Off the Shelf
Book Review by Sean Marsh
ENDGAME – Bobby Fischer’s
Remarkable Rise and Fall –
Everyone has heard of Bobby Fischer. His name, fame and infamy have all found their way into the public consciousness and even people who have never picked up a chess piece in their lives have acquired some basic knowledge of the 11th World Chess Champion.
For various reasons, the first Fischer-Spassky match garnered chess major headlines around the world and brought about a chess boom. My own first chess set was presented to me in Christmas 1972...
It seems incredible that a chess player who last played competitively nearly 40 years ago (apart from a brief comeback, already almost 20 years ago) should still have new books devoted to his life, replete with new stories and information. Yet the very fact that Frank Brady’s new biography requires a subtitle of no fewer than 15 words is telling: Bobby Fischer was a very complex character with an unusually difficult life. Some questions seem unlikely ever to receive fully satisfactory answers. As the author puts it, ‘Paradoxes abound’.
Recently Garry Kasparov visited the Marshall Chess Club, where Dr. Frank Brady showed
him the board used in the famous teletype match which Bobby played in 1965 in Havana
Frank Brady plays an informal game against entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Andreas Thiel,
who was instrumental in founding or promoting companies like PayPal, Facebook and LinkedIn
The aim of the book is clear enough: ‘As someone who knew Bobby Fischer from the time he was quite young, I’ve been asked hundreds of times, ‘‘What was Bobby Fischer really like?’’. This book is an attempt to answer that question.’
Frank Brady certainly has the credentials to write such a book. His earlier Fischer biography, Profile of a Prodigy, was a standard work for years (and is still available, from Chess &?Bridge) and has first hand knowledge too, although his personal involvement is played down: ‘Although Endgame includes many incidents to which I was eyewitness or in which I participated, the book is not in any way my memoir, and I’ve tried to remain invisible as much as possible’.
The story of Fischer’s rise and fall is told in 15 chapters. There’s a good selection of photos in the centre of the book and quite a few of them were new to me, including one showing his mother visiting him during the 1972 World Championship match.
I learned a lot that was previously unknown to me despite many years of reading numerous works on the great champion. Here’s a few snippets from each of the chapters.
Loneliness to Passion
The first chapter starts with Fischer’s brutal arrest in Japan in 2004, before flashing back ‘Forty-eight years earlier’, to 1956, where a young Bobby is playing a blindfold game against Jack Collins (one of his early chess teachers). Backtracking again, we read about Fischer’s early family life including the familiar story of sister Joan buying their first chess set for $1. Not all of the story is familiar though; already there are snippets which were new to me, including the possibility that the first book of annotated games Fischer read may have been Tarrasch’s Best Games of Chess.
A key early test of Fischer’s chess strength came in a simultaneous display by Max Pavey (former champion of Scotland and New York State). Pavey won quickly. ‘Bobby stared at the board for a moment. ‘‘He crushed me’’ he said, to no one in particular. Then he burst into tears’. Defeat didn’t deter him. Chess was already becoming a major part of his life.
Aged just seven, Bobby became the youngest member of the Brooklyn Chess Club. The club president, Carmine Nigro, gave him chess lessons and also taught him how to play the accordion. ‘‘I did fairly well on it for a while,’’ Bobby said, looking back, ‘‘but chess had more attraction and the accordion was pushed aside’’. It is tempting to speculate on what sort of path Fischer’s life would have followed if a love of music had forced out the obsession for chess.
Out of the Head of Zeus
‘‘Impossible! Byrne is losing to a 13 year-old nobody’’. Of course, these days every self-respecting teenage chess star has a big collection of grandmaster scalps in their collection. Yet when Fischer played his famous ‘Game of the Century’ against Donald Byrne, it was a highly unusual achievement. Brady does a good job of describing the excitement and surprise generated by the game and avoids the trap of trying to describe the game verbally, blow by blow.
By the end of the chapter, Fischer – aged just 14 – was the new United States Chess Champion and his marvellous results and achievements no longer came as a surprise.
The American Wunderkind
It seems remarkable that young Fischer and his sister were allowed to travel to Russia, ostensibly to prepare for the forthcoming Interzonal. His ego was in full flow. Once inside the famous Moscow Central Chess Club, he was soon asking, ‘‘When can I play Botvinnik?’’ Disappointed that Botvinnik – and Keres – were not on hand, Fischer eventually settled for a blitz workout against Petrosian, but only after his request for a fee was turned down. ‘You are our guest...and we don’t pay fees to guests'. Brady speculates that Fischer’s mistrust of Russians may have started with what he perceived to be his shabby treatment in Moscow; an early example of Fischer reacting badly when things didn’t go exactly the way he wanted them to.
The Cold War Gladiator
This chapter focuses partly on the 1959 Candidates tournament (including Tal’s brilliant 4-0 victory over Fischer) and looks at two key developments in the story. Fischer’s promise to "...teach those dirty Russians a lesson they won’t forget for a long time" had to wait a few more years to come to fruition, but the seeds were already sown.
Meanwhile, he had started to listen to religious programmes on the radio. One sermon in particular, by Herbert W. Armstrong, proclaimed God as the only healer and cautioned against the use of medical doctors. This helps to explain Fischer’s refusal to accept medical help for the condition which led to his death many years later.
Also around this time, Fischer began carrying a Bible, ‘‘...the most rational, most common-sense book ever written on the face of the earth’’.
