It is not often that books have a significant emotional impact on me. Even reading the great tragedians ancient and “modern” – the likes of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Shakespeare – does not leave me emotionally exhausted. I am usually able to step temporarily into the world of known fiction or drama and return relatively unscathed into the world of reality once my reading is done. The true tragedies, however, which do not allow me this luxury, are those found in non fiction. The story of former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer is just such a tragedy, made even more poignant for me due to the almost thirty years I spent wandering the landscape of chess competition.
(below: Endgame and the author, Frank Brady)
Author Frank Brady also wrote an earlier biography of Fischer, Profile of a Prodigy, which I have posted about before, and was one of the few chess books I read over and over when I first discovered it at our local library. Unlike many of my fellow chess tournament competitors, I enjoyed the lore of the game as much as the game itself. Who were the champions? What were they like? What made them tick? How did they become so good? Bobby Fischer’s approach was almost monomaniacal. With a genius level IQ (reportedly measured at 180), he would likely have mastered anything that he focused this tremendous mental horsepower on; he just happened to choose chess. I take that back. I don’t think he “just happened” to choose it. Chess is a game where everyone competes on an equal footing. Young or old, rich or poor, socially skilled or socially inept. The starting position is the same for all, it is only through your decisions that you ultimately succeed or fail. I think this was a tremendous appeal for Fischer, who would certainly fit the ‘short end’ of the three comparatives I listed above.
Like most, I was already familiar with the story of Fischer’s rise to the top of the chess world, culminating in his 1972 match against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. Brady’s new book also fills in the details of what happened AFTER that match. How Fischer subsequently refused to defend his title in 1975; how he nearly drifted into anonymity living a nearly skid row existence in Los Angeles, how he re-emerged in 1992 to play a rematch against his old rival, Spassky, in war-torn Yugoslavia (violating U.S. sanctions and law in doing so, leaving himself a fugitive).
It’s also the story of his wandering the world as a “man without a country” for the remainder of his life, his descent into paranoia and isolation, his extreme anti-semitism and his celebration of the 9/11 attacks. This last offense was more than U.S. Officials were willing to tolerate, and they revoked his passport, leading to his arrest in Japan in 2004. Spending many months in jail in that country, he was finally extended an offer of citizenship by the tiny country of Iceland, once the scene of his greatest triumph. He lived in Iceland the remainder of his life, but had even begun to wear out his welcome there when he became ill and died in early 2008.
The saddest parts of the book for me are his final years in Iceland. How he had temporarily settled into a routine of eating at a certain restaurant and spending the rest of the day at a favorite bookstore just reading (and reading about everything, not just chess), how he had been discovered there by journalists who later staked out his known haunts in hopes of a story on the recluse. He never really found peace. Even after his death, his body was exhumed for DNA testing in one final, posthumous Indignity. Such brilliance and promise ending in such a tragic waste. It makes one’s heart heavy…
Below: a solitary Fischer at a favorite hot spring in Iceland.
Recently, the former world champion Garry Kasparov wrote a lengthy review of this new book.