[2 March 2011]
It’s hard to remember that there was a time when the game of chess was important in world politics and was wildly followed in pop culture. One can gauge the current popular engagement with the world of competitive chess by asking a simple question. Who is the current chess world champion? Almost no one would know. (The answer is Viswanathan Anan from India. Thank you, Google.) But say the name Bobby Fischer and millions would recognize the name.
Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall from Americas Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness by Frank Brady tells us why so many still remember Bobby Fischer. It wasn’t just his brilliance on the chess board that makes him stand out in our memories. From his beginnings as an awkward teenager, Fischer’s prominence was two-fold. First he was a chess genius but secondly his personality was fascinating. His precocious obsessive brilliance at the game, his idiosyncrasies, his demanding, infuriating haughtiness which gradually turned into hateful paranoia drew the spotlight. The fact that Fischer’s rise coincided with the Cold War and collided with Soviet dominance of world chess contributed to his stardom, as well. Most cannot understand the intricacies of Fischer’s chess strategies, but they remember his neurotic behavior and the fact that he beat the Russians.
Brady does a fine job tracing Fischer’s childhood and growing up years in Brooklyn. His mother, Regina was born in Switzerland and emigrated when very young to America. She met Bobby’s putative father, Hans Fischer, a Jewish German physicist and they were married in Russia, ironic considering Bobby’s later paranoia and hatred of both the Soviet Union and Jews. There has always been an unresolved question as to whether Fischer really was Bobby’ s father since his mother and Fischer had divorced and had no contact well before Bobby’ s birth. As it turned out, Bobby had no contact with his father and his mother raised him.
From early on Bobby was obsessed with chess, latching on to various adult figures who indulged him and guided him in the complexities of the game. His mother had no choice but to give him wide latitude to pursue his passion. She failed to interest him in much else. He rarely studied anything other than chess and bounced from school to school, faltering in his studies. He wandered through New York City from one chess club to another, soaking up knowledge, sharpening skills and buying chess books. Bobby would later turn his back on all of his mentors, either ignoring them as his ego inflated or turning on them as his paranoia increased.
As Fisher entered his teens, his fame increased beyond the chess world as he piled up singular achievements. He was a 14-year-old United States chess champion. He was the youngest player to ever qualify to play in the Candidates tournament, which established the challenger for the World Chess Championship. He was the youngest grandmaster in chess history. At 13-years-old in 1956, he shocked the chess world in “the game of the century” against Donald Byrne, an international master, utilizing a brilliant improvisational victory sacrificing his queen. He captured the 1964 US championship with the only perfect score ever in the tournament.
Brady charts his steady ascent up the chess ladder while also documenting his strange personality and eccentricities, most of which in his younger life revolved around his single minded pursuit of chess greatness. Fischer rarely spent any moments not involved in chess. He read chess literature while he was eating. He played games while in the tub. He set up his board on a chair next to his bed and the last thing he did before going to sleep and the first thing he did upon waking was to look at the board and study strategy. As he grew more well-known his strangeness morphed into offensiveness and strangeness. He would demand more and more money for tournaments. He complained incessantly about the smallest details.
Fischer’s climactic match with Boris Spassky in 1972 for the world championship is recounted in suspenseful detail. The run up to the match was years in the making with Fischer developing a keen hatred of the Soviet payers and the system which enabled them to dominate the game for decades. Fisher was obsessed with the details of the match. His over the top demands before the match led one commentator to write that “Bobby Fischer is certainly the most ill-mannered, temperamental and neurotic brat ever to be reared in Brooklyn”. He almost did not play the match but, in a fact that displays the level of attention focused on the match, Henry Kissinger called him to convince him. Fischer won the match and, as he saw it, he won it not only for himself but for America. “He saw himself not just as chess player but as a Cold Warrior in defense of his country”.
And then he stopped playing chess. The second half of Brady’s profile focuses on what became of the greatest, most celebrated chess player the world has ever known. It lags a bit as not much happens other than his descent into a haze of paranoia, hatred and arrogance. His obsession with the Soviets segued into a hatred of Jews. His anti-Semitism grew along with his reclusiveness and strangeness. He flouted a US blockade of travel to Serbia during war in Kosovo in the ‘90s and ended up living abroad, fearful of arrest by the US. He began to obsessively hate the United States. He ended up a pathetic, hateful man who would broadcast vile anti-Semitic rants on small Philippine radio stations. On September 11, 2001, Fischer was interviewed and expressed his glee over the attacks in New York. His remarks reveal his paranoia, his anti-Semitism and his irrational ego:
Yes, well this is wonderful news. It’s time to finish off the US. I applaud the act. The United States is based on lies. It is based on theft. Look at all I have done for the US. Nobody has singlehandedly done more for the US than me. I really believe this … I’m hoping … sane people will take over the US, military people. Yes, they will imprison the Jews, they will execute several hundred thousands of them at least.
Such hatred was the sad ending of Bobby Fischer.
Brady’s portrait of Fischer is compelling. He allow us to root for the young Bobby without delving too much into the complexities of the game of chess. This is a biography, not a chess book. He also allows us, finally, to be repulsed by the same man.