Andrew Meier is the former Moscow correspondent for Time. Based on his review of Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinry Chess Match of All Time in tomorrow’s Washington Post Book World, he is also at least as knowledgeable about the 1972 world championship chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky as are the coauthors of the new book that Meier in any event recommends.
Meier himself views the match as “about detente” rather than the Cold War. I happened to be in New York during the match and remember watching move by move coverage of the match on New York public television. The mania surrounding the match causes me to doubt Meier’s opinion concerning the larger context of the match, but little else about his fascinating review.
Meier describes the Soviet domination of chess dating to the Soviet Union’s capture of the world chess title in 1948 and its importance as a source of national pride…until 1972:
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.
Meier chides the authors of the book for failing to probe the depth of Fischer’s madness:
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.”
How nuts is Fischer? Meier recalls of Fischer:
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.”
I doubt this is a book I’ll ever get around to reading, but the review is of interest and the subject has great entertainment value.
HINDROCKET adds: In my youth I played a little chess, and in the mid-70’s I subscribed to Chess Life and Review, the publication of the U.S. Chess Federation. I still recall a letter that Fischer wrote to the magazine defending his refusal to play Karpov; at issue was Fischer’s long-standing disagreement with the rules governing international chess matches. Fischer refused to play under the prevailing rules–my memory may be faulty here, but I believe the question was whether a draw should count as one-half point for each player, or not count at all toward the total needed to win. Anyway, what I remember about his letter was how brilliantly it was argued. It was replete with mathematical formulas and stated his case with a rare cogency and persuasiveness. Unfortunately, despite the brilliance of his analysis, Fischer’s sticking to this point of principle was quite mad, as it led to his loss of the world championship. As I recall, Fischer did not play publicly for many years after beating Spassky for the title; for practical purposes, he never played again.