Endgame – The Latest Biography of Bobby Fischer

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.

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I’ll be reading this one soon…

Next Tuesday is the publishing date of Frank Brady’s new book, Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness. I’ve posted about Bobby Fischer before, and I’m also sure that by now everyone’s tired of hearing me say how I used to compete in chess tournaments in a prior life, but I won’t be able to resist reading this new book and writing about it once I’m done. There is a good review of this new book in the new York times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/24/books/24book.html?_r=2&ref=books

I think maybe it’s the uncomfortably close relationship between “genius” and “madness” that makes Fischer such a compelling figure. The history of chess is almost littered with tales of geniuses who “went mad” ostensibly due to their obsession with the game, or even the overworking of their brain in mastering its complexities. E.g., “Blindfold Chess” – where one player must keep track of the board and positioning of the pieces in his head vs. a sighted opponent – was “forbidden” for a long time in the former Soviet Union because it was felt to increase the risk of madness. Fischer, however, was the first celebrated case in this modern age of mass media, which may make him a kind of poster boy for the phenomenon. I can’t wait to read more about him. Supposedly, the book is very accessible to even non-chess players, so it may be worth a spot on your TBR lists..

Indiana chess master (and blogger!), Dennis Monokroussos, has written a review of the book on his web site, The Chess Mind. You can find it at:

http://www.thechessmind.net/blog/2011/1/4/a-review-of-frank-bradys-_endgame_-a-bobby-fischer-bio.html

Note, however, that his comments about the book lacking photographs and other supporting material only apply to his review copy, not the upcoming published version.

-Jay

Searching for Bobby Fischer (‘s DNA Sample)

I read the disturbing news today that the grave of former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer was going to be disturbed, with an exhumation to take place so that a sample of his DNA may be obtained to determine/confirm his paternity of a young Filipino girl whose mother was formerly associated with the grandmaster. Fischer died in Iceland a couple years ago leaving an estate of a couple million dollars.

Most probably know most of the story of Bobby Fischer.  He was a brilliant, though tempermental chess prodigy from the United States who virtually single-handedly wrested the world chess championship from Soviet domination that had endured virtually since the beginning of the cold war.  His 1972 title match with Soviet champion, Boris Spassky was played in Rejkyavik, Iceland, and Fischer ‘fled’ there several years ago after being temporarily detained trying to leave Japan due to passport issues.

Fischer in 1971 at the height of his powers:

And shortly before his death

Though brilliant, Fischer’s later years seemed to be marred by paranoia and mental illness.  He famously spat on a 1992 statement from the U.S. Government while playing a rematch with Spassky in the former Yugoslavia, participated in numerous anti-semitic rants on radio programs, celebrated the 9/11 attacks in 2001.  In short, he became looney.  Or, as my granddad would have said, “His bread’s not done.”  All this was made even more unpalatable to us chessplayers (until 2005 I was fairly active on the tournament ‘circuit,’ but I have been happily retired since then) who admired the unquestionable skill and preciseness with which he played the game.  The world had never seen that before.

Reading this news reminded me of one of my favorite books when I was first learning chess.  It’s Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy by Frank Brady.  This was one of the few books that my local library branch (Brown Branch of the IMCPL on East  Washington – since destroyed and rebuilt a few blocks away) had about chess, and I remember checking it out many times.  It included many of his games that one could study, but – even more interesting to me at the time – was the story of his rise to power.  I suppose the book would prove interesting for that reason even to a non-chess playing reader.

Then, in 1993, a book was written titled Searching for Bobby Fischer, by Fred Waitzkin, the father of a child chess prodigy of that time, Josh Waitzkin.  This book was later made into a great movie starring Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley, Lawrence Fishburne and Max Pomeranc in the title role.

I was fortunate enough to meet both Fred & Josh Waitzkin briefly during the Bermuda International tournament in February of 1997.  Unlike many chess prodigies, Josh turned into a well-adjusted “normal” adult, and has excelled in other fields (including martial arts!) in addition to chess, and has even written a well-received book of his own on “The Art of Learning.”  I’d heartily recommend both the book and the movie – even to those not familiar with the “chess world,” and, if you enjoy them, maybe then you could give Profile of a Prodigy a try.