Thursday, April 7, 2011

Book Review: ENDGAME: BOBBY FISCHER'S RISE AND FALL by Frank Brady (Crown, 2011)

Frank Brady, author of PROFILE OF A PRODIGY, one of the best books on the rise of Bobby Fischer to the World Chess Championship in 1972, is "back at the board" with a full-length general-reader biography that completes Fischer's bizarre odyssey to (and beyond?) "the edge of madness" and the man's pathetic end as a stateless, anti-Semitic quasi-hermit in Iceland, the site of his great victory. Brady certainly knows as much about this strange genius as anyone, and he does deliver a readable book, but the end product is not what it could have been, thanks in large part to Brady's patchy (to put it mildly) and occasionally cynical (to put it harshly) use of material from PRODIGY. A "newbie" unfamiliar with chess literature will no doubt have a more positive opinion of the work.

To give him his due, Brady does expand upon some events that were only touched upon in the earlier book. He gives a good description of Bobby's childhood and fleshes out such incidents as young Bobby's appearance on the TV game show I've Got a Secret in the late 1950s, but skims over some others that would appear to be particularly germane to the theme of Fischer the tortured genius. Why not more on Ralph Ginzburg's ATLANTIC MONTHLY interview with Fischer from 1961, a piece which did considerable damage to Fischer's reputation very early in his career? Brady describes the Fischer who appeared in that portrait as "homophobic" and "misogynistic" but doesn't give us any particulars. When the subject turns to Fischer's amazing run through the qualifying rounds prior to his 1972 duel with Boris Spassky, Brady suddenly "becomes a