Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall

Frank Brady’s biography of Bobby Fischer is due out in February, but the publisher was kind enough to forward me a copy of it to review. It made for perfect reading while stuck at LaGuardia Aiport this Christmas, mentally transporting me out of one manic world and into another. By employing the popular style of creative non-fiction, this biography reads like a novel and pulls the reader down the rabbit hole along with Bobby into his madness, obsessions, religious confusion and many hatreds. Finishing the book, I couldn’t help but reach the conclusion that Bobby Fischer had been a flesh and blood tragic hero, whose greatness and failures were rooted in the same flaw: resolute and unyielding stubbornness. The amount of details, facts, letters, and quotations that Dr. Brady has assembled here is remarkable. Through careful research as well as from his own recollections, (Dr. Brady’s life has run parallel to Bobby’s,) Dr. Brady has produced an emotionally charged portrait of our hometown hero.

At turns we are walking down the street with Bobby as he plays blindfold chess with his mentor, standing next to him in musty bookstores he frequented until recognized, and on the run with him from Eastern Europe to South East Asia after his brazen act of defiance. The contours of his life are brought into clear relief through anecdotal recollections, quotations, and the careful ordering of the events of his life into an appropriately tragic Aristotelian arc, complete with a denouement in Iceland after his arrest and imprisonment in Japan.

One afternoon recently at the Marshall, I had a moment to chat with Dr. Brady about his book. We discussed how it crosses genres by marrying creative non-fiction with biography and he pointed me to the “author’s note,” in which he “ask[s] forgiveness for my occasional speculations in this book, but Fischer’s motivations beg to be understood; and when conjecture is used, I inform the reader of my doing so. To vivify Bobby’s extraordinary life, I sometimes use the techniques of the novelist; elaboration of setting, magnification of detail, fragments of dialogue, and revelation of interior states.” One sparkling example of this technique comes in the following passage, one of my favorites from the book, in which we are shown the messy cuisine of Bobby’s recipe for chess preparation, quite literally:

Bobby read chess literature while he was eating, and while he was in bed. He’d set up his board on a chair next to his bed, and the last thing he did before going to sleep and the first thing he did upon awakening was to look at positions or openings. So many peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, bowls of cereal, and plates of spaghetti were consumed while Bobby was replaying and analyzing games that the crumbs and leavings of his food became encrusted in the crenelated battlements of his rooks, the crosses of his kings, the crowns of his queens, and the creases in the miters of his bishops. And the residue of food was never washed off. Years later, when a chess collector finally took possession of the littered set and cleaned it up, Bobby’s reaction was typically indignant: “You’ve ruined it!”

Dr. Brady offers us a portrait of a chess obsessed youth, who spends every extra penny he has on chess literature. It has become common knowledge that the FBI had a file on Bobby Fischer and his mother, who was an activist and communist sympathizer at a time when such sentiments were not smiled upon. But objectively, it’s hard to blame the FBI for following a young man who spent more time in Russian bookstores in the east village than he did in school. Naturally, they never followed him inside to find him rifling through stacks of chess periodicals, but instead noted his frequent visits and no doubt assumed the worst. Freedom of Information Act requests have now made these files public, and for the most part they have turned out to be as voluminous as they are vapid, though interestingly we are told that an agent once posed as a journalist to interact with the family, and that two agents once questioned Regina on her doorstep, causing her in turn to instruct Bobby to never speak to them if questioned. The reader cannot help but wonder if growing up in such an environment contributed to his paranoia later in life.

Bobby’s contentious relationship with the press is also touched upon, beginning with the famous 1962 article that appeared in Harpers, in which Ralph Ginzburg misscharacterized Bobby’s relationship with his mother, and drew parallels between Bobby and a character from Elias Canetti’s work Die Blendung, written 8 years before Bobby Fischer’s birth, in which a character named Fischerle wishes to become chess champion of the world, after which he plans on changing his name to Fischer and living in a “gigantic palace with real castles, knights, pawns.” The article sought to portray bobby as an extremely eccentric chess genius, and he was incensed by it. From this point on, he loathed journalists, and as a class they were forever banished to his “dislike” column.

Throughout the book, we see the intensity of Bobby’s emotions; the insatiability of his desire to win and his visceral reaction to defeat, his self-destructive separation from friends and his difficulty with women. His psychological bouts with Tal take center stage, as perhaps they should, though his lifelong friendship with Spassky is also given ample room in the text. Finally, no biography of Bobby Fischer’s life would be complete without an accounting of his many hatreds. In the second half of his life he came to be defined by them. Bobby hated “Jews,” he hated “The Russians,” he hated “The United States Government,” as well as anyone who “wronged” him by not adhering to his immutable and unforgiving rules of friendship. Dr. Brady artfully deals with these touchy subjects in a way that illuminates Bobby’s weltanschauung while maintaining the requisite rhetorical distance from his toxic ideas. By refraining from drawing conclusions on these issues, never simply diagnosing his subject as psychotic or racist but rather searching for the roots of Bobby’s motivations and offering the reader observations of those who were close to him, the reader is invited to draw her own conclusions. One example is the following passage, which contains an anecdote from the late Hungarian GM Andor Lilianthal, in which Bobby unveils the contradictions of his troubling worldview:

When Bobby aired his views regarding Jews, Lilianthal stopped him: “Bobby,” he said, “did you know that I, in fact, am a Jew?” Bobby smiled and replied, “You are a good man, a good person, so you are not a Jew.” It was becoming apparent that, although Bobby’s rhetoric was clearly anti-semitic, he tended to use the word “Jew” as a general pejorative. Anyone– whether Jewish or not– who was “bad,” in Bobby’s opinion, was a Jew. Anyone who was “good”– such as Lilianthal– whether Jewish or not, was not a Jew. “I reserve the right to generalize,” Bobby wrote about his penchant for stereotyping.

Having read both “Bobby Fischer: The Wandering King,” as well as “Bobby Fischer Goes to War,” I can say that “Endgame” amounts to the most complete and intimate biography of Bobby ever written. It goes without saying that I recommend it to chess fans, but I think the book will likely find a readership with a larger audience as well. With the death of Bobby Fischer, and the still unresolved case of his estate, it’s only natural to begin the process of historicisization. I’m thankful that Dr. Brady has risen to the task.