Bobby Fischer goes to print

1/18/2004 – Robert James Fischer exerts a powerful pull even though his great achievements are 30 years gone. The new book "Bobby Fischer Goes to War" revisits the life and times of the 1972 world championship. The authors recently penned a book on philosophers Wittgenstein and Popper. Can they add anything new to Fischer-Spassky? Read on.

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Bobby Fischer goes to war

Chess fans might think that there couldn't possibly be anything more to say about Bobby Fischer, let alone his 1972 world championship match against Boris Spassky. After all, Fischer hasn't contributed anything to the chess world other than shame in many years and his games and exploits have been well documented. Dozens of books about the 1972 match were released, covering just about every angle.


Happier times. Fischer, Tal, Polugaevsky, Spassky at the Havana Olympiad in 66.

Fischer's personality and accomplishments of over three decades ago have proven to be rust resistant. Fans with no memory of his life and little knowledge of his games nevertheless obsess over the reclusive American. New books continue to come out, from histories like "Russians Versus Fischer" to serious analysis like Soltis's "Bobby Fischer Rediscovered" to routine exploitation of his name as with "Bobby Fischer's Outrageous Chess Moves" by Pandolfini. His own "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess," a leading candidate for best-selling chess book of all time, continues to be one of the game's best sellers after nearly 40 years in print.

Fischer continues to move chess fans and his name continues to move products, so the constant stream of books doesn't surprise. But the latest contribution to the Fischer canon comes from an unexpected quarter even if it revisits familiar ground. Two acclaimed non-fiction authors, David Edmonds and John Eidinow, have written "Bobby Fischer Goes to War : How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time."

Their last book, the fascinating "Wittgenstein's Poker," was a surprise success and now they turn the eyes of chess outsiders onto the most famous of all world championship matches. This isn't a chess book and the authors have little interest in the action on the board other than when they believe it is related to the various shenanigans that occurred away from the board.

The descriptions of the book claim significant new material dug up from places like declassified FBI and KGB files. The aforementioned "Russians Versus Fischer" by Plisetsky and Voronkov brought a trove of remarkable Soviet material to light in 2002. "Goes to War" aims to paint a much broader picture of the match and its importance at the height of the cold war.

The book has already been released in the UK and the first reviews are now appearing there. (The book is scheduled for US release in early March.) Several of the UK reviews are available online. The Scotsman review is here and the Telegraph's is here. The Sunday Times also has a review this weekend but their site is subscription only. Since the book is not intended for the chess audience it makes sense that the papers did not have their chess columnists pen the reviews.

Reading these doesn't give the impression that Edmonds and Eidinow have uncovered much that will be new to chess fans. It seems more likely that the old story has been attractively packaged for a new audience, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. We'll definitely fill you in when we get our hands on a copy.

One hopes that the authors achieve better than this paragraph from the Telegraph review:

"Fischer emerges from the story as a thoroughly nasty piece of work: a kind of Holden Caulfield with the attitudes of Joseph McCarthy. He escaped his German-Jewish mother, a Communist fellow-traveller constantly spied on by Hoover's FBI, by opting out of her rackety existence and making his own living as a chess master. He seems never to have known his real father (the authors prove that, unknown to the son, he too was Jewish); indeed Fischer's life seems to have been a quest for the absent father. He adopted the manners of a hustler and the opinions of a hick, perhaps as a way of punishing his intellectually ambitious mother."

Oy. And perhaps the folks at the Scotsman should at least have had their columnist John Henderson take a look at the review to avoid blunders like, "Fischer’s antics lost him the first game, for which he didn’t arrive, and the second, which he threw away," getting things exactly backwards. Not to mention that Fischer's "throwing away" game one has long been refuted. He played for a win then missed several draws.

But we chess folk are used to such inaccuracies. At the very least we can hope that the book itself, coming from such quality authors, contains few like it. Perhaps its publication will encourage some publishers to bring one or two of the finer chess books on the match back into print.


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