Unlikely pawns of the cold war
The Fischer-Spassky chess match was a bizarre political battle
One day when my son was learning to play chess in grade school, he asked if I knew any "chess tragedies." Before I realized that what he really wanted were "strategies," the 1972 Fischer-Spassky world championship flashed to mind. As David Edmonds and John Eidinow confirm in their superbly researched, highly readable "Bobby Fischer Goes to War," the match in Reykjavik, Iceland, was in many ways a chess tragedy. And like their book, it turned out to be more about political and psychological maneuvering than about chess.
The authors' account of the first American challenge since World War II to the Soviet Union's championship monopoly disputes the accepted view of the event as an embodiment of the cold war. The story, they claim, is actually "more nuanced and surprising.... Far from being a simple ideological confrontation, the match was played out on many levels, of which chess itself was only one."
They emphasize Fischer and Spassky's "sheer unsuitability to represent their countries' political systems. Boris Spassky was not a Soviet patriot - and he made no secret of it. Fischer's idiosyncratic and asocial behavior marked him as un-American for many of his compatriots."
Edmonds and Eidinow, award-winning BBC journalists, first collaborated on "Wittgenstein's Poker" (reviewed Jan. 17, 2002), in which a heated exchange between philosophers Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1946 served as the kernel for an inquiry into two conflicting views of philosophy. With "the match of the century," they have chosen another reverberant subject.
Their two books are structured along similar lines: Spiraling out from a central conflict are concentric circles of subplots. In "Bobby Fischer," these include Fischer's eccentric, single-parent upbringing in the New York borough of Brooklyn; his limited life "inside his chess isolation ward," and his unprecedented romp through three Soviet challengers to reach the world championships.
On the Russian front, they explore Spassky's childhood, also impoverished and with a single mother, during Stalin's Great Terror, and his nurturing under the Soviet support system for chess. They interview every grandmaster, bureaucrat, diplomat, and lackey who had a role in the competition - including Spassky, happily settled with his third wife in France since 1976. Conspicuously lacking, however, is any indication of even an attempt to interview their central figure, Bobby Fischer.
Part of the brilliance of "Wittgenstein's Poker" was both the freshness of the story and the lucidity with which the writers conveyed the philosophers' ideas. In contrast, the Fischer-Spassky story is well-trodden, and the brilliance of their chess has been better described elsewhere.
But the authors' actual focus here is on the psychological warfare surrounding the games: Fischer's recalcitrant brinkmanship and the paranoia on both sides. Dueling suspicions of sabotage led to absurd investigations and delays, including laboratory tests of lighting and food, and X-rays of Fischer's designer chair. Some Soviets still believe dirty tricks defeated Spassky. The authors assert that the KGB was deeply involved.
A fascinating appendix about Fischer's parents reveals that the FBI monitored Fischer's mother for suspected Communist activity for decades - a potential contributor to Fischer's paranoia not included among the many far-fetched analyses of his psyche that they cite.
After his victory, Fischer lost any of the glory he momentarily held. "The achievement of Fischer's only goal destroyed his raison d'être," they write. He forfeited his championship to Anatoli Karpov in 1975 by default. In 1992, he emerged for a 20th-anniversary rematch against Spassky in war-torn Belgrade, where he won. But it was "pedestrian" chess that resulted in a still extant US arrest warrant for Fischer, since he defied UN sanctions by going there. Nowadays, he occasionally comes out of hiding in Japan to conduct anti-Semitic and anti-American radio rants.
Edmonds and Eidinow write that poor Spassky went to Reykjavik anticipating a "feast of chess." Instead, what transpired was "in essence a tragedy." In "Bobby Fischer Goes to War," the authors show themselves once again to be grandmasters of nonfiction narrative.
• Heller McAlpin reviews books for The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.