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David Edmonds and John Eidimow’s ‘Bobby Fischer Goes to War’: A Review

Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time
by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

(This review first appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on 4 July 2004.)

Reviewed by Robert Lalasz

Nine years old, a magnetic chess set in my pocket, masking tape holding my glasses together, and my family all wearing “Re-elect the President” buttons … of course I loved Bobby Fischer in 1972, when he went to Iceland to take on world champion Boris Spassky of the evil Soviet chess machine.

So why did I — along with millions of other Americans — end up pulling like crazy for Spassky, whose country had held the world title for over three decades?

It’s the kind of larger question that David Edmonds and John Eidinow address only en passant in “Bobby Fischer Goes to War,” their clumsy and often dissatisfying account of history’s most famous chess match. The book is not a complete bust, because Fischer-Spassky gives the authors plenty to work with: gamesmanship, geopolitics, genius on the game board, insanity everywhere else.

And because Fischer, that bad-boy rock star trapped in a chess geek’s brain, grows ever more compelling as a subject, even though he hasn’t played a sanctioned match in over 30 years and has descended into paranoid ugliness. So while “Bobby Fischer Goes to War” is a confusion of Cold War melodrama and secondary sources, it does resurrect our queasy reaction to that summer-of-’72 soap opera. When Fischer played, we were in awe of him; and the rest of the time, we just wanted to slap him.

Actually, it was a miracle that Fischer even made it to Reykjavik, much less stayed to win. A child prodigy who had won six U.S. Chess Championships by the time he was 20, Fischer was otherwise a deeply arrested man — devoid of humor, unable to follow conversations, hypersensitive to light and sound, and increasingly distrustful. (The strong possibility that he has Asperger’s syndrome isn’t mentioned by Edmonds and Eidinow.)

Terrified of crowds as well as of losing, Fischer ran away from one flight at JFK because the paparazzi had spotted him. And he forfeited the second game in an ongoing war with the championship’s promoters over the distracting hum of film cameras in the auditorium — cameras, from a crew his team had hired, that made a sound sophisticated sensors couldn’t detect.

But that was the key to Fischer, besides his superior game: He was a first-rate bully. From tournament organizers, he would demand different hotel rooms, different chess pieces, different chairs, different foods — and then, getting his way, issue 15 fresh ultimatums. Above all, he always asked for more prize money, often immediately after signing a contract. “If he was offered five, he wanted ten; if he was offered twenty, he wanted fifty,” write Edmonds and Eidinow. “Somehow, the actual amount was immaterial.”

But because Fischer was so good, no one seemed willing to stop him. Like his fellow New Yorker John McEnroe, Fischer kept shocking a genteel game into capitulation, and throwing his opponents off balance. In Reykjavik, Fischer jacked up the purse to $250,000 just by not showing up, before Henry Kissinger called the American and convinced him that it was his patriotic duty to win.

Then, after losing the first two games, Fischer forced the third game into a back room (those cameras again) and broke Spassky’s back with two crushing wins from which the Russian never recovered. By the 15th game, Edmonds and Eidinow report, Spassky was borrowing lines from Fischer, claiming he was being hypnotized and/or poisoned while the KGB investigated the auditorium.

“Bobby Fischer Goes to War” provides new insight into the mess that the seemingly monolithic Soviet side had become: Spassky’s lax training; his mediocre, handpicked support team; and the inability of the famed Soviet chess committee to get through to the champion. (We also learn interesting parallels between the two competitors, such as their anti-Semitism and their political rebelliousness.)

But Edmonds (a current BBC journalist) and Eidinow (a former one) never prove their provocative subtitle. As their reporting clearly shows, Fischer, despite never having beaten Spassky before, was always going to win this match. He was unstoppable, at the peak of his powers both as a chess player and as a psychological terrorist.

Worse, the authors also don’t give the match the book it deserves. As history, “Bobby Fischer” is a glorified clip-job — long on moldy-old quotes from secondary sources, and very short on fresh interviews. (Fischer, as expected, didn’t cooperate with the authors; their interview with Spassky at his Paris home produced little insight, either.) As analysis, it’s quarter-baked, giving us game theory here, Spassky as Dostoevsky there, and tacked-on historical frames such as the crucial ’70s Icelandic fishing dispute with Britain. (Unh-huh.)

And as narrative, the book hops like a knight among the dizzying and often superfluous litany of events in Reykjavik. Edmonds and Eidinow have a jabby style that contains too many sweaty, lurid uppercuts — like “In Reykjavik, rumors circulated as in wartime,” or “Black’s resignation position was quite pitiful, the king humiliatingly exposed to the world, like a naked man caught in the shower after the rest of his house has collapsed around him.” Throw in a lot of heavy breathing about the Cold War along with overblown epigraphs leading off each chapter, and “Bobby Fischer” makes the actual event look small by comparison.

But perhaps that was its proper size all along. The overlay of American-Soviet tensions (and American angst about its capabilities in the midst of Vietnam) inflated what amounted to the triumph of an idiot savant over a better-adjusted fellow nerd. At the post-match awards dinner in Reykjavik, Fischer actually whipped out his pocket set, to show Spassky how the position the Russian had just resigned that afternoon was truly lost. And Spassky, amazed but also gracious, actually played along.

Now Spassky lives quietly with his wife in Paris, and Fischer lives in Japan, with occasional forays to the Philippines to spew anti-Semitic, pro-9/11 diatribes on a radio show whose time he buys. After all these years, I think I was pulling for the winner.

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