The New Fischer
1959 saw a change in Fischer’s dress sense and he became the extremely well-dressed player we know from the most famous photographs. Brady points out that it is still something of a mystery how he could afford bespoke suits at that time.
Fischer was now becoming more involved with the Worldwide Church of God and for once something was as important to him as chess. He commented: ‘‘I split my life in two pieces.’’ Problems emerged, caused mainly by his stubborn streak. An interesting match with Reshevsky was abandoned and Fischer was enraged by the the Soviet ‘pact’ at the Curaçao Candidates’ tournament. His complaints led to a reform in the system.
This chapter describes Fischer’s famous Olympiad game with Botvinnik (their only meeting) in which the latter escaped with a draw from what had looked a likely defeat. Fischer was absorbing fuel from such events to boost his anti-Soviet theories. He had apparently given up on the World Championship cycle but was capable of producing astonishing results, such as his 11-0 score in the 1963-4 US Championship.
1969 brought the publication of his classic book, My Sixty Memorable Games. Even this outwardly straightforward venture had an unusual motive. Fischer delayed publication but then relented. Larry Evans gave the reason behind the change of mind: ‘‘He was feeling depressed about the world and thought there was an excellent chance that there would be a nuclear holocaust soon. He felt he should enjoy whatever money he could get before it was too late’’.
It was a difficult and mixed period for Fischer, which saw his withdrawal from the Sousse Interzonal (which he was leading), a break from chess for 18 months and an eventual comeback in the USSR v Rest of the World match, followed by his demolition of three candidates on his way to a showdown with World Champion Boris Spassky.
Brady doesn’t dwell too much on the the purely chess aspect of events. For example, the Candidates matches are dealt with in a few short pages and there is very little on the games themselves. This is no bad thing; it makes the book much more accessible to those who want to learn more about Bobby Fischer the person and not how he played the Najdorf.
Although the story of the 1972 title match with Spassky contains much that is already very well known, there are little snippets to keep the chapter fresh. One example sees Fischer chatting to Sam Sloan and Bernard Zuckerman, two of his close friends at the time. He was worried by the prospect of facing the World Champion.‘‘Spassky is better’’ said Bobby, somewhat woefully. ‘‘Not much better, but better’’.
The Wilderness Years
With the world at his feet and many big money plans in the pipeline, Fischer unexpectedly drops off the chess map. His wilderness years are surely stranger than any period of time in the life of any chess player. This chapter is replete with stories of him turning down huge sums of money and of his descent from being such an elegant, popular figure, with fame across the globe, to a strange recluse. The chapter starts with Fischer quoted as saying: ‘‘I want to meet girls...vivacious girls with big breasts’’ and ends with freelance photographers trying – unsuccessfully – to track him down, despite being willing to offer $5,000 for a successful lead. It is one of the most interesting chapters in the book and sheds some welcome light on this extraordinary period of time. It’s easily the best account of this period I have read.
It is astounding that a person can return from the wilderness after 20 years and suddenly be on the front pages of newspapers around the world once again. The Fischer-Spassky rematch of 1992 was a curious affair. How could it be that 17-year-old Zita Rajcsanyi succeeded in kickstarting Fischer’s return to the chessboard when the rest of the world had consistently failed? Brady gives a very good account of the early correspondence and developing relationship which led to the return. The match itself was a mixed one in terms of chess, and Spassky admitted he was more concerned with bringing his friend back to chess than the result.
Rather than heralding a proper comeback, the 1992 match proved to be Fischer’s last known games of chess. This chapter covers the period of time after the match, which saw Fischer develop his theories regarding Kasparov and Karpov fixing their games and the infamous radio interviews in which he was allowed to air his hatred of jews and the USA. It’s tragic stuff and Brady makes no excuses for any of it.
Arrest and Rescue
The penultimate chapter brings the book full circle, with an examination of Fischer’s arrest in Japan. Remarkably, another full circle was brought about, with Fischer relocating to Iceland. As Brady points out, despite the nostalgic connection, that there was very little choice. Nine other countries refused to take him. Bobby Fischer, the great chess champion, was approaching a very difficult endgame of his own making. His anti-Semitic, anti-US outbursts and beliefs were very much working against him.
Living and Dying in Iceland
The final chapter makes difficult reading. Caught between his desire for total anonymity and feelings of disappointment when people don’t recognise him, he spends most of his time avoiding people and seeking refuge in books. His life starts to ebb away as he refuses medical treatment for a kidney problem. The end, when it comes, is a terrible and painful one. One of the final quotes is surprising and seems completely un-Fischer like: ‘‘Nothing soothes as much as the human touch.’’
Dr Frank Brady in Iceland in 2009
And soon afterwards, like a ferocious storm which has finally burnt itself out, Fischer is gone from the world, aged just 64... Except, of course, with Fischer the story just rumbles on. In his Epilogue, Brady covers the exhumation and DNA test required to settle the dispute over his financial legacy.
Readers more interested in the purely chess side of his story should stick with Karsten Müller’s acclaimed Bobby Fischer: The Career and Complete Games of the American World Chess Champion (Russell Enterprises, 2009). However, Endgame should now be regarded as the definitive version of Bobby Fischer’s life and death and it is unlikely to be superseded anytime soon.
Frank Brady has produced a very accessible volume which genuinely tries to explain and help the reader understand the incredible life of the most enigmatic and intriguing of all chess champions.