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The Fischer King

by Jeffrey Meyers

Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall — From America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness, by Frank Brady (Crown, 402 pp., $25.99)

Chess plays an important role in the fiction of Lewis Carroll and Vladimir Nabokov, and in the film of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the characters play chess on a floating board while enveloped in the rising steam of a hot spring. Bobby Fischer (1943–2008) made the intellectual game — one in which there’s no element of chance and the player is entirely responsible for his own fate — popular throughout the world. But, as John Dryden wrote, “Great wits are sure to madness near allied”; and this chess prodigy and champion was mad indeed.

Fischer’s strange childhood provides one key to his character. He never knew his putative father, a German biophysicist who abandoned his family and moved to Chile. Fischer’s American mother studied medicine and had a daughter in Moscow in the mid-1930s, but was homeless in Chicago when he was born. A highly intelligent, devoted, and sacrificial mother, she worked at many low-level jobs to support her two children, became a nurse, and finally qualified as a doctor. Her unusual career aroused the attention of the FBI, and both she and Bobby remained under lifelong surveillance.

With an astonishing “highest genius” IQ of 180, Fischer couldn’t relate to other children or endure the regimen of a classroom. Obsessed with chess from the age of six, strange, lonely, and isolated, he dropped out of high school in Brooklyn, where Barbra Streisand was his classmate. Six feet two inches tall and a natural athlete, he went swimming and played tennis to keep in shape and increase his stamina. His graceful hand movements were like those of a classical pianist. He had no girlfriends, and after visiting a brothel at the age of 19, declared: “Chess is better.”

Fischer, the Mozart of chess, developed his prodigious ability by reading all the advanced chess books in Spanish, German, and Russian as well as in English, by studying with the best American masters, and by playing endlessly against the toughest competitors. When playing speed chess, opposing a dozen players simultaneously, and competing when blindfolded, he seemed invincible. His tactical ingenuity included bold mobility, rapid advancement of his pieces, and the capture of the center of the board. Fischer said that one of his most formidable adversaries, the Russian David Bronstein, could “play any kind of game, positional or tactical, and any kind of opening.” Frank Brady, who knew Fischer and watched many of his games, wrote that Fischer’s style, by contrast, was “lucid, crystal-clear, economical, concrete, rational.” His consistent style allowed his opponents to know in advance what kinds of openings he would play, but he was relentlessly aggressive and always attacked. Fischer’s achievements were spectacular. He was the youngest American chess master at 13, the youngest international grandmaster at 15, undefeated against the best players in the world at Bled and Stockholm when still in his teens, and, in Vancouver in 1971, the first in chess history to shut out a grandmaster.

In the strange, even tragic arc of his life, everything led up to and then descended from his famous match against the world champion, Boris Spassky, in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972. The professional Russian chess masters — trained, nourished, and supported by the state — had dominated world chess for more than three decades. The Russians, overrepresented in all the tournaments, would crowd around the table and discuss the play in progress. During overnight adjournments, as many as seven Russian grandmasters would analyze the game and prepare their compatriot for victory. Fischer had a fiery character, a handsome face, and a telegenic personality, and television emphasized the theatrical aspects of chess. But he responded poorly to the atmospherics of the match, even before he arrived there.

Fearing the unknown and craving absolute control, he declared himself acutely sensitive to the distracting noise, glaring lights, intrusive cameras, and people moving around on stage. (He would eventually complain even about the size and shape of the chess pieces and the height of the lavatory seat.) He kept delaying his arrival in Iceland until most of his demands were met, and was finally persuaded by a personal plea from Henry Kissinger (who described his intervention as “the worst chess player in the world calling the best chess player”).

Like astronauts and Olympic athletes, Fischer had become, to some extent, a political pawn in the Cold War. The battle of minds, charged with intellectual energy, also became a battle of ideologies. Spassky had a small army of helpers; Bobby was virtually alone. He showed up at the last minute, lost the first game, and forfeited the second. When he defeated Spassky 12½ to 8½ and became world champion, the win was celebrated by many as a demonstration of capitalism’s superiority to Communism.

Like many film and rock stars, Bobby was not well prepared to deal with higher levels of success. An intensely private and self-enclosed man, he at first enjoyed the attention of the press and television, but soon came to hate it. His sudden retirement from competition was as amazing as his return, after an absence of 20 years, and his second defeat of Spassky in their 1992 rematch in Yugoslavia. Intensely idealistic about the game that had absorbed his whole life, Bobby said he retired because the Soviets cheated. He also wanted to retire, at the peak of his form, as world champion.

Chess, which had focused his mind and energy, was the only thing that had kept him in touch with reality. He feared the Russians might try to assassinate him. He had all the lead extracted from his teeth, which began to fall out. Always suspicious of doctors, he refused medical treatment even when he was dying of renal failure. Desperately seeking a system of belief, Bobby had adopted and then abandoned Judaism, the fundamentalist Worldwide Church of God, and the cult of the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and had even flirted with Catholicism. The hermit wanted to meet “vivacious girls with big breasts,” and hoped to marry and have a child, but wound up with a rather mousy Japanese chess player as his girlfriend, and no children.

Bobby earned very little — $1,000 in 1959 — during his dazzling teenage years. During retirement, he actually spent some time on skid row in Los Angeles and was arrested for vagrancy. But he also turned down $5 million to play Anatoly Karpov in Zaire and another $5 million to play Karpov in the Philippines. Always the idealist, he was more interested in recognition and prestige than in hard cash. After he became a millionaire, he lived frugally and survived without mansions, limousines, and private jets.

In Fischer’s wilderness years, his anti-Communism was transformed into a rabid anti-Americanism, and into Ezra Pound–like ranting against the Jews in radio broadcasts. His paranoia intensified after he violated U.S. economic sanctions by playing in Yugoslavia during the Balkan war of 1992, refused to pay American taxes for 15 years, and was hotly pursued by the American government. He publicly spat on the official letter warning him about the sanctions and exclaimed, after the 9/11 attacks, “I want to see the U.S. wiped out.” Hounded by the government and threatened with extradition, he spent his last years as an international fugitive in Germany, Hungary, the Philippines, and Japan, where he was arrested, shackled, and imprisoned for a year for the minor offense of traveling with an invalid passport. In 2005, a grateful Iceland granted him citizenship and Fischer — a bitter and disillusioned, hopeless and broken man — spent his last three years in that remote country.

Frank Brady’s fair-minded book, clearly written for the non-chess-specialist, is interesting, and even exciting when describing Bobby’s miraculous ascent. But Brady does not provide a detailed analysis, with moves and diagrams, of any of his great games. He does not explain why Fischer’s paid second in Yugoslavia was sulky, unhelpful, and discouraging, or what “atrocious error” Fischer committed when playing Spassky in 1992. More important, he does not show how Fischer revolutionized the strategy of the game nor unravel the specificities of his genius. Brady does not mention that while most chess masters could see two or three moves ahead, Fischer’s extraordinary brain could see many more.

Like any great fighter, he loved to break down his rival’s ego and deliver a crushing defeat. As Spassky (who came to like Fischer) confessed, it was not a matter of winning or losing against him, but of surviving his ruthless onslaughts.

– Mr. Meyers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, will publish John Huston: Courage and Art in September.

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