Bobby Fischer Goes to War Author:David Edmonds, John Eidnow From Publishers Weekly — The duo that crafted the bestselling Wittgenstein's Poker returns to chronicle "the most notorious chess duel in history," the 1972 match between world champion Boris Spassky and challenger Bobby Fischer. Although the competition has achieved iconic status, Edmonds and Eidinow do an excellent job of making the story fresh... more », recreating the atmosphere of controversy that surrounded both players long before they met in Reykjavik, not to mention the extraordinary hurdles tournament organizers faced in getting the already eccentric Fischer to even show up, which ultimately required a phone call from Henry Kissinger and prize money put up by an English millionaire. Fischer's troubling personality is a matter of common knowledge, but the thawing of the Cold War enables the authors to flesh out the Soviet side of the story, offering a fuller perspective on the friction between the rebellious grandmaster and Communist officials, and revelations about the very active presence of the KGB during the games, while debunking other rumors about plots to poison or brainwash Spassky. (Declassified FBI files also present groundbreaking information about Fischer and his family.) The actual chess has been analyzed to death elsewhere, so the authors don't delve into the games' details much except when the players made horrendous blunders, which segue into the underlying focus on psychology, addressing Fischer's ability to get away with bullying officials into meeting his exacting demands and Spassky's loss of confidence over the course of the match. Even if you think you know the story, this highly entertaining account will surprise and delight.
Not long ago, in the days of that post-Cold War bliss when Americans and Russians looked longingly at one another, a friend in Moscow told me a story about chess. A mini-oligarch, Nikolai had made a fortune importing chicken parts from Arkansas. He tried to explain the significance of chess in the USSR. "It was never a game," he said. "For liberal intellectuals, chess was an escape, and for them" -- the old men in the Kremlin trying to keep a calcified grip on power -- "it was a weapon."
Ever since a Soviet captured the world championship in 1948, the USSR had reigned on the chessboard. Grandmasters had obvious allure to the Party. Compared to ballistic missiles, they were far cheaper to produce, never seemed to backfire and delivered enviable propaganda rewards. Cosmonauts, weightlifters and gymnasts were sources of pride, of course. But chess players elevated the Cold War to a cerebral realm; chess was a proving ground, Soviet leaders and many ordinary Russians were convinced, for the USSR's greatest strength -- the indomitable Soviet mind.
Enter Bobby Fischer, gangly kid from Brooklyn, all brains and no grace, a high-school dropout with the sartorial sense of Gary Glitter, who gate-crashed the chess world in the age of Elvis. Fischer did not climb to the top. He bulldozed his way. He got his first chessboard at age 6; by 15, he was a grandmaster. More than a prodigy -- the word is too benign -- Fischer was, in the words of one player, "a prototype Deep Blue." He did not have rivals, but victims. Soon opponents and critics would talk of the boy in Nietzschean terms -- he destroyed wills and usurped psyches.
The advent of a homegrown chess champion spawned a new genre in American letters. Frank Brady's Profile of a Prodigy: The Life and Games of Bobby Fischer, a 250-page biography, appeared in 1965, when Fischer was 22. The Library of Congress catalogue yields 78 listings for "Bobby Fischer." Most are accounts of his most famous match -- when he challenged the Soviet champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972. Everyone from Sports Illustrated to George Steiner weighed in on the match. Moreover, in the years since, as Fischer went into a world-class downspin, nearly everyone who has ever had contact with him seems to have added something to the canon. Even a former German girlfriend offered a memoir in 1995.
It comes as a surprise, then, that the Reykjavik match should inspire yet another book, more than 30 years on. Bobby Fischer Goes to War, by British journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow, professes to break ground: to tell, as its subtitle announces, how the Soviets lost the most extraordinary chess match of all time. Edmonds and Eidinow, BBC veterans and authors of the acclaimed Wittgenstein's Poker, have met their goal: This is the definitive history of Fischer vs. Spassky. Edmonds and Eidinow carefully relate the complex turns of the championship while detailing the unseen prodding of the powers behind the Cold War curtains (namely, KGB minders and Henry Kissinger), without allowing the match's twin plots -- the moves on the chessboard and in the political arena -- to eclipse each other.
The cast is comprehensive. The authors have tracked down nearly all the participants on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as those on the island that had the dubious honor of hosting the match. The Icelandic lighting engineer, the mason who remade the marble chess board (at Fischer's insistence) and the chemist who tested (at the Soviets' insistence) the players' chairs for "chemical chicanery" all appear. But for all this attention to detail -- at times, the narrative reads like a Warren Report of chess's greatest match -- the eponymous hero (or in Nietzschean terms, anti-hero) of the piece is oddly absent.
