Endgame: the spectacular rise and fall of Bobby Fischer

A book review

Frank Brady, Endgame: The spectacular rise and fall of Bobby Fischer

The year is 1972, and a young, precociously talented chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer, is playing against Boris Spassky, the World Chess Champion from the Soviet Union. The Russians had dominated the world chess competition, churning out brilliant players from their state-subsidized education and sporting systems. They had dominated chess for decades, and looked set to continue that domination. But now, here was an American wunderkind taking up the challenge and competing with the best chess players in the world. Fischer, of Jewish ancestry from the United States, plainly stated that patriotism, not just the love of the game, motivated him to defeat Spassky, the ranking Soviet champion. Both men were at the height of their chess-playing powers, and no other chess match had garnered as much attention as this one. They played in Reykjavik, Iceland, for the world championship.

Fischer started the match disastrously, which was uncharacteristic of him. Spassky appeared to be on his way to another victory, and keeping the World Chess Championship title in the Soviet Union once again. Their overwhelming domination of the sport seemed to be on track. However, Fischer’s determination, a fierce competitive drive that had seen him progress from child prodigy to American chess champion to world contender, came through. He turned the match around.

Bobby Fischer won. He was the World Chess Champion.

Interest in chess in the United States skyrocketed, with pictures of Bobby Fischer in popular magazines and newspapers, new chess clubs sprouting up across the country, and even then-President Nixon sent a congratulatory telegram to Fischer. The Americans, having witnessed the chess champion frustratingly remain in Soviet hands for so long, now took up the game with enthusiasm. Fischer was regarded as a sporting hero, in the same way as Mickey Mantle for baseball.

After that match, Fischer disappeared from chess competition. He refused to defend his title in 1975 against the next contender, Soviet player Anatoly Karpov, Fischer withdrew from public life, and remained invisible to the public eye for the next twenty years.

In 1992, Fischer re-emerged for a rematch with his old foe, Boris Spassky, which took place in Belgrade, the former Yugoslavia. At the time, Yugoslavia was embroiled in a civil war, and the regime of President Milosevic was subject to sanctions. This meant that no US citizens or businesses could conduct any kind of trade or commerce with entities that originated from Yugoslavia. Fischer, a US national, was in violation of those sanctions by travelling to Belgrade and receiving remuneration for his participation in a business and sporting venture. The US department of Treasury warned Fischer that his participation was in violation of the trade embargo on Yugoslavia at the time. This conflict with the US government escalated when Fischer was presented with an order by the US government forbidding him to play. In response, Fischer called a press conference, removed the letter from his briefcase and proceeded to literally spit on the document. Fischer’s animus for the US government, while always simmering beneath the surface since the mid-1970s, now erupted into the open.

And there was worse to come.

Fischer had been living outside the US since his 1992 rematch with Spassky. His violation of the trade embargo, and his avoidance of paying income taxes to the US government, did nothing to endear him to US authorities. He had been living in Japan since the 1990s, and he gave regular radio interviews to various broadcasting stations, expounding his increasingly conspiratorial and anti-Semitic viewpoints about “the Jews”, powerful financial interests, the Russian chess establishment, the American government, the media and just about anyone else that he believed was opposed to his rightful place as chess champion. On September 11, 2001, in the wake of the terrible terrorist attacks, Fischer was interviewed by a Filipino station Radio Baguio, and he was asked for his opinion about the attacks. In part, Fischer responded with the following:

Fischer: Yes, well, this is all wonderful news. It’s time for the fucking U.S. to get their heads kicked in. It’s time to finish off the U.S. once and for all.

The interviewer continued with his questions, and Fischer responded with more invective:

Fischer: Yes, I applaud the act….Fuck the U.S. I want to see the U.S. wiped out.

After expressing his desire that military officers launch a coup d’etat and take over the United States, he continued:

Fischer: I say death to President Bush! I say death to the United States. Fuck the United States! Fuck the Jews! The Jews are a criminal people. They mutilate (circumcise) their children. They’re murderous, criminal, thieving, lying bastards. They made up the Holocaust. There’s not a word of truth to it….This is a wonderful day. Fuck the United States. Cry, you crybabies! Whine, you bastards! Now your time is coming.

