nthposition online magazine

Bobby Fischer goes to war

by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

On 11 September 2001, America's only World Chess Champion went on the air in Manila, exultantly announcing that it was a very good day indeed. A simple net search will turn up audio files of the broadcasts for the curious - a strong stomach is needed for a display of anti-Semitism and paranoia far beyond any reasoned critique of US foreign policy. Fischer had been a fugitive from the USA since 1992, playing a rematch in Belgrade, with Boris Spassky, of what David Edmonds and John Eidinow call "the most extraordinary chess match of all time" - the 1972 Fischer-Spassky World Championship showdown in Reykjavik - a rematch which "tarnished the Reykjavik legend just as a bad sequel to a movie can sully the original." This book is a full, compulsively readable account of the legend.

At the very end of the 11 September broadcast another side of Fischer appears. "Do you guys have my number?" he asks the host as the interview winds down, "I think I'll ring you off air and give you my numbers." In this instant, after all the noxious anti-Semitism, one hears the "perpetual lost teenager" Bobby Fischer, of whom Edmonds and Eidinow write: "those who knew him best rarely have a bad word to say about him. 'Oh, that's just Bobby,' they smile indulgently, when discussing one or other bizarre episode. Something in Fischer made him the perpetual lost teenager to his friends."

Indeed, while Fischer's boorishness is legendary, the authors find plenty of chess figures willing to forgive. "He was not a bad boy" said Lothar Schmid, the chief arbiter in Reykjavik, a man with much reason to hate Fischer after the often farcical brinkmanship he engaged in. Spassky himself reports feeling sympathy for Fischer, saying "he was always seventeen" Fischer was capable of kindness, and was utterly honourable at the chess table; his tantrums were always aimed at tournament organisers and officials rather than the opponent.

Edmonds and Eidinow describe the Soviet chess system and the rapid rise of Bobby Fischer with great verve and liveliness. The focus is on the match, and the extraordinary circumstances that surrounded it. They tell, with considerable narrative skill, how it was doubted that Fischer would even turn up - the brinkmanship and delay often seen as either a deliberate tactical ploy or simple greed over money. Even here, Fischer's behaviour was even more extraordinary than generally reported at the time; in Reykjavik at last, but still embroiled in arguments about appearance money and any forfeit of games due to his lateness, Fischer suddenly handwrote a letter of apology to Spassky offering to give up every cent of his prize money - his advisers had to tone this down, a process one described as "feeling like a cop trying to talk a jump case down off a ledge."

When Sergei Pavlov, the USSR's Sports Minister and former head of the Komsomol, commissioned a non-chess journalist to write an anti-Fischer article in 64, Soviet chess players were appalled - the article had castigated his "ignorance in most spheres of social life, unthinkable for a contemporary cultured person" - a hint that Fischer was not kulturnyi, a Russian term best translated (were it not for the corroding effects of irony) as "civilised". This was seen in Soviet chess circles as an unacceptable descent of personal vituperation into the rarefied consideration of chess; despite further pressure from Pavlov, no more personal attacks on Fischer appeared in the literature. Chess, although used by the regime for showpiece propaganda purposes, was also an oasis of relatively free expression; visitors were struck how uninhibited and fresh discussion of the World Championship was compared to the sterility of most Soviet media.

Spassky was portrayed as the kulturnyi embodiment of the Soviet system. Yet in his own way, Spassky was as much a rebel as Fischer; an excess of individualism, as Soviet sports appartchniks would see it, leading to fears that he was not the right man for the job of taking on the American wunderkind. Edmonds and Eidinow describe how the Soviet manipulation of players for political purposes - foreign travel in particular was approved or forbidden to suit political motives - and Spassky's habit of expressing opinions like "the Soviets have destroyed nature" and describing Latvia as an occupied country would have had grave consequences in a less talented player. The teenage Spassky was given to emotional outbursts at losing games - a trait he later suppressed, but overall Spassky was far from the Soviet "iceman" represented in the Western press.

Reykjavik - located, suitably enough, on a Mid-Atlantic faultline between East and West - would be the arena for what many saw as the Cold War ritualised into a man-on-man confrontation. The politics of the era suffuse the book - Henry Kissinger takes time from his other contributions to the gaiety of nations to ring Fischer as he sulks prior to the match, Soviet officials fret at the possible damage of national prestige of defeat. For all the Cold War rhetoric, Edmonds and Eidinow observe that many Americans supported Spassky and many Russians quietly cheered on Fischer. The State Department tried to distance itself from Fischer; Theodore Tremblay, the US chargé d'affaires in Reykjavik, was supremely embarrassed by the whole affair, and downplayed the whole idea of Fischer as a representative of the US as a whole.

That all this was taking place in Reykjavik is itself a tangled tale of chess politics and money. Spassky's four favoured cities were Reykjavik, Amsterdam, Dortmund and Paris, while Fischer's were Belgrade, Sarajevo, Buenos Aires and Montreal. Again, the Soviet champion's chosen cities were capitalist, while Fischer's were Communist (Fischer had always been very popular in Yugoslavia) Fischer moaned that Reykjavik was a backwater, regarded as a "hardship posting" for American GIs yet despite this, and the delay in actually turning up, many Icelanders warmed to Fischer. The story of how Fischer bonded, in as far as Fischer could bond, with Saemudur Palsson - the Icelandic policeman acting as his bodyguards - is among the most touching in the book.

What's missing in the book, to some degree, is the chess. We are dependent on Edmonds and Eidinow's word on the beauty of the actual chess. One reason chess people were so willing to forgive Fischer's behaviour was the sheer quality of his gameplay. It is perfectly understandable that the authors wished to avoid writing a chess book as such; the general reader might have been repelled by pages of notation and boards, and the records of these supreme games are widely available. But chess notation isn't all that hard to explain, and an appendix recording the games would be a boon. The authors do include an appendix detailing FBI surveillance of Fischer's mother, and their deduction from the records of this surveillance that Dr Paul Nemenyi, a Hungarian engineer, was Fischer's natural father. If true, this would mean the raging anti-Semite is Jewish on both sides of his family - an irony typical of this fascinating account of one of the strangest encounters in any sport.