Games people play

Thanks to reams of chess literature, a movie and even a musical, Bobby Fischer remains our country’s No. 1 chess celebrity. Born in Brooklyn in 1943, Fischer started playing at age 6 and was so obsessed, so quickly, that his mother took him to a psychologist. By 10, he was a regular at Washington Square Park, and by 14, he had become America’s youngest national champion. His biggest achievement would have to wait another 15 years, though, when Fischer unseated the reigning world champion, Boris Spassky, in a head-to-head match in Iceland, giving the big bad Soviet machine a painful poke in the eye.

In their superbly researched new book, Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time, English journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow use this event as a glimpse into the clashing of two global superpowers, of whose cultures Fischer and Spassky were representative. On one hand, you had the pingpong-playing, comic-book-reading American brat, Fischer, who told journalists he was in chess for the money. On the other, there was Spassky, who had been supported from a tender age by the Soviet government, tracked by the KGB and repeatedly reminded of the national honor he defended on the chess board.

Though such comparisons provide helpful context, Bobby Fischer Goes to War might have been a predictable book had Edmonds and Eidinow not taken pains to explore the ways Fischer and Spassky did not fit into this dialectic. Spassky, for example, read Dostoyevsky and refused to speak up on politics in an era when rebelling was courting a world of pain. Contrary to the stereotypes of Russian stolidity, he was the well-rounded individual. It was Fischer whom opponents described as a machine.

Because Fischer was not interviewed for the book, Spassky and his cultural context come across as more vivid, which is actually not such a bad thing. We already know a lot about Fischer’s 180-plus IQ and his unsociability; Spassky and his background are fuzzier. Most interesting is Edmonds and Eidinow’s description of how Russia’s obsession with chess developed out of the Bolshevik revolution, when government officials identified chess—along with ballet and, go figure, the circus—as areas in which to assert their dominance over the West.

In their previous book, Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers, Edmonds and Eidinow brought to life a schism in 20th-century philosophy by prying open an argument between two philosophers and rendering the most complex and specialized concepts tangible to the lay reader. Chess fanatics may feel, somewhere in all the historical context of Bobby Fischer Goes to War, that the nitty-gritty of the games Spassky and Fischer played gets eclipsed, if not lost. The authors’ language is clear and lucid but often resembles the drum-beat cadence of sports writing. Reading this book, one becomes acutely aware that the chess sections exist to hasten the narrative as it heads toward its dramatic conclusion.

And boy, is it dramatic. Fischer, once again, nearly backed out, forcing his Icelandic hosts to break an uncharacteristic sweat. It took a call from Henry Kissinger to get him to show up. He played badly, lost one match, forfeited the second and then finally arrived at the third to play one of the best games of his life. At the time, America was riveted. One reporter recalls going to 21 bars in Manhattan in 1972 and finding that 18 of them had their TVs turned to PBS’ coverage. With the Cold War over, America has forgotten about this match and has latched on to Fischer—the brilliant genius who flamed out and disappeared (he now lives in Japan). In this sense, Bobby Fischer Goes to War fills an important gap in the literature on this showdown. It reminds us what it meant to the world.