Not that Fischer has been silent. It is true that he has not talked to the press since Reykjavik. But unlike Salinger or Pynchon, he reappears now and then -- either for money or for malice. He surfaced in 1992 for a profitable, if pitiful, rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia -- breaking U.N. sanctions and earning a U.S. arrest warrant. Since 1999, he has blazed across the airwaves, in bizarre radio rants, most often from the Philippines. In the recordings (available on the fan Web site www.bobbyfischer.net ) he sounds like an insomniac extremist on a libertine talk show. He rails against the Jews, the United States, the Commies, the Russians, Ed Koch, both President Bushes, the chess establishment, even the police in Pasadena. (During perhaps his lowest low, in 1981, Fischer was arrested in southern California. He claims he was tortured and has written a pamphlet detailing the trauma.) On Sept. 11, 2001, he hit rare form. Asked about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he screamed for joy: "This is all wonderful news. It's time for the [expletive] U.S. to get their heads kicked in. To finish off the U.S. once and for all."
Fischer is, to paraphrase Dostoyevsky, insulted and injured. A corps of psychiatrists and grandmasters could perhaps find the root of his madness. Edmonds and Eidinow flash an interest in its origins but fail to delve any deeper. The authors address his anti-Semitism -- he is a devotee of both Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- in two paragraphs early in the book and one toward its close. And they give but two brief nods to Fischer's dalliance with Pasadena's Worldwide Church of God, a fundamentalist sect founded by a charismatic former newspaper ad designer.
These lapses are costly. Fischer's road to Reykjavik is revelatory, presaging the turmoil and madness that followed his victory over Spassky. (In 1975, after feuding with chess authorities, Fischer refused to defend his crown, despite a $5-million purse put up by Ferdinand Marcos, forfeiting the world championship to the ascendant Soviet, Anatoly Karpov.) At the heart of their tale, the authors stress not the games but the antics that marginalized them, and they couch Fischer's behavior in terms of psy-ops, not psychosis. The authors hint at the nature of their protagonist's trouble but bury it in a quote, as if Fischer's waning grasp on sanity were an incidental or eccentric tic: "Chess is not something that drives people mad," says Bill Hartston, an international master and psychologist. "Chess is something that keeps mad people sane."
Edmonds and Eidinow do a better job bringing Spassky to life. In chapters on his childhood, they depict Leningrad aptly, painting its historical and psychological landscape: the burden of the Nazi blockade, the Dostoyevskian sense of the phantasmagorical, the inborn yearning for autonomy, whether spawned by the proximity of the West or the surrounding waterways. Above all, they capture why Spassky dove into chess: "Amid the ruins of the city, chess provided the near destitute young Spassky with a connection to society, subsistence, and a much needed sense of order."
Chess may not seem like sexy copy. But think Nabokov. The 64 squares and the singular spell they hold over select men -- and, increasingly, women -- around the world make for taut drama. Off the board Fischer played chicken, but his moves bore names like "the Sicilian Defense," which boasted 17th-century roots. When the authors at last come to the games, their prose -- which at times reads like a transcript of a BBC science documentary ("We have already touched on a final aspect . . . ") -- gains pace. Wisely relying on chess masters as kibitzers, they recreate the pivotal turns faithfully: how Fischer lost the first game, refused to play the second, nearly caved in for good but regained his strength, somehow survived the ensuing marathon and, in a hailstorm of brilliance, defeated a crushed Spassky.
Throughout it all, Fischer tacks between obstinacy and acquiescence, blundering and brilliance, rage and greed, fear and egotism. Yet absent a deeper portrait, one that does not gloss over his paradoxes and ugliness, the shifts appear inexplicable. The authors do detail his relentless demands; the lights, cameras, noise, crowds, shading of the chessboard and, above all, the money had to meet his standards. (The Icelanders joked, the authors note, that "Bobby had demanded the setting of the sun three hours earlier.") But they seem to see such behavior as exacting or eccentric, not pathological. Instead of studying a multi-polar sociopath, they settle for terming Fischer "a volatile genius, enthralling and shocking, appealing yet repellent."
Edmonds and Eidinow also offer the tease of new material. They trace the KGB's fears that the Americans were poisoning Spassky or probing his mind. (Fischer's same fears of the Soviets are old news.) And, based on declassified FBI documents, they offer a new patrilineal genealogy for the boy from Brooklyn, suggesting that his biological father, as well as his mother, were both Jewish. Both were also "Communist sympathizers," perhaps even Soviet agents. Sadly, they bury the details of this revelation in an appendix. Moreover, theirs is not the first published account of the FBI file. (That credit, though unnoted, belongs to two reporters then at the Philadelphia Inquirer, for a 2002 investigation that gets no mention in Bobby Fischer Goes to War.) Edmonds and Eidinow reveal the chaos in the Soviet chess world, which, as the West would learn after the fall of the USSR, mirrored the chaos in the Soviet armed forces. But they apparently find no KGB documents -- only the private papers of a deputy sports minister. Their chapter probing Soviet fears that Fischer used "dirty tricks" ("Extra-Chess Means and Hidden Hands") is twice as long as the one on the beauty and allure of chess. Yet after exploring all corners of speculation, they find no smoking gun.