certain constraints society imposed. You can read one obituary about him here.
The more I study people with profound intelligence, the more I am convinced that their brains do not exactly work like the rest of ours. Fischer appeared to have a certain self-defeating impulsiveness. One illicit match in Yugoslavia led to 9 months in detention, a revoked passport and exile (a nice one, but exile nonetheless) in Iceland. Yet in his mind, I'm sure it made sense. After all, his replaying his old rival Boris Spassky on a resort island did nothing to personally punish Slobodan Milosevic, the actual target of international sanctions. Since the rule didn't make sense, he didn't follow it.
He was prone to making anti-Semitic statements (though part Jewish himself; again, other people's rules of civility don't apply). He didn't like to go along with the showmanship part of chess that backers always wanted to draw crowds. One got the sense that he had a very fundamentalist view of the game (indeed, he accused current chess promoters of rigging games), failing to see that the pomp and circumstance is what gave him a platform beyond playing in a park. He was erratic. He was prone to the over-excitabilities that many parents of profoundly gifted children recognize. But boy could he play a lovely game of chess.
One always wonders with troubled geniuses if they, looking back on their lives, would have chosen their gifts. Fischer certainly considered himself the best, and seemed quite proud of that. So he probably would have. But fitting such a frenetic brain into our society is difficult at best. When I think of extreme child prodigies, I find myself thinking about the school for mutants in X-Men (but in a good way!) Simply having a place to be oneself does wonders to calm the mind.