Bobby Fischer Goes to War : How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time
by John Eidinow, David Edmonds
Release Date: 02 March, 2004
For a brief time in 1972, chess was the only game in the world. Bobby Fischer came face to face with Boris Spassky in Iceland, and the world took delight in a simple morality play. Fischer was depicted as the lone American hero gunning to win the title from the Soviets who had held it for decades. The Cold War was reduced to the free world's champion versus the apparatchiks spawned by the Soviet socialist chess machine. It was fun to watch the battle in such black and white terms, but in _Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time_ (Ecco), David Edmonds and John Eidinow show that the true story was much more complicated although just as exciting. For instance, Spassky may have been a Russian patriot, but he was not a Soviet patriot and he was not a member of the Communist Party. Fischer was eccentric and asocial, and his bratty behavior seemed un-American to many of his fellow Americans. But both their governments had a stake in the match, and people all over the world who knew nothing about chess watched the contest carefully, and many took up the game. It was quite truly the most extraordinary chess match of all time, just as the book's subtitle says, and the book makes clear in how many ways it was extraordinary.
Spassky loved the game for itself, and, as a well-rounded gentleman who liked fishing and festive parties with his friends, seemed sincerely to be looking forward to what he called "a feast of chess," win or lose. He admired Fischer, but the book shows that beyond a colossal talent for chess, Fischer possessed few admirable qualities. He was a morose man who one journalist said "was likely to greet even an old friend as if he were expecting a subpoena". His frequent tantrums (which earned him much derision from his compatriots) did, at least, stop when he sat down to play, and he never attempted to disturb an opponent across the table. He was called by Dr. Henry Kissinger when he did not show up for the match, assured that he was "our man up against the commies." Having lost the first game, he didn't even show up for the second, and thus lost it as well. But then he crushed Spassky in the third, and went on to a match full of hard-fought draws and wins, many of which are regarded as among the finest games ever played. President Nixon sent congratulations. Spassky eventually went into contented retirement in France, continuing to regard the Soviet chess administration with disdain. Fischer never defended his title, although he has played some exposition games. He went on to join a fundamentalist Christian church, then to denounce it as satanic. He may have been the American hope during the match, but he is now deeply anti-American, spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (ironic, given his parentage on both sides, revealed here) to any radio station that will allow him voice.
The authors have interviewed all the important officials involved who are still alive, especially Spassky; they didn't interview Fischer, and don't say why, but that was probably just not possible. _Bobby Fischer Goes to War_ is not a book for those who want to study the chess games. It has exactly one board diagram, and the games are described generally, not play by play. Chess players interested in this aspect of the match already have bought better books on the games themselves. This is a book about personalities, about the history of the times, and about the off-board gambits and counter-gambits, and you certainly don't have to know any details about chess to enjoy it. There is, to be sure, a great deal to enjoy here, in the re-creation of the match and the geopolitics of the time that lent it importance.
If Bobby Fischer's name is affiliated with a book, it comes to reason that there is some amount of weirdness forthcoming. I am not referring to the chess books Fischer wrote, as those are guidelines to chess perfection. This refers to any discussion of his life, which this book does. The world's greatest chess player, Fischer, has lived his personal life much less logically than his life is an eight by eight square cell.
To help the nonchess reader sort out the menagerie, authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow provide a "Dramatis Personae," listing 21 Americans, 24 Soviets, six Icelanders, four match officials, and six sundry others, explaining their relationship to the Reykjavik, Iceland chess match. They also include a short glossary to educate us in the vocabulary of competitive chess.
The book begins with a vital quote by Boris Spassky, "When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive. This sets the tone for all that follows.
Edmonds and Eidinow lay out the social mire Fischer was growing up in, and his quick rise to chess dominance.
In 1954, when Fischer was 11, he was attending matches and doing well enough but not at his later prodigy level. In that year, as he is quoted, he "just got good." Modern chess history, or at least for one its most colorful characters, begins then.
1972: Boris Spassky was the champ. He deserved to be there. Bobby Fischer was the contender. He deserved to have the opportunity. Between these two men stood a world of complex politics, money, national pride, idiosyncrasies, and suitors to the game. Reykjavik, Iceland was the location of what has become one of the most legendary chess matches ever, between Spassky and Fischer.
Early on during Fischer's career, he had the same impact Michael Jordan would later enjoy later enjoy as professional basketball player. "Fischer-fear" was the description of some players' psychosomatic illnesses from Fischer's intimidation. Opponents would make mistakes as a result. Fischer had the bravado of Muhammad Ali, but none of his class. He would take this personality and boorish demands to the match.
Boris Spassky is painted differently. A product of the Soviet support system, he became professional about the game. Affable and popular, an opposite to in every way to Fischer, he still had what Fischer lacked -- the title "World Champion."
The bulk of the book moves on from biography and personality profiles. It follows the path the chess culture -- all chaotic in its apparent systemic approach. Going from the need to compete to the actual match turned through every convoluted corner, with Kissinger's involvement, the FBI, the KGB, and as much intrigue as a James Bond movie.
The travails of the match are outlined as needed (but not heavily), highlighting the most interesting parts and never boring nonchess players. The psychology of the players and chess players in general is discussed, as is the history of modern champions, providing a field for tension and a framework for the match.
This was in the midst of the Cold War, and the Soviets -- not just Spassky, owned the chess champ title. Nixon was president. Fischer, the bombastic, arrogant American who hated Russia, had a knack for successfully risking it all on the board by knowing the principles of chess as a sublime art form. Spassky, the methodical Russian, against Fischer, became a symbol of the Cold war itself. The image of the match was only half of the matter. Neither man was the caricature the press saw them as, but such are the stories of legend.
I fully recommend "Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time," by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Oh, and if you somehow missed the big news back in 1972, Fischer won the match.