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Finding Bobby Fischer, sadly

Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time, David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Ecco Press: 322 pp., $24.95

March 07, 2004|J.C. Hallman | J.C. Hallman is the author of "The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession and the World's Oldest Game" and the forthcoming "The God Variations."

Exploiting the release of previously secret documents, conducting numerous interviews with many of this melodrama's central players and compiling material from dozens of texts produced in the wake of what was surely a major cultural event, the authorial tag team of David Edmonds and John Eidinow has produced what is perhaps the finest addendum ever to the 1972 chess world championship contest in Reykjavik, Iceland, known as the "Match of the Century." Still, in turning it all into a readable book, the team is confronted with a number of problems -- among them that Bobby Fischer is perhaps the most unsympathetic protagonist one could imagine and that chess matches are by nature anticlimactic. And even if those problems are surmountable, what do revelations about a contest, generally regarded as a battle of the Cold War, mean to a non-chess audience?

The authors have been in this spot before. Their first book, "Wittgenstein's Poker," told the story of an argument between two philosophers, and Ludwig Wittgenstein is a similarly tough sell. "Poker" used the quick feud as context for a kind of fun introduction to modern philosophy, and it was surely a lower brow appeal that enabled its significant splash on both sides of the pond: The currents of the North Atlantic have yet to recover. And now comes a longer contest with an even more unruly genius.

Fischer as an individual and his 1972 match with Boris Spassky have been the center of numerous studies. At least in the standard interpretation of his life, Fischer has this much in common with Rambo: He fought battles for the U.S. with government sanction, failed to be properly appreciated when he returned home, ran afoul of the law and eventually lashed out at Americans. But what Sly made sympathetic with cool combat tactics and eventually a crying jag, Fischer could never pull off. Apart from the beauty of his chess, he is a dark secret of the subculture, and Edmonds and Eidinow tread a fine line to keep their character at least a little likable.

They begin by detailing Fischer's foggy early life, but even with the Oliver Twist-like story of a single mother and a tough Brooklyn upbringing, the facts we're given just make him seem scary: a grandmaster happens upon a young Fischer torturing an animal and believes that "if he wasn't a chess player, he might have been a dangerous psychopath"; he joins a cult that forbids, of all things, board games; his financial ignorance is so complete that he might dispose of valid checks; and, as an adult, he has crying jags of his own when he loses games. "Hate was among Fischer's mechanisms for dealing with the world beyond the board," the authors tell us. "[H]e had no concept of forgiveness." A question they are reluctant to ask is whether anyone should have intervened in Fischer's life: Here is a boy and a man with enough red flags for a parade in China.

And when Fischer grows up, the authors encounter further difficulty: his opponent, Spassky, who is generally regarded as the classic Soviet representative of the Cold War matchup. In reality, we're told, he was more of a capitalist than Fischer and pretty much a nice guy. And that's sort of the problem. Through our first 100 pages or so, equal time is devoted to Spassky and Fischer, and though the research is comprehensive, the risk is that the intimate details of Spassky's life will appeal to only the hardest of hard-core chess fans. As the title tells us, Fischer is the story.

Which is not to criticize a lack of momentum. The authors generally avoid descriptions of actual chess ("Fischer won an epic contest in eighty-nine moves. He won the second and third games."), a choice that will please some and disappoint others, and they do an excellent job of re-creating the energy of Fischer's movement through matches leading up to Reykjavik, a stretch that must rank among the greatest exhibitions of intellectual dominance ever seen.

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