Like go, chess is a game I know how to play but not well. I own books and have half-heartedly studied the game off and on, but I will never be a great or even particularly good player. Still, the beauty and logic of the game attracts me, along with all its storied lore.
Most people know that Bobby Fischer was once the greatest American player in the world, possibly the greatest player in the world period. Certainly he was one of the best players ever. This biography tells his life story by a sympathetic but not uncritical friend of his.
But of course, less interesting than his life and early beginnings in chess is the raving crackpot he became later in life. The biography of a famous chess player is unlikely to be all that interesting in itself, and Bobby Fischer's childhood was a fairly unremarkable one, the child of an impoverished single mother in Brooklyn. His mother was somewhat flaky but obviously attentive, and the author, Frank Brady, repeatedly contradicts reports that Fischer and his mother were estranged when he was older. He did suffer a teenager's usual embarrassment when his mother was trying to be too active in his life, but according to Brady, they remained close even when they were living in separate countries and did not see each other face to face for years at a time.
Words to describe Bobby Fischer after reading this book: Temperamental. Prickly. Unforgiving. Control-freak. Self-sabotaging. The author veers away from calling him "crazy" or "deranged," even as he became more and more of a screaming bigot later in life.
It's almost painful to read how the man who once had the world at his feet and turned down a ticker-tape parade in New York City spent much of his later years in poverty, yet turned down opportunity after opportunity to make big bucks because there was always something just not quite right about the offer. He would not play chess matches unless he got everything
he asked for, and whatever he was offered, he asked for more. He was abusive and ungrateful to everyone who ever helped him. And as he got older, he became increasingly anti-Semitic. He hated the Russians, believing they were cheaters who had all conspired against him during his matches against Soviet players. (Ironically, the Soviets were
conspiring against him, as Russian grand-masters later admitted, and the Soviets had an entire "lab" devoted to studying Fischer for years, so great a threat was he to their national prestige.)
The 1972 Fischer-Spassky match is a comedy of Cold War politics and temperamental chess egos. Bobby Fischer complained about everything, forfeited several games by refusing to show up until his demands were met, and generally foreshadowed what a monumental pain in the ass he would become later in life. Of course, the Soviets responded with increasingly absurd accusations that Fischer was "chemically or electronically interfering" with Spassky, resulting in the ridiculous spectacle of security guards X-raying chairs and dismantling light fixtures. And yet, that 1972 match in Reykjavik, Iceland created a worldwide chess boom.
Then Fischer went into semi-retirement and near-poverty, living off of his mother's Social Security checks for decades, while turning down publication deals, big money tournaments, endorsements, because the money offered wasn't enough, or because someone else would profit off of it too and he didn't think anyone but Bobby Fischer should make money off of Bobby Fischer. Or because they were Jews.
In 1992, Fischer played a rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia. This finally made him enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life. It was also his fatal undoing, as Yugoslavia was under a UN embargo at the time because of the Bosnian war, and the U.S. State Department sent him a letter enjoining him against playing the match. Rather than appealing or just ignoring the letter, he literally spat on it, thus earning him the enmity of the U.S. government and sending him into political exile for the rest of his life.
But he was still pretty much ignored until the 9/11 attacks, when he released a series of vitriolic radio interviews from the Philippines, denouncing America, praising the attacks, and calling for a new Holocaust against the Jews. At this point, the U.S. government remembered he existed again, and went after him in earnest. Which led to his being arrested in Japan in 2006 on an expired passport and spending almost a year in a detention facility. Incredibly, Iceland, grateful for the attention he had brought to their country in 1972, went to heroic measures to offer him not just asylum but citizenship, and thus Fischer was deported to his new home in Iceland. Even more incredibly, he soon became disenchanted and began badmouthing his hosts, who had literally saved his life.
I knew before reading this book that Bobby Fischer was a great chess player and a crank. After reading it, I find him a much more interesting, and tragic, and despicable, figure. It's tempting to feel sorry for him, as he obviously spent many years lonely and bitter, but notwithstanding speculations about his mental health, he also brought all of that on himself. He was ungrateful, eventually turning on every one of his friends no matter how much they'd done for him. He was selfish and foolish — he could have easily spent his life wealthy and famous and in seclusion if he so desired, but he had to always have things his way and no one else could get their way. And worst of all, he was a hateful bigot, turning his rage against Jews and America for reasons that probably made sense only in his own head.
Fischer was a complicated, arrogant, brilliant person, but even with this fairly kind biography, he was not a very sympathetic one. Truly his life was a tragedy, a man who could have been great remembered mostly for turning into a bearded crank and spewer of nonsense.