TOKYO – In a bizarre end game, Bobby Fischer (search) — the chess world's most eccentric star — was taken into custody after trying to fly out of Japan with an invalid passport.
Wanted at home for attending a 1992 match in Yugoslavia despite international sanctions, the American former world champion had managed to stay one move ahead of the law by living abroad and being sheltered by chess devotees.
It was not immediately clear if Fischer would be handed over to the United States under its extradition treaty with Japan. But his detention gives Japan a chance to show its cooperation with the United States just days before officials plan to bring an accused U.S. Army deserter, Charles Robert Jenkins (search), to Tokyo for urgent medical treatment — a case Japanese officials want Washington to overlook.
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. He is suffering from complications after abdominal surgery in North Korea.
Fischer was detained at Narita Airport (search) outside Tokyo after trying to board a Japan Airlines flight to the Philippines on Tuesday, according to friends and airport officials.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday a U.S. consular official had visited Fischer in detention but that he could reveal no further information.
Fischer "didn't know that his passport had been revoked," said Japan Chess Association (search) member Miyoko Watai. "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 I don't understand why his passport was revoked."
Watai told The Associated Press she had talked to Fischer in custody. She said he was told he would be deported and was planning to appeal.
Considered by many the best chess player ever, Fischer, now 61, became grandmaster at age 15. In 1972, he became the first American world champion and a Cold War hero for his defeat of Boris Spassky (search) of the Soviet Union in a series of matches in Reykjavik, Iceland.
The event was given tremendous symbolic importance, pitting the intensely individualistic young American against a product of the grim and soulless Soviet Union.
It also was marked by Fischer's odd behavior — possibly calculated psychological warfare against Spassky — that ranged from arriving two days late to complaining about the lighting, TV cameras, the spectators, even the shine on the table.
Fischer was world champion until 1975, when he forfeited the title and withdrew from competition because conditions he demanded proved unacceptable to the International Chess Federation (search).
After that, he lived in secret outside the United States. He emerged in 1992 to confront Spassky again, in a highly publicized match in Yugoslavia. Fischer beat Spassky 10-5 to win $3.35 million.
The U.S. government said Fischer's playing the match violated U.N. sanctions against Yugoslavia, imposed for Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic's role in fomenting war in the Balkans.
Over the years, Fischer gave occasional interviews with a radio station in the Philippines, often digressing into anti-Semitic rants and accusing American officials of hounding him.
He praised the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying America should be "wiped out," and described Jews as "thieving, lying bastards." His mother was Jewish.
He also announced 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 board at the start of each game.
Fischer claimed it would bring the fun back into the game and rid it of cheats.
Alexander Roshal, of the Russian Chess Federation (search) and chief editor of the chess magazine 64, said he had "mixed emotions" about the former champion.
"On the one hand, Fischer is a tough, notorious and quarrelsome person, but on the other hand he is a chess genius and contributed so much for the development of chess.
"He is a pathologically perverted anti-Semite, which is strange knowing his origin, and I suspect he is not appreciated in America. But on the other hand, he has done so much good for the country and was the only American to defeat the Soviet grandmaster."
Former U.S. champion Alexander Ivanov of Newton, Mass., who followed the Reykjavik matches from the Soviet Union at age 16, said Fischer "was ahead of his time by about 15 years."
Watai, a longtime friend of Fischer's, said he could be "like a child."
"Chess had been his whole life, so he was sheltered from the world in some ways," she said. "Once he made up his mind, he would never change it, no matter what anyone said. That didn't always make people happy."
His emergence in Japan was not a complete surprise.
Fischer was rumored to be living here and to have frequented a Tokyo chess club. It wasn't clear how long he had been in the country.
"He came here often for short stays," said Watai. "He also traveled to the Philippines, Germany, Switzerland and many places."
American officials had apparently been following his recent movements.
Ferdinand Sampol, Philippine airport immigration chief, said the U.S. Embassy in Manila alerted immigration last week that Fischer might try to enter the 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 (search), another old friend, said Fischer had been planning to seek asylum in Switzerland, and was caught off guard by the arrest.
"Poor Bobby," he said.