Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Endgame – The Bobby Fischer Biography

  I bought the Bobby Fisher biography “Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness” from a couple of weeks ago for $14 with free shipping. The book lists for $25.99, which is what Bob Long of Thinkers Press was selling it for. was selling the book for $20. Bob is probably going to be upset with me for buying the book from Amazon if he reads this since he is always railing about how Amazon squeezes all the profits from the books, leaving little for the publisher/author and nothing for the smaller booksellers like Bob. But that is the beauty of in a Wal-Mart sort of way. If I want a book, I can probably get it from them cheaper than from anyone else and if it is a book like this one that was heavily publicized, they will send me an email offer at the lowest possible price. Anyway, I have $12 in my pocket that I can use to purchase a book or DVD from Bob which I have done plenty of times in the past and you won’t find me complaining about paying Bob $30 for his biography “The Chess Assassin’s Business Manual” when it is on sale for $10 on the remainder market 3 months later.

  I’m a product of the “Fischer Boom” of 1972. When Bobby Fischer won the right to challenge then champion Boris Spassky in Iceland, the entire country was rooting for the American to beat the Russians at their own game (5 Russians had held the championship for 34 years). The match was on public television 3 or more days a week during the summer, sales of chess sets went up 10 fold, and United States Chess Federation memberships tripled. To this day, the Fischer Boom has reverberations as people my age have taught our kids chess and volunteer to share our love of the game. Fischer won the championship, didn’t play in any tournaments or matches, and lost his crown in 1975 when he refused to defend it against the new Russian challenger, Anatoly Karpov. Sales of chess sets and USCF memberships went back to the pre-Fischer levels and the Russians held the World Championship for 33 more years, until Viswanathan Anand from India beat Vladimir Kramnik for the title in 2008. Fischer went to Yugoslavia in 1992 to play a $5 million dollar rematch against Boris Spassky in violation of a US ban on playing in a county under UN Embargo. Fischer spit on the government ban at a press conference, won the match, and was not heard from again in the mainstream press until 9-11 when he went on a Philippine radio station to declare his happiness for the destruction of America. Up until that time, he was allowed to travel the world even though the US had revoked his passport and had a warrant for his arrest, but after his 9-11 diatribes, Fischer was no longer looked on by the government with a blind eye. He was arrested in Japan in 2004 for not having a valid passport, held in jail for 9 months while he fought extradition to the US, and was given Icelandic citizenship in 2005 and lived there until his death in 2008.

  The author, Frank Brady, had written a previous biography of Fischer “Profile of a Prodigy” in 1965 and updated it in 1972 after Fischer won the World Championship. He is a professional biographer, having also written biographies of Orson Welles, Hugh Hefner, Barbara Streisand, and Aristotle Onassis.

  I knew before buying the book that there would be no chess games in it, but all the reviews I read said this was the definitive biography on Bobby Fischer that had a lot of new information, and I did like the Profile of a Prodigy book, so I went for it. I was disappointed in that there was very little in the book I didn’t already know. The first third of the book talks about his poverty stricken childhood, no father and a mother that is always working, protesting, and studying to pay much attention to him until his sister brings home a chess set among many other games to play with. He takes to chess, immerses himself in it, and his mother takes him to a chess club in Brooklyn. He gets better and better and by the time he is 15, he is the US champion and is competes successfully internationally and is one of the top 10 players in the world. The second third of the book talks about how he blames the Russians for his failures on the international stage, is insulting to the patrons of US chess (in one example, a patroness of a tournament gives Fischer his prize money in an envelope and offers her congratulations, only to have Fischer rip the envelope open and count the money to make sure it was all there, completely ignoring the patron.), dropping out of matches and tournaments over an imagined slight or argument over playing conditions. Eventually, the USCF bends every rule they could to get him into the 1972 championship cycle that Fischer didn’t bother to qualify for, and he wins an astounding 19 games in a row against grandmasters to set up his match with Spassky. Fischer held out for more prize money that had every been paid for a championship chess match, lost the first game, forfeited the second in a protest over the having the cameras removed from the playing site (they were), then came back to only lose 1 more game in the match, winning by 4 games.

  The latter part of the book details how Fischer gave most of his championship prize money to Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God and was destitute for much of the 70’s and 80’s, (even though he had numerous endorsement opportunities that he turned down), living off the Social Security checks his mother signed over to him, blaming his troubles on a Jewish conspiracy against him (Fischer is at least half-Jewish), and collecting Nazi literature to help him prove the conspiracy, his comeback, 9-11 rantings, exile to Iceland, and finally his death.

  If you are a chess player and knew about all of Bobby Fischer’s triumphs and tragedies, I think you will find very little in this book you didn’t know already. The one thing that I didn’t know was that he kept a good relationship with his mother up until her death and how supportive she was of his chess career.

  If you don’t know much about chess, would you want to read a book about someone who was a gifted chess player, but with the exception of his mother, turned his back on anyone and everyone who ever helped him or tried to help him, including his own country? Even in the last part of the book, Fisher is quoted talking disparagingly about the Icelandic people and nation, the one country that was willing to give him citizenship and rescue him from living out his life in an American prison.

  Because of Bobby Fischer, an entire generation of Americans tried out chess as a pastime and to this day more people find the measure of confidence, fellowship, and self-esteem over the chessboard that they could not through athletics and other activities. But even 40 years after he won the championship and 20 years after his last competitive game, he is the one name most people associate with chess and many of these people tend to think of chess players as crazy nuts like Bobby Fischer. This is a shame because while the population of chess players has (like all organizations) its share of crazies, most adult chess players are upstanding, hardworking, responsible people. The Iowa Closed Chess Championship will be played next month. The 6 players competing include 2 outstanding students (not high school dropouts like Fischer), 1 lawyer, 1 surgeon, 1 college professor, and 1 engineer. How much easier would it be to me to get donors for my series of chess tournaments if these 6 people came to the donor’s mind when they thought of chess players instead of Bobby Fischer? You could make the case that some or none of these people would have played chess in the first place if not for Fischer and there's a lot of logic behind that viewpoint, but I feel Fischer did at least as much harm to the perception of chess in the United States as he did good and I don't even want to get into the opportunity lost to popularize chess if he had just kept playing without going wacko.

  To sum up my thoughts on Bobby Fisher, a priest walked in on the St. Francis Chess Club 2 weeks ago and was telling the head coach Jim Mona and myself how good he thought it was that these kids were learning to play chess. Then he said, “Maybe you have another Bobby Fischer here?” and Jim and I said almost at the same time “I hope not.”