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Fischer Inspired Chess Boom in Pop Culture


Bobby Fischer may be a dubious hero, but after beating Boris Spassky in 1972, he was America's first and only chess celebrity. He was on the cover of Life and Sports Illustrated. The United States Chess Federation underwent a Fischer boom and membership doubled in one year, and his fame extended beyond to the world of chess.

(Soundbite of song "One Night in Bangkok")

SIEGEL: Even after he vanished from public view, Bobby Fischer's mystique persisted for decades. He was the subject of several books, and he even inspired a musical.

(Soundbite of song "One Night in Bangkok")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Bangkok, Oriental setting. And the city don't know what the city is getting. The creme de la creme of the chess world in a show with everything but Yul Brynner.

SIEGEL: The musical "Chess" had numerous incarnations. It began as a concept album. And this song, "One Night in Bangkok," shot up the charts. In 1985, one version reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100. The musical featured a chess rivalry between an American and a Russian, a love triangle, and a backdrop of the Cold War. One of the leads was loosely based on Fischer. In addition to playing chess, he has a weakness for international night life.

(Soundbite of song "One Night in Bangkok")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster, the bars are temples but the pearls ain't free.

SIEGEL: The show eventually made its way to Broadway in 1988, not very successfully. Frank Richard's review in The New York Times offered this: The evening has the theatrical consistency of quicksand.

But "Chess: The Musical" still has a following with revivals popping up here and there, a musical legacy of a troubled man.

(Soundbite of song "One Night in Bangkok")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble. Not much between despair and ecstasy.


You can find a photo gallery of Bobby Fischer's life since his days as a teenage chess sensation at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.