Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

Today it seems unlikely that one chess tournament could hold the world in thrall, but in 1972, Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky battled it out for the title of world champion under the scrutiny of everyone from the audience of the nightly news to foreign governments to Henry Kissinger. In "Bobby Fischer Goes to War," David Edmonds and John Eidinow reset the stage and give a full account of everything that was at stake in this series of chess matches.

Called "the High Noon of chess, the 1972 tournament was the first real chance America had at winning a world championship in decades. The Soviets had held the title since World War II, and returning champion Spassky was considered at the top of his game. But Fischer was different than any other chess player. Not only a chess genius, he conducted psychological warfare at the chessboard. "The most interesting phenomenon about Fischer," they write, "is not the effect chess had on him, but the effect his chess had on his opponents, destroying their morale, making them feel that they were in the grip of an alien hostile force to whose powers there was no earthly answer." And whether intentionally or not, Fischer's infamous histrionics contributed to his opponents' breakdowns. He never arrived on time, he refused to play unless the chessboard, the lighting, the noise level, the audience met with his approval. Fischer was the celebrity, and the heads of the tournaments almost always bent to his will.

Spassky was almost Fischer's polar opposite. While American chess player Arthur Bisguier declared that if Bobby Fischer "wasn't a chess player, he might have been a dangerous psychopath," Spassky was nothing less than a gentleman. Raised in Leningrad during the 900-day siege, Spassky was a fan of literature and the arts, was married (which Fischer posited as the cause of Spassky's loss), and he considered himself to be a Russian, not a Soviet. He refused to play a part in the Soviet propaganda that it was their communist system that turned out such great chess players. He clashed with the KGB and government officials on several occasions, and if he hadn't been the top rated player, there would have been serious consequences.

The match between Spassky and Fischer was very important to both governments, but it almost didn't happen. The tournament was bending to Fischer's every wish, but he still refused to leave America even as the first game was defaulted to Spassky. After a little persuading from Henry Kissinger, Fischer finally got on a plane to Reykjavik. While the tournament itself ends very anti-climactically, Edmonds and Eidinow manage to keep up the suspense with tales of hypnosis, mind control, poisonings, and espionage. There are rumors of involvement by both the CIA and the KGB during the proceedings. And meanwhile, the entire world watched, as moves in each game were read over the evening news.

Edmonds and Eidinow are careful to balance how much chess technicalities a layperson might be able to handle. There is just enough to spark the interest of people who know chess, but it's buried well enough that everyone else can glide over it in favor of the human interest. It's a well-constructed book, and it can even make you understand why the world stopped to watch Bobby Fischer give America the world championship title.

Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
ISBN: 0060510242