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bobby fischer goes to war
20 may 2008
Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How a lone American star defeated the Soviet chess machine, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, has a misleading subtitle (probably tacked on by some marketer). Edmonds and Eidinow, with access to many living participants, and to documents that have become available since the fall of the Soviet Union, complicate the picture of both the lone star and the chess machine. They conclude that the 1972 Reykjavik world chess championship match between Boris Spassky and the late Bobby Fischer was pretty low on the scale of Cold War confrontations. But while Reykjavik was hardly a Cold War showdown, it could have been a substantial contribution to detente. That it wasn't is due mostly to the mercurial personality of Bobby Fischer, who stood at both the pinnacle and the end of his great chess career.
Reading Edmonds and Eidinow's book was a jolt of nostalgia to me. I was part of the great wave of chess enthusiasts when I was in high school, brought to the game by Reykjavik and the whole Fischer circus. I knew the names of the contemporary grandmasters – Svetozar Gligoric, Bent Larsen, Lev Polugaevsky – well, not quite as well as I knew the names of National League relief pitchers, but with something of the same schoolboy sports-fan intensity. Like many young chess fanatics, I rooted for Bobby Fischer. He was the ultimate nerd, someone who combined prodigious mental capacity, social uncouth, and emotional immaturity in proportions that made him a natural role model for all bespectacled, high-PSAT, low-sex-appeal high school males.
In 1970, a top American player named Pal Benko magnanimously stepped away from his spot in the qualifying Interzonal tournament so that Fischer could skip a step and proceed directly to that tournament. Fischer proceeded to dominate the Interzonal field and the one-on-one Candidates matches. At one point he won 20 consecutive games against the top grandmasters in the world, a feat that makes Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak look like tee-ball. The only opponent left in his sights was world champion Boris Spassky.
I liked Spassky, too. He was known for subtly thumbing his nose at the Soviet chess establishment. (He would later emigrate to France, where he lives today.) Spassky seemed to have none of Fischer's rage against his immediate surroundings. When Fischer complained about the way the light hit the chessboard, Spassky said that he'd grown up playing chess in bad light, in embattled Leningrad during the Second World War. What did he care about the chairs, the cameras, the crowd?
But Fischer, when he got to Reykjavik to play Spassky, threw a tantrum nearly every single day about one of those incidental matters. Edmonds and Eidinow quote observers who say that the constant kvetching can't but have had its effect on Spassky. Fischer, known for his scrupulous ethics at the chessboard when young, was poised at the verge of a long mental breakdown, and his irritating behavior was a continuous distraction. Fischer basically handed Game One to Spassky, making an elementary mistake almost as if on purpose. He forfeited Game Two. He trailed Spassky 0-2 in a best-of-24 series; and he seemed to have Spassky just where he wanted him. From that point on, Fischer dominated Spassky much as he had dominated every other major figure in world chess over the previous decade. He won seven games over the rest of the match to Spassky's one (there were 11 draws), easily taking the world title.
Chess and boxing have more in common with each other than most other kinds of sports or games. They are individual contests of pure skill; the venue doesn't influence the outcome very much; the best in the world tends to reign for years until displaced by a challenger who scores a knockout; the title tends, if not strongly regulated, to be claimed by a number of different contenders from different lineages, particularly when the champion runs away and refuses to defend it.
By wresting the title from Spassky, Fischer had broken into a closed club, his victory over the Soviet recalling, distantly, Jack Johnson's 1908 heavyweight championship victory over Tommy Burns. While Johnson had trouble getting a suitable White Hope to face him, however, Fischer had no lack of Soviet challengers. But his victory in Game 21 at Reykjavik was his last high-level chess competition. (Fischer and Spassky would play a nostalgic match in 1992, and Fischer would win again; but Fischer never defended his title or even played in sanctioned tournaments again after Reykjavik.)
Boris Spassky was one of the strongest chess masters of all time, and Bobby Fischer took him to school in a match celebrated for its brilliance (despite its occasional blunders). But Fischer was living on the knife-edge of sanity. His unacceptable behavior in Reykjavik presaged a three-decade decline into mental illness.
An interesting undertone of Bobby Fischer Goes to War is the theme of Jewishness and anti-Semitism. Spassky, a Russian nationalist, described himself as an "honorable anti-Semite" – a bizarre stand to take in post-WW2 Europe, but a straightforward one that involved no Jew-baiting. Fischer, whose mother and biological father were both Jewish, was by contrast a raving, virulent anti-Semite. Yet both men valued the company and advice of the many Jews on the world chess circuit (Larry Evans was one of Fischer's closest associates in America; Efim Geller was one of Spassky's seconds in Iceland).
Yet in Reykjavik, the world was able to see a uniquely gifted talent prove his superiority for the moment, and maybe forever. It is a great shame that Bobby Fischer could not have continued to prove that superiority. Great wits are not necessarily to madness near allied. World champions of chess like Capablanca, Botvinnik, and Kasparov have been cultured, intellectual gentlemen. But others, like Alekhine, became recluses, and the great Paul Morphy (an American, often compared to Fischer) wandered out of the chess world and at 47 "was found dead in a bathtub, surrounded by women's shoes" (77). Who knows whether such a fate arrives because, or in spite of, the master's genius.
Edmonds, David, and John Eidinow. Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How a lone American star defeated the Soviet chess machine. 2004. New York: HarperPerennial, 2005.