Before Beth Harmon, there was Bobby Fischer, the eccentric American genius who made the whole world interested in chess. He, however, happened to be real, and his mad exploits on and off the chessboard have long been a subject of fascination. Though many tried to unlock the secrets of his mind, few have managed to sketch such a vivid portrait of his biggest triumph as David Edmonds and John Eidinow did in their 2004 book.
Cold war on the chessboard
Politics and sports often intertwine in a way the average fans would wish they didn’t, but it is still rare to see such a distillation of global conflicts in a singular sporting event as the 1972 World Chess Championship, often referred to as “the match of the century”.
Featuring the entire machine of the Soviet chess bureaucracy on one side against a lone American genius (and his army of lawyers) on the other, this battle of wits in the middle of the Cold War sparked interest in chess in a way The Queen’s Gambit did 48 years down the line. At that point, the world chess championship title has been in Soviet hands for a quarter of a century, forcing the two sides into an awkward negotiation over the many minutiae of the Spassky-Fischer matchup.
Enter Iceland, one of the few sufficiently neutral locations in the world that could satisfy the requirements for both sides – not that the inhabitants of the island had any idea of the kind of spectacle they’d agreed to host.
Thirty-two human pieces
“When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive.”Boris Spassky
The beauty of Bobby Fischer Goes to War is how little it has to say about the actual chess games themselves. There isn’t a single diagrammed position in the book, nor do the authors profess themselves to be experts at the royal game. (Indeed, their bibliography has a lot more to do with philosophy rather than deep dives into opening theory.) Making the call that many others have already dissected the games of this immortal match in great detail, they instead focus on the human and sociological elements of it all.
The volume begins with a dramatis personae featuring characters as wide-ranging as ambassadors, TV producers, lawyers and arbiters beyond the many grandmasters involved with the highest level of competition. Each of these figures adds to the madcap tapestry of the match, making it – and the book by extension – way more than just the sum of its parts.
First, there’s the political aspect, the constant overwhelming presence of the Soviet machine that made their chess triumphs such a large part of their propaganda of intellectual superiority. Their opponents also understood what was riding on the match: when Fischer wanted to bail as one of his many ultimatums was rejected, Kissinger himself got in touch to appeal to his patriotic instincts.
Because of all this, the match was also a media spectacle. Late-night shows in the US did their best to broadcast the games “live”, featuring analysis of the ongoing games. The volume is riddled with small snippets like these which make the match come alive in the eyes of the reader. Regrettably, some urban legends also snuck their way onto the pages, like the one with the book for chess spectators with hundreds of empty pages and the words SHUT UP at the back. Still, they can be easily forgiven seeing how effectively the authors weave their tale of sport, psychology and politics into a cohesive whole.
This approach also allows Edmonds and Eidinow to plumb the depths of Fischer’s psyche, sketching the portrait of a troubled genius in a way that volumes like Endgame would flesh out a few years down the line. He’s far from the only one who gets such a treatment: the vast amount of interviews and research offer enough primary and secondary sources to the authors to make even the lesser actors in this drama feel wholly three-dimensional.
If there’s any real criticism I can level at Bobby Fischer Goes to War, it’s the fact that I’ve been looking for similar disseminations of world chess championship matches and other such events ever since I first read it – sadly, to no avail. Its wide-angle view at a seminal sporting moment remains unique even seventeen years after its publication.