Book World: A chess master who defeated himself
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 10:48 PM
Geniuses are thick on the ground - just ask the MacArthur Foundation, which chooses a couple of dozen new ones each year. Any field, after all, has its divas, maestros, "chers maitres" and award-winners. Every so often, though, truly original, almost mutant talents appear, of such power and strangeness that they shake up all our assumptions and leave us dumbstruck. The actor Marlon Brando, the singer Maria Callas or the pianist Glenn Gould aren't just electrifying, they're deeply polarizing. Love them or hate them, they seem touched by the gods - and sometimes by madness.
Of recent sacred monsters, none is so fascinating and disturbing as Bobby Fischer (1943-2008), arguably the greatest chess player of all time. Even people who can't tell a pawn from a rook have heard of Fischer's prodigious genius at the chessboard and perhaps a little of his strange, final years. Happily, Frank Brady's superlative "Endgame" is a biography more than worthy of its charismatic subject. The first half might be likened to an imperial triumph, as the young Fischer progresses toward the world championship of chess; the second half, equally enthralling, depicts what is the human equivalent of a slow-motion train wreck.
As a teenager, Brady - now the president of New York's Marshall Chess Club - met the very young Bobby Fischer and, he tells us, "Over the years we played hundreds of games together, dined in Greenwich Village restaurants, traveled to tournaments, attended dinner parties, and walked the streets of Manhattan for hours on end." Brady thus understands the world of serious chess and brings it to vivid life for the reader. But he doesn't shirk his much harder task: tracking how this Mozart of the chessboard gradually grew into a heavily bearded anti-Semite and anti-American. When Fischer died at age 64, he had passed the previous three decades living on the edge of homelessness in California, Hungary, Japan and Iceland. During all those years, apart from one money match in Yugoslavia, he refused to play chess in public, let alone defend his title. Brady's biography reveals the human tragedy behind that repudiation.
As is well known, chess is a game that rewards Talmudic-like study of its stratagems and intricacies. Yet few have ever been quite so single-minded about it as this young Brooklynite, a child of uncertain paternity raised in poverty by a Jewish single mother. When Fischer had just turned 6, his older sister Joan bought him a cheap chess set, and together they studied the enclosed page of instructions on how to play the game. By the time he was 13, in a matchup against former U.S. Open champion Donald Byrne, Bobby Fischer was playing so brilliantly that he could deliberately sacrifice a queen - the most powerful figure on the board - to engineer a seemingly inconceivable but absolutely inexorable march toward checkmate. In the annals of chess, Fischer vs. Byrne has been studied and restudied as "the game of the century."
For 20 years, Bobby Fischer was the cynosure of the chess world - and frequently his own worst enemy. At tournaments, he regularly complained about lights and cameras, the collusion of his Soviet opponents, the size of the chessboard and its pieces, and even the black, staring eyes of international grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik. He could be petulant and rude, worse than any rock star or prima donna, and if he didn't get his way, he would take his chess set and go home. Or not show up at all. The negotiations required to persuade him to travel to Iceland to confront Boris Spassky for the 1972 world championship involved months of wrangling. Having been poor in his youth, Fischer instinctively wanted the largest possible purse. Eventually Henry Kissinger, no less, wrote and urged him to soften his demands, and Richard Nixon promised to invite him to the White House after the tournament. (He didn't.)
Following his triumph over Spassky, the new world chess champion and high school dropout began to devote himself to the obsessive study of religion, strongly supporting Herbert W. Armstrong's radio ministry and intently studying its prophetic newsletter, the Plain Truth. But after growing disillusioned with Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God, Fischer - already convinced that the Russians had secretly schemed to thwart his chess victories - gravitated to conspiracy tracts like the anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and pamphlets that "proved" that the Holocaust never took place. At the same time, he grew more introspective and isolated, stopped shaving and cast aside his expensive bespoke suits in favor of denim work clothes.
From time to time, Fischer would instinctively reach out for love, and he finally found a devoted companion in Miyoko Watai, whom he had met in Japan. But in almost every other case he would eventually turn on those who had helped him, cut off all relations and refer to them as traitors. In one shocking interview he went so far as to celebrate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, gladdened that corrupt America had finally begun to receive what it deserved. In 2004, following imprisonment in Japan for having a non-valid passport, Fischer found sanctuary in Iceland, which still honored him for the world attention he had brought to the country. There he lived quietly, spending much of his time reading in a used bookshop. When he grew ill with a urinary tract blockage, he refused to undergo surgery or take any medicine. He died Jan. 17, 2008.
Frank Brady's triumph in "Endgame" is to make both halves of this unique life equally fascinating. Up to the 1972 world championship, Fischer lives and breathes chess but he is still recognizably normal: As a boy he loves baseball, as a young man he swims regularly and plays excellent tennis. Yet Fischer, like others less gifted before him and since, gradually began to take the world's adulation as his due. Still, why he descended into the paranoia and fanaticism of his later years remains something of a mystery. He was, clearly, never a person who could do anything by halves. That obsessive-compulsiveness obviously helped him to chess immortality. The second half of his life, however, is one of the saddest of stories, even as this is one of the best biographies of the year.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday. Visit his online book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.
Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness
By Frank Brady
Crown. 402 pp. $25.99