Bobby Fischer Goes to War: The True Story of How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time
David Edmonds and John Eidinow
Faber and Faber, 2004
To those people who know anything about chess, two names and a city are irrevocably linked. The names are "Fischer" and "Spassky", and the city is "Reykjavik". During July-August 1972, Boris Spassky, the 35-year-old Soviet world chess champion, played a 21-game match against 29-year-old Bobby Fischer, the American contender who was considered a genius, an enigma, a demon. The match took place in Reykjavik, Iceland. Fischer won the match by 12½ points to 8½. That's seven games to Spassky's three; eleven were drawn.
Although the match was hardly a classic in terms of sparkling moves and innovation, it captured the global imagination. Hardly had Fischer had time to bask in his victory--Spassky phoned in his Game 21 resignation--before several books on it flooded the planet. Edmonds' and Eidinow's thorough account won't satisfy those purists who need to crawl over and ponder each move of the 21 games. But it is for those readers who are still mesmerised by the events in Reykjavik, 1972. It seems the authors have interviewed everyone (including Soviet diplomats) they could possibly dig up, and combed newspaper archives, memoirs, government records and even the FBI's file on Fischer's mother. There are details about the childhoods of Fischer and Spassky (the former in Brooklyn, the latter in Leningrad during World War Two), the labyrinthian negotiations surrounding the match, the reactions of the worlds of chess and politics. A nice touch is an extract from Art Buchwald's satirical piece in the Washington Post that caused much merriment in that city at the time (the following is a snippet):
"Hello, Bobby, this is President Nixon. I just wanted to call and congratulate you on your victory in Iceland."
"Make it short, will you? I'm tired."
Over the course of almost 300 pages Bobby Fischer Goes to War paints a rich panorama of the soon-to-be-legendary encounter and its times. The match was closely followed by the Soviet Politburo, and by Nixon and his then-National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, who took time off from his labours in international diplomacy to ring a temperamental Fischer and offer encouragement.
This was because Fischer v Spassky was almost an extension of the Cold War. The media portrayed Fischer as an emissary of the Free World, a maverick from an affluent America that rated chess below ball sports, while Spassky was depicted as an automaton from a nation which regarded chess not only as a respected intellectual activity but an extension of Communism by other means. Each camp paranoically suspected the other (and the CIA and the KGB) of perpetrating dirty tricks in the form psychological pressure, telepathy, hypnotism, drugged foods, mysterious electronic devices planted in each player's chair--the sort of thing more commonly found in sensationalist Cold War novels.
Edmonds and Eidinow put forward the theory that Reykjavik 1972 was a unique historical event because it was a sort of embodiment of the confrontation between East and West. And it took place in a very busy period. In the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese forces crossed the Demilitarized Zone into South Vietnam. Sweden condemned the USA's "secret" bombing of Cambodia. Members of the Red Army Faction were arrested in West Germany. Governor George Wallace of Alabama was shot. A nutter attacked Michaelangelo's Pièta with a hammer. Israeli athetletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics. Meanwhile, "shuttle diplomacy" entered the vocabulary as politicians jetted around the globe for nuclear arms talks: Nixon and Brezhnev signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and Nixon visited China and Moscow. And on June 17, 1972 there was the Watergate break-in.
Before the match Spassky believed it would secure him a place in history. Indeed it did, but for a reason he can't have foreseen. In his youth he was a politically-independent (or naïve), easy-going kind of bloke, who read Dostoevsky, played tennis, and enjoyed the trappings of luxury. If he hadn't been a chess champion he probably would've been tossed into a psychiatric prison to have his attitude sorted out. He now lives in France with his third wife, and travels the world as an ambassador for chess. But in 1972, the Reykjavik ordeal left him a depressed wreck in desperate need of psychotherapy. And his name will forever be linked with that of the first and only American world chess champion, who in his notoriety is more of a household name than any other chessplayer who's ever lived.
Chess in the western world is usually relegated to a small slot in the back pages of the daily newspaper. But the unprecedented Fischer Effect ensured a nuclear-type explosion in its popularity; parents bought their tots chess sets rather than building blocks, in the hope that they were nurturing in their bosom the next world champion. Fischer's reputation as an eccentric, unpredictable, opinionated, uncouth, anti-Semitic boor with a low opinion of female intelligence did nothing to deter his admirers. His disappearance from public life soon afterwards and his refusal to defend his world title in 1975 merely deepened the aura that continues to surround his name.
The Soviets figured Fischer was a psychopath who thrived on conflict. Nowadays he's more of a mystery than ever. The USA issued an arrest warrant when he broke UN sanctions by playing a "rematch" against Spassky in Serbia in 1992. There are rumours of Fischer sightings around the world and on the internet; some people believe they've played on-line chess games against him. Despite his deplorable opinions on certain matters, one feels a reluctant and grudging admiration for his sheer cussedness in persisting with his gnat-like buzzing on various topics--like, say, those he feels have done him wrong (the USA and FIDE*). In 2001 he was heard on Philippines radio, approving the September 11 attacks. Websites are devoted to his proclamations, interviews, and rumoured activities. But nobody really knows where he is.
Bobby Fischer Goes to War is a marvellously detailed depiction of Reykjavik 1972 and its unexpected effect on those involved (and the world in general). Its cover consists of a striking 1964 b&w photograph of the American champion--tall, lean and handsome in a dark suit, leaning casually against a backdrop with a chessboard on the ground in front of him. And this is the conclusion one draws: that without the inexplicable charisma Fischer still generates despite everything, there would've been no reason for this book to have been written.
*Fédération Internationale des Échecs