Fifty-one years later, Jude Acers can still hear the champion’s footsteps approaching him.
It was late on a Thursday night — March 24, 1964 — at the Young Women’s Christian Association on Gravier Street. The YWCA’s old floor creaked when you walked on it, Acers recalls.
As night ticked on to early Friday morning, Acers and 74 other local chess players waited their turn as grandmaster and national champion Robert J. “Bobby” Fischer methodically — and a little noisily — made his way toward their boards. He was playing all of them simultaneously.
Those who were there that night recall a very different Bobby Fischer from the international celebrity and Cold War icon whose brilliant career eventually unraveled in erratic behavior and forced exile — a story that will soon appear on the big screen in “Pawn Sacrifice,” a movie opening Friday that stars Tobey Maguire as Fischer and Liev Schreiber as Fischer’s Soviet rival, Boris Spassky.
There was neither intrigue nor tragedy shadowing the Bobby Fischer who arrived in Louisiana for a four-day whirlwind tour of TV specials and chess games. Instead, local players welcomed a smart and personable Brooklynite who just happened to possess a fiercely competitive streak.
Acers, who was 20 at the time, remembers asking Fischer, who had just turned 21, his secret to the game. “Keep the pressure on them every second,” Fischer had told him. “They all crack.”
Today, Fischer’s trip to Louisiana is shrouded in myth and foggy memories. Some think that he was just a child when he came to town. Others remember him being here for weeks, not just 72 hours. The exact number of opponents he faced is in some dispute. But everyone agrees that they were well aware that a legend was in their midst.
The previous year, Fischer had won his sixth U.S. championship match, earning an incredible perfect score. Now, he had devised a barnstorming tour to cash in on his success. From February through May, he visited 40 cities in the United States and Canada, playing more than 2,000 documented games and earning an unprecedented $250 per appearance, according to “A Legend on the Road,” a book about the tour written by John Donaldson.
Acers remembers bringing a Sports Illustrated article about Fischer to Baton Rouge Chess Club President Don Wagner. Acers knew that if anyone could get Fischer to Louisiana, it would be Wagner.
“When you’re talking Don Wagner, you’re talking Phineas T. Barnum, you’re talking (Beatles manager) Brian Epstein,” Acers said recently. “The man was a promotional genius.”
When not playing chess, Wagner sold encyclopedias and carted his pet reptiles to a local TV studio for a weekly “Herpetology Day” on a kids’ program, “The Buckskin Bill Show.”
Acers and Wagner hatched a plan to televise a Fischer special, as well as host an informal match at Wagner’s home between Fischer and Acers, who was captain of the LSU chess team and the top-ranked player in the state.
Larry Wagner was only 7 at the time, but he can still remember when his father brought Bobby Fischer home. “I was just a kid, but I could tell that everyone treated him with reverence,” he said recently.
Skill at another game
Wagner mostly recalls the house guest’s fantastic talent at the “15 Puzzle,” a game in which 15 sliding numbers must be put in order in a small square tray. “It was a little flat plastic box — we got them in a cereal box. We’d mix it up and hand it back to him, and his finger would be a blur, he’d sort it out and hand it right back,” Wagner said. (In 1972, Fischer would demonstrate this skill for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”)
Fischer also was fascinated by Wagner’s collection of serpents, including corn snakes, rat snakes, indigo snakes and a python. Even after one bit him, Fischer wasn’t dissuaded from pulling a snake from an aquarium and carrying it around the house.
Wagner staged Fischer’s first games in Baton Rouge in the WBRZ-TV studio, with LSU’s chess team players and faculty members among Fischer’s opponents. Acers provided play-by-play commentary, and Wagner enlisted John Ferguson, the voice of LSU football, to introduce the matches and interview Fischer.
Acers remembers in horror how Ferguson began his remarks by calling Fischer a high school dropout. (Fischer had attended Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, where his classmates included Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, but left school as soon as he turned 16.) Recalled Acers: “I just closed my eyes. Wagner turned red.”
Fischer won all his televised games, as well as the games against Acers at Wagner’s house. The TV special aired on Baton Rouge television twice that week, Acers says, after which the station, over his protests, reused the tape to record a car commercial.
While in Baton Rouge, Acers took Fischer to shoot pool in a Chimes Street bar, and Fischer took a date on a riverboat cruise. Late Thursday afternoon, as Wagner was about to drive him to New Orleans, Fischer asked Acers to locate a particular book about New Orleans chess legend Paul Morphy. A frantic hunt through the LSU library produced the book — “Morphy’s Games of Chess,” by Philip Sergeant — and also made Fischer late to the Gravier Street YWCA.
He finally arrived to find 75 opponents waiting for him, among them Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison, not yet a national celebrity. Each had paid $5 for the opportunity, with the proceeds going to Fischer.
Attired in the same brown suit he’d worn on Baton Rouge television, Fischer started things out by confidently delivering a lecture about Morphy, declaring that the 19th-century New Orleans chess master could defeat any contemporary player. (A rare film clip of Fischer discussing Morphy can be seen on YouTube.)
It was sometime between 8:45 p.m. and 10 p.m. when the games finally got underway. Fischer made the rounds, gradually eliminating his opponents, rapping on the table when players took too long. In the end, three of the 75 players emerged with wins.
Two of those three are now deceased. Fenner Parham Jr. sold insurance and lived in his parents’ home in Mississippi, recalls his friend, Jerry Krouse. He was muscular but shy and a bit eccentric, frequently reciting the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
“It was an attacking game, and Fenner was an attacking guy,” Krouse said.
Also winning his game was New Orleanian Frank Chavez. “He would always bring copies of the game to chess club meetings, even though we all already had it,” recalled local player Jules Le Bon. (Both Parham’s and Chavez’s games against Fischer can be seen on the website chessgames.com.)
The most improbable winner that night was David Levin, a 16-year-old Fortier High School student who’d been playing chess for barely more than a year. A friend had taught him the game so he could help Fortier compete against its biggest rival, Jesuit High School.
“I had no expectation of winning” against Fischer, Levin recalled. “I just wanted to play against him.”
Levin remembers that he’d planned out a defensive line that Fischer himself liked to play. “I figured it would be good psychology,” he said. “Everybody kept coming to my game, looking at me, wondering when I was going to fold. He played a real aggressive game against me, and once his attack wore off, I had the advantage. That’s when he resigned. He was friendly about it.”
Levin’s game didn’t end until 2:45 a.m. His parents weren’t there, he recalls. He thinks he took the bus home. By the time the last game was over at the YWCA, it was 3:30 a.m.
Two local players also earned draws that night: Frank Gladney and Jude Acers.
Acers made the most of his newfound reputation as a man who could stand up to Fischer. He went on to make ambitious chess tours of his own, twice setting a Guinness world record for the most opponents played in a single setting.
Now 72, Acers, adorned in a bright red beret, continues to hold forth at a card table on Decatur Street, where he plays passersby for a fee of $5, the same amount he’d once shelled out to take on Fischer.
In later years, those who had met Fischer in Louisiana were surprised to hear that the champion had suffered breakdowns and become a fugitive.
Acers said he knew something was wrong when he heard that Fischer had turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars to play a game of chess in the lobby of Caesars Palace. “The inability to do creative business is a sign of madness,” Acers said.
Acers also remembers taking one last look at Fischer through the car windshield as the champion was on his way out of town.
“The days I was with Fischer, I never realized that would be it,” Acers said. “I never realized I was never going to see this guy again. I never realized how lucky I was.”