Fischer meteoric rise to world chess champion and spectacular fall from public view into a hateful vitriol-spewing recluse has been wonderfully told by Frank Brady in his book Endgame: The spectacular rise and fall of Bobby Fischer. Brady is an international grand chessmaster and successful author in his own right, and has written an engaging and accessible biography of Fischer. He avoids going into junk psychoanalysis, and instead offers an honest portrait of a brilliant chess champion and hypersensitive man who succumbed to conspiracy theories.

Brady admirably recounts the life of the chess prodigy, a young Bobby Fischer who dropped out of high school to concentrate exclusively on chess. Fischer frequented the chess clubs of New York to develop and refine his talent. Jack Collins was an early teacher of Fischer, and he nurtured the skills of the precocious and aggressively determined Fischer. One can only wonder why, years later, Fischer, in a fit of pique, dismissed his former teacher, plainly stating that he (Fischer) had learned nothing from Collins.

Brady examines the rising Fischer, pitted against no-less talented and determined opponents in the Brooklyn and Manhattan Chess Club. The child prodigy would lose a few at first. But he learned from his defeats, and was soon overwhelming the older players and displaying a searing persistence to win. Fischer would analyse the games that he had lost, or was close to losing, hours after the matches had ended. His ability was extraordinary, and he outshone his competitors, many of whom went on to become chess masters in their own right. William Lombardy and the late Larry Evans were Fischer’s contemporaries, and they played against him in their many hours of chess competition. Both had been Fischer’s second (an assistant to help prepare and analyse chess matches) for some of the major chess competitions. But Fischer soared above the rest, and brought his own innovations to the game.

Brady avoids using chess tables and chess notation in the book, and yet conveys the tension, drama and excitement surrounding chess competitions. Fischer railed against the Russians, whom he accused of conspiring to stop him from winning matches and taking his rightful place as world champion. While the Soviet side certainly encouraged cooperation among their chess players, analysing moves, creating new manoeuvres to stump the opposition, Brady finds that there was no organised conspiracy to deliberately exclude Fischer from competition.

Brady includes engaging, pithy portraits of all Fischer’s major American chess competitors, the people that Fischer fought and defeated in his ascent to the American chess championship. His style was one of relentless aggression and solid persistence. He wore down his competitors, and he took that attacking style with him into international competitions.

Fischer had a life-long interest in conspiracy theories, and he collected and read a vast amount of rightwing hate literature, ranging from Holocaust denial books, anti-Semitic tracts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, denunciations of powerful financial interest groups, and right-wing populist literature. All these theories began to meld into a worldview where ‘they’ are ‘against’ him from succeeding. Fischer found a ready explanation for any perceived lack of progress in his chess career. Any frustration or impediment he experienced could be attributed to this vast, conspiratorial network ranged against him.

Brady had written a biography of Fischer back in 1965, and his thorough research and meticulous knowledge shines through in his Endgame book. Brady knew of Fischer’s petulance and hypersensitivity, but nowhere does Brady portray Fischer as a man to be reviled or hated. Rather, Fischer comes across as a tortured soul, a brilliant champion whose unstable temperament marred his otherwise incredible achievements.

Fischer’s outbursts were initially directed against the Russian and their alleged ‘machinations’. But his attentions eventually turned against the United States. His failure to defend his title in 1975 against Karpov was the beginning of a long decline for Fischer. Brady commendably does his best to document this twenty year period of oblivion, with Fischer living in squalor. His vagrant condition at this time only helped to turn Fischer’s mind against the government of his country. Fischer rebuffed million-dollar offers to return to chess, only agreeing to a rematch with Spassky in 1992.

Brady examines the last periods of Fischer’s life with humanity and compassion. Fischer eventually found refuge in Iceland, where he had maintained his popularity because of his brilliance at the chess board. Passing away in 2008, Fischer should be remembered as an extraordinary chess champion and, while not excused his hateful rhetoric, his vitriolic outbursts can now be forgotten. Brady never loses sight of the fact that his subject, while achieving remarkable heights of success, was also a flawed, eccentric, human being. The revulsion that his spiteful comments elicited recede into insignificance compared to the admiration that his chess prowess engendered. Brady’s book is riveting and compelling reading.