- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 3, 2004


By David Edmonds and John Eidinow

Harper Collins, $24.95, 342 pages, illus.


Chess may not have the television appeal of football or tennis, but its fans are equally fanatical. They have their favorite players and playing styles; they debate the politics surrounding international chess competition. And there is a lot of politics to discuss: Today the world chess championship is as fractured as the boxing crown.

Yet international chess competition now seems simple compared to 1972. That was when Robert J. Fischer, better known as Bobby Fischer, won the world title, denying that honor to a Soviet for the first time since 1948.

David Edmonds and John Eidinow have penned a delightful book about the politics of that legendary match. It is not really a volume on chess: Books analyzing the games began appearing days after the match concluded. Although a few of the games remain classics, chess theory has moved on.

Instead, “Bobby Fischer Goes to War” covers the larger context of the match. As such it will interest any chess player, irrespective of skill level. Indeed, even a non-player will enjoy reading about the match between an obnoxious boor and a consummate gentleman, won by the former.

Eight years before America’s victory over the Soviets in pursuit of Olympic gold in ice hockey, the United States triumphed over its Cold War antagonist in another celebrated international competition.

The book begins and ends with Bobby Fischer. Apparently the product of his divorced mother’s love affair with a Hungarian physicist, Mr. Fischer was never formally acknowledged by his biological father. Despite an unsettled home life, he picked up chess at age six. By age 14 he had won the U.S. championship.

From there began a march towards the world championship. But as Mr. Edmonds and Mr. Eidinow relate, it was not a steady march.

The only valid prediction about Mr. Fischer was that he would be, irrespective of the setting, obnoxious and unreasonable.

Everything about every tournament had to be his way. He wanted unrealistic payments in a sport that offered little money. He continually felt slighted and walked out of events for the most trifling reason.

Novelist Arthur Koestler called Mr. Fischer a “mimophant,” “a cross between a mimosa and an elephant. A member of this species is sensitive like a mimosa where his own feelings are concerned and thick-skinned like an elephant trampling over the feelings of others.”

Motivating Mr. Fischer was not only his belief that he was the world’s greatest player, but his hatred of the Soviets. And as “Bobby Fischer Goes to War” demonstrates, the road to the international championship ran through the Soviet Union.

Soviet subsidies and organization resulted in a stranglehold over international chess. The USSR won seven championships in a row. Ironically, the Soviet breakup loosed a multitude of players on the West, who now dominate chess in their new homelands.

In 1972 Bobby Fischer faced Boris Spassky, a Soviet who was not only a gentleman but also a soft dissident. For instance, he refused to lend his name to Soviet propaganda or to denounce defecting colleagues. Mr. Spassky’s love of the sport led him to resist political authorities who would have been satisfied with a victory by forfeit.

The bulk of this book concerns the 1972 championship cycle. How Mr. Fischer was seeded into the competition after refusing to play the necessary tournament. How he steamrollered his early opponents.

And how his series of utterly unreasonable, outrageous, unfair, incomprehensible, and bizarre demands almost derailed the match on multiple occasions.

But the match in Reykjavik, Iceland, went on and Mr. Fischer triumphed. Dramatically and heroically. Yet as Mr. Edmonds and Mr. Eidinow relate, that moment of glory dissipated quickly.

Mr. Spassky went home in semi-disgrace. He continued to play competitive chess, but never again challenged for the world championship. He eventually moved to France.

Mr. Fischer returned to America an international hero. But he never could commit to the multitude of money-making ideas presented to him. He failed to enter a single tournament as champion. In 1975 he forfeited his title in a rules dispute.

He then disappeared from the chess scene, only to reappear for a bizarre rematch against Mr. Spassky in 1992 that was funded by a Yugoslavian bank swindler.

Mr. Fischer triumphed, but violated U.S. economic sanctions in the process and has remained in exile ever since. Most recently he has been notable mainly for his anti-Semitic and anti-American ravings.

The story of Bobby Fischer “is in essence a tragedy,” argue the authors: “Achieving his only goal destroyed his raison d’etre. Without that goal, he seemed to lose his already weak hold on reality. With nothing more to prove, fear of defeat prevailed over his desire to play. Fischer turned Reykjavik into a battleground, and the match would be the last real chess war he would ever wage.”

It is a story that continues to fascinate three decades later.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A mere chess patzer today, in his next life he is hoping to come back as a celebrated grandmaster.

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