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Eccentric Artist of the 64 Squares

You have to be a little crazy to be passionate about chess. Spending endless hours memorizing variations of the Nimzo-Indian Defense and more endless hours

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You have to be a little crazy to be passionate about chess. Spending endless hours memorizing variations of the Nimzo-Indian Defense and more endless hours moving little pieces of wood around on a board isn't a pursuit for the completely rational.

Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest players of all time and considered by many to be the greatest American player ever, took both chess and craziness to new levels. He died last week at age 64 in Reykjavik, Iceland, where his own eccentricity had exiled him.

The Chicago-born Fischer got his first chess set at age 6, and the achievements came quickly - youngest player ever to win the U.S. Junior Chess Championship (1956), youngest ever to be ranked as a Grandmaster (1958), youngest ever to win the U.S. Chess Championship (1958).

But it was the world championship match against Soviet star Boris Spassky that captured the imagination of Fischer's fellow Americans and established his place as an icon not just in the rarefied world of high-level chess but in popular culture. Through July and into August of 1972, instead of baseball games, TV sets in bars across America were tuned to PBS to watch the play-by-play of the match from Reykjavik.

Fischer reamed the Russian, 12 points to 8 - roughly the equivalent of one football team beating another by 42-14. The victory, at a time when the US and USSR were still hotly engaged in the Cold War, made Fischer both a celebrity and a national hero. He met President Nixon at the White House. He was on the cover of Life and Sports Illustrated.

But chess prodigies tend to burn out early, and Fischer followed the pattern. Withdrawing behind a wall of reclusiveness and hostility, he refused huge financial offers to play Spassky again while becoming involved with fringe religions and, reportedly, neo-Nazi ideology. Voluntarily exiling himself from his native country, Fischer lived in obscurity in Japan, Hungary, the Philippines and Switzerland before finally renouncing his U.S. citizenship and moving to Iceland in 2005. He surfaced from time to time in radio broadcasts in which he railed against the United States and "the international Jewish conspiracy." (His mother was a Jew.) On Sept. 11, 2001, he told a radio talk show host in the Philippines that the terrorist attack was "wonderful news" and called for President Bush's death - remarks that got him booted out of the United States Chess Federation.

But in the end it will be for his contributions to the game, not his crazed rants, that Fischer will be remembered. "After 1972, we lost so many great pieces of art," chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini told the Times, "hundreds of masterpieces he would have created if he had stayed a sane being."


Her Hotness the Mayor

Carmen Kontur-Gronquist looks hot in a black bra and panties standing on a fire engine - but some of the folks in her tiny Eastern Oregon town of Arlington thinks she looks too hot for a mayor.

The 42-year-old Kontur-Gronquist, who's the executive secretary of the local fire department, had the picture taken three years ago and put it up on her MySpace page. (Alas, it is no longer available for public view.) And she saw no reason to take it down after she got elected mayor.

"That's my personal life," she told the (Pendleton) East Oregonian newspaper. "It has nothing to do with my mayor's position."

Arlington residents like Lorena Woods didn't see it that way: "It's a picture of her in bra and panties on a rural protection fire truck in a rural protection fire hall," Woods said. "This isn't the way we want our city to be portrayed."

At the first City Council meeting last Wednesday night, an unusually large crowd turned out to hear Ron Miller demand the mayor's resignation. Kontur-Gronquist rejected the demand and indicated she would stand her ground: "I'm not going to change who I am. There's a lot of officials that have a personal life, and you have people in this community who have nothing better to do than scrape up stuff like this."

We might not have heard the last of this story: Miller said he would launch a recall drive if the mayor didn't quit. On the other hand, some Arlingtonians, like Frank Burgese, hope cooler heads will prevail.

"I challenge all sides to sit down and pound out some sort of agreement with each other, so this doesn't rise to the level of a recall, so this doesn't rise to the level of national ridicule," he said. "It's kinda sorta already there right now."

Yeah, kinda sorta.

Another Illusion Crumbles

The fortune cookie has been an after-meal staple at Chinese restaurants around the world for ... well, forever. But, oddly enough, you won't find it in China.

And a researcher finally thinks she knows why: The forebear of the "Chinese" delicacy was invented a few hundred miles to the east, in Japan.

Yasuko Nakamachi, a graduate student in folklore and history, has been probing the origins of the fortune cookie for six years through old documents, interviews and on-the-scene observations. One of the most important of the latter took place at a family bakery near Kyoto, where Nakamachi observed workers making something that looked like a "Chinese" fortune cookie.

Nakamachi researched further and discovered an 1878 book with an illustration showing the same kind of cookies being made by the same process.

So how did Japanese cookies become a fixture of Chinese restaurants?

Evidently they were offered at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park built in San Francisco in 1890 and then adopted by that city's Chinese restaurants. From there the fortune cookie craze spread across America and, eventually, the world.

Next thing they'll probably try to tell us pizza isn't Italian.

The Last Laugh, For Now

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Sacha Baron Cohen, better known to the world as Kazakhstan TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev, won big last week as the Alabama Supreme Court ruled one of the unwitting "stars" of his hit movie can't legally sue him.

Overturning a lower court decision, the supremes ruled that Kathie Martin can't sue Cohen because she signed a legal agreement that only courts in New York could handle disputes arising from her appearance in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

In the movie, Martin has a small but juicy role as a Southern etiquette teacher trying to instruct Borat in the niceties of dinner-party deportment. She's less than completely successful: At one point Borat excuses himself to go to the bathroom and comes back with a Baggie full of human poo.

Martin is one of a number of people who've sued Cohen, claiming they were tricked into appearing in the movie. Other plaintiffs include two South Carolina fraternity members, a Maryland driving instructor, some Romanian villagers, a New York City businessman and the entire nation of Kazakhstan. Okay, just kidding about that last one.

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