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The Bobby Fischer Defense

AP Images
Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer after Spassky won the first game of the 1972 World Chess Championship, held in Reykjavík, Iceland. Fischer went on to win the championship.

It would be impossible for me to write dispassionately about Bobby Fischer even if I were to try. I was born the year he achieved a perfect score at the US Championship in 1963, eleven wins with no losses or draws. He was only twenty at that point but it had been obvious for years that he was destined to become a legendary figure. His book My 60 Memorable Games was one of my earliest and most treasured chess possessions. When Fischer took the world championship crown from my countryman Boris Spassky in 1972 I was already a strong club player following every move as it came in from Reykjavík. The American had crushed two other Soviet grandmasters en route to the title match, but there were many in the USSR who quietly admired his brash individuality along with his amazing talent.

I dreamed of playing Fischer one day, and we eventually did become competitors after a fashion, though in the history books and not across the chessboard. He left competitive chess in 1975, walking away from the title he coveted so dearly his entire life. Ten more years passed before I took the title from Fischer’s successor, Anatoly Karpov, but rarely did an interviewer miss a chance to bring up Fischer’s name to me. “Would you beat Fischer?” “Would you play Fischer if he came back?” “Do you know where Bobby Fischer is?”

Occasionally I felt as though I were playing a one-sided match against a phantasm. Nobody knew where Fischer was, or if he, still the most famous chess player in the world at the time, was out there plotting a comeback. After all, at forty-two in 1985 he was still much younger than two of the players I had just faced in the world championship qualification matches. But thirteen years away from the board is a long time. As for playing him, I suppose I would have liked my chances and I said as much, but how can you play a myth? I had Karpov to worry about, and he was no ghost. Chess had moved on without the great Bobby, even if many in the chess world had not.

It was therefore quite a shock to see the real live Bobby Fischer reappear in 1992, followed by the first Fischer chess game in twenty years, followed by twenty-nine more. Lured out of self-imposed isolation by a chance to face his old rival Spassky on the twentieth anniversary of their world championship match—and by a $5 million prize fund—a heavy and bearded Fischer appeared before the world in a resort in Yugoslavia, a nation in the process of being bloodily torn apart.

The circumstances were bizarre. The sudden return, the backdrop of war, a shady banker and arms dealer as a sponsor. But it was Fischer! One could not believe it. The chess displayed by Fischer and Spassky in Svefi Stefan and Belgrade was predictably sloppy, although there were a few flashes of the old Bobby brilliance. But was this really a return, or would he disappear just as quickly as he had appeared? And what to make of the strange things Fischer was doing at the press conferences? America’s great champion spitting on a cable from the US government? Saying he hadn’t played in twenty years because he had been “blacklisted…by world Jewry”? Accusing Karpov and me of prearranging all our games? You had to look away, but you could not.

Even in his prime there were concerns about Fischer’s stability, during a lifetime of outbursts and provocations. Then there were the tales from his two decades away from the board, rumors that made their way around the chess world. That he was impoverished, that he had become a religious fanatic, that he was handing out anti-Semitic literature in the streets of Los Angeles. It all seemed too fantastic, too much in line with all the stories of chess driving people mad—or mad people playing chess—that have found such a good home in literature.

One thing was certain: the old Fischer questions were back with new life. I was receiving calls before Fischer pushed a single pawn, and we ended up having a bizarre dialogue in the press as journalists relayed our responses to one another. While calling me a cheat and a liar repeatedly at the press conferences, Fischer said the first obstacle to playing a match with me was that he was owed at least $100,000 for royalties on the Soviet edition of his book. How ironic that his masterpiece, My 60 Memorable Games, a great influence on my chess, was presented as a sticking point.

Looking back, maybe it was a form of karmic balancing, since now Fischer was the one who had to put up with countless questions about playing me. But at least everyone knew where I was, and what could I say other than that of course I would play him? I never really believed it would happen, especially since Fischer, who still called himself the world champion, would never go through the rigorous training and preparatory events that would be required to make such an encounter competitive.

As it turned out Fischer never did play again after beating Spassky in that 1992 event. Fischer’s play was rusty, and he sounded disturbed, but in chess he always saw clearly and was honest with himself. He understood that the chess Olympus was no longer his to conquer. But the ghost had renewed his license to haunt us all for a while longer.

Fischer made the headlines a few times more after that. On September 11, his obscene rant celebrating the attacks was aired on Philippine radio and then around the world on the Internet. In July 2004 he was arrested in Japan for having a revoked passport and detained for eight months until he was granted Icelandic citizenship as a way out of captivity. (Fischer had been a fugitive from US law since playing in Yugoslavia in 1992 because the country was under UN sanctions at the time. At the first press conference before the match Fischer spat on a cable from the government of George H.W. Bush warning him against playing. But he had traveled widely and freely outside the US for a dozen years and his detention in Japan surprised him as much as anyone.)

Then on January 17, 2008, he died in Reykjavík after a long illness for which he had refused treatment. Even this was somehow typical of Fischer, who grew up playing chess against himself since he had no one else to play. He had fought to the end and proven himself to be his most dangerous opponent.

Fischer’s remarkable life and personality will surely produce countless more books, and probably movies and doctoral theses as well. But there is little doubt that none of the authors of those future works will be more qualified to write on Bobby Fischer than Frank Brady. A close acquaintance of the young Fischer, a “chess person,” as we call them, himself, as well as an experienced biographer, Brady also wrote the first and only substantive biographical book on him, Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy (1965, revised edition 1973).

It is hard to imagine a more difficult subject than Bobby Fischer to present in an accurate and evenhanded fashion. He was a loner who trusted no one. His charisma attracted both starry-eyed sycophants and spiteful critics. Fischer had strong opinions of the kind that tend to create equally categorical sentiments in those who knew him—and in those who didn’t. He had a very small family and both his mother, Regina Fischer, and his only sibling—older sister Joan Targ—have passed away. Fischer’s general inaccessibility also led to countless rumors and outright lies about him, making the biographer’s task a challenge.

With all that in mind, Brady’s book is an impressive balancing act and a great accomplishment. Before even picking up the book there is no reason to doubt that Brady liked Bobby Fischer and that he has a friend’s as well as a fan’s rooting interest for the American chess hero. But there are few obvious traces of that in Endgame, which does not shy away from presenting the darker sides of Fischer’s character even while it does not attempt to judge or diagnose it. What results is a chance for the reader to weigh up the evidence and come to his own conclusions—or skip judgments completely and simply enjoy reading a rise-and-fall story that has more than a few affinities with Greek tragedy.

One inaccuracy that is more of a dramatic exaggeration occurs when Brady says Fischer was unaware that his Soviet opponent at the Varna Olympiad in 1962, the great world champion Mikhail Botvinnik, had received analytical help with their adjourned game. This Soviet custom was widely known and in this case was only natural because it was a team event. It is not possible that Fischer would not have known this was happening.

Beginning with the end seems most natural since that is where the most fact and fiction have been written in the past. Why, how, could Bobby Fischer, who loved chess and only chess more than anyone before or since, quit the game as soon as he had conquered the title? This was not a case of a star wanting to go out on top; Fischer had no plans to retire. He was twenty-nine and in his prime and he finally had the fame and fortune he always knew he deserved.

Fischer returned from beating Spassky in Reykjavík—the Match of the Century—a world champion, a media star, and a decorated cold warrior. Unprecedented offers rolled in for millions of dollars in endorsement deals, exhibitions, basically anything he was willing to put his name or face to. With a few minor exceptions, he turned it all down.

Keep in mind that the chess world of the pre-Fischer era was laughably impoverished even by today’s modest standards. The Soviet stars were subsidized by the state, but elsewhere the idea of making a living solely from playing chess was a dream. When Fischer dominated the Stockholm tournament of 1962, a grueling five-week qualifier for the world championship cycle, his prize was $750.

Of course it was Fischer himself who changed this situation, and every chess player since must thank him for his tireless efforts to get chess the respect and compensation he felt it deserved. He earned the nickname Spassky gave him, “the honorary chairman of our trade union.” These efforts meant he was often an event organizer’s worst nightmare, but that was not Bobby’s concern. Ten years after Stockholm, the purse for the 1972 World Championship between Fischer and Spassky was an astronomical $250,000, plus side deals for a share of television rights.

It’s barely an exaggeration to say that Fischer’s impact on the chess world was as great financially as it was on the board. The world championship became a hot commodity and as we know, money talks. Chess tournaments and chess players acquired a new respectability, although it did not all outlast Fischer himself. My epic series of matches against Anatoly Karpov from 1985 to 1990 fanned the sponsorship flames into a blaze—we were not going to play only for the greater Soviet glory now that we knew there were millions of dollars to be had. We had learned more from Fischer than just chess. Last year’s world championship match, in which Viswanathan Anand of India defended his title against Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria in Sofia, had a prize fund of nearly $3 million despite receiving no real publicity outside of the chess world. In spite of corrupt federations and no coherent organization among themselves, the top players today do quite well without having to also teach classes or write books while trying to work on their own chess at the same time.

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