Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Cold Warrior of the Mind

The subtitle to Bobby Fischer Goes to War [2004, Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 342 pages] says it all: "How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time." Indeed Gudmundur Thorarinsson, who was then president of the Icelandic Chess Federation, described the 1972 world championship showdown between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik as "not the chess match of the century" but as "the chess match of all time." A lone American committed what The New York Times referred to as "psychic murder" not only upon the reigning world champion Spassky but upon the entire Communist system in the USSR. "They probably now feel sorry they ever started playing chess," Fischer remarked about the Soviet Union to the BBC. "It's given me great a free person... to have smashed this thing." Those were Fischer's glory days when he represented the United States in its Cold War encounter with the Russians, as opposed to the person he has become, now attacking "us" as vehemently as he once attacked "them."

The summer of '72 was one of those rare times when truth seemed stranger than fiction. I remember the front-page headline "Chess Match On Again" in the Daily News on the Fourth of July. And who can forget Shelby Lyman's televised match coverage on Channel 13! According to David Edmonds and John Eidinow who co-wrote this book: "One reporter did a tour of twenty-one bars during a game, to discover that eighteen of them had their televisions tuned to this program and only three were showing the New York Mets baseball game that drinkers would normally have demanded."

Unfortunately the authors Edmonds and Eidinow know little if anything about the royal game. So there is nothing in terms of chess analysis to be gained from a reading of this book which resembles at times a more scholarly version of Brad Darrach's Bobby Fischer vs. the Rest of the World, at least as far as the American side of the story is concerned.

Where I found the book to be informative was in telling the Russian version of events. It turns out that Spassky, in many ways, was as unlikely a character as Fischer. In a country policed by the KGB, Spassky displayed a rare streak of individuality that may have contributed to his ultimate defeat. For example, Anatoly Karpov described Fischer's forfeit in game two of the match, which the authors compare to the deadly game of "chicken" made famous by the actor James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, as "a stroke of genius", adding that in similar circumstances Tigran Petrosian "would simply have licked his chops and swallowed the extra point." But not the fiercely independent Spassky who never having lost a game to Fischer agreed without consulting Moscow to play game three in the table-tennis room, a fateful "blink" that proved to be his undoing.

The book also intrigued me on a more personal level. I had not known that the late Ken Smith, whose Chess Digest published the second edition of my book on the Philidor Counter Gambit, was nicknamed "Top Hat" because he "always wore a flamboyant black silk top hat during card games." Allegedly the hat, which was bought at auction, had been discovered in Ford's Theater on the night of the Lincoln assassination. Ken Smith was not only a chess master but a world-class poker player as well, "winning tens of thousands of dollars" in Las Vegas. He supplied Fischer with chess books, both before Reykjavik and during the match when Smith traveled to Iceland with more literature.

By now, most chess players have heard the news that Bobby's biological father was not Gerhardt Fischer but a Hungarian-born physicist named Paul Nemenyi. But you may not know that Gerhardt Fischer was a suspected Soviet agent who eventually wound up in Chile. In May of 1959, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote to CIA director Allen Dulles: "Inasmuch as Mrs. Regina Fischer accompanied her son to South America, it is believed probable that she was with him in Santiago, Chile, during the chess tournament in that city. Accordingly, the possibility exists that Mrs. Fischer may have been in contact with her estranged husband..." This reads like a passage from a spy novel. One of the striking ironies in the life of Bobby Fischer, the Communist hater, is that his biological mother and her husband were both active Communists themselves!

I recommend Bobby Fischer Goes to War for those of us who can put aside our intense dislike of Fischer's recent political incorrectness. This no doubt explains why The New York Times printed its book review under the headline "In Chess as in Life, Nasty Guys Really Can Finish First." Like his favorite American chess player Paul Morphy, Fischer is proving to be yet another "Pride and Sorrow of Chess."

{This book review originally appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Atlantic Chess News}