The self-destructive chess champion
The late Bobby Fischer, perhaps the most brilliant champion in the annals of chess, was a deeply troubled soul brimming with contradictory impulses. He was secretive, yet candid, cruel, yet kind, naïve, yet well informed and serious, yet outrageous. But after all the adjectives were stripped away, he was a larger-than-life, self-destructive personality.
This is the confounding man whom Frank Brady profiles in his finely balanced biography, End Game: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (Crown Publishers).
Brady knows his subject like few other writers, having met Fischer when he was a child prodigy and having followed his career from day one. He uses his expertise, along with Fischer family archives and Fischer’s own e-mails, to burrow deeply into this maddening personality.
Born in Chicago in 1943, Fischer was raised by his single mother, Regina, who was homeless when she gave birth to her son and held a series of menial jobs, from stenographer to welder, before becoming a physician. Hans Gerhard Fischer, a Jewish German biophysicist to whom she was briefly married, is listed as his father on Fischer’s birth certificate. But Brady speculates that Paul Nemenyi, a Jewish Hungarian physicist, may have been his biological father.
Fischer’s older sibling, Joan, introduced him to the game when she bought him a plastic chess set for $1 in 1949. A shy, latchkey child whose mother was often away from home and who required diversions to stave off loneliness, he quickly took to chess and was a gifted player from the outset.
Although he was an erratic student, he was highly intelligent, having scored 180 on his IQ test. Fischer’s brilliance in chess endeared him to a succession of mentors, including a teacher who treated him like a son and neo-Nazi who picked up his tournament entry fees.
By the age of 13, he was one of the strongest young players in the United States, having captured the U.S. junior championship and beaten a grandmaster. By 14, he had defeated Bent Larsen, one of the game’s greats, and become the youngest ever international grandmaster. At 19, he held Mikhail Botvinnik, the world champion, to a draw. While still a teenager, Fischer achieved what no else had ever accomplished. He won 19 straight games against the world’s strongest players.
Brady describes Fischer’s style as “lucid, crystal-clear, economical, concrete and rational.”
Chess obsessed Fischer, so much so that he apparently liked it more than sex. And the more fame he achieved, the more unpleasant he was, says Brady.
Arrogant and regal, he severed a relationship when a person disagreed with him, and showed disrespect toward weak players.
In 1972, Fischer was ready to challenge Boris Spassky, the world champion from the Soviet Union, for the title. He would be the first non-Russian in three decades to contest it.
The Fischer-Spassky match, which unfolded in Iceland, was regarded as a geopolitical drama, an extension of the Cold War, by the media in the United States and the Soviet Union. Fischer, an anti-communist, agreed with the appraisal. “I now feel a sense of mission to win the championship,” he said.
After 20 games, Fischer was in the lead by a three-game margin. All he needed in the remaining four games was one victory or two draws. Spassky, realizing he was doomed, resigned by telephone, and Fischer was crowned the new champion.
When he was offered a $5 million purse to defend his title against Soviet challenger Anatoly Karpov, he set down 132 conditions. Exasperated by his unreasonable demands, the World Chess Federation stripped Fischer of his title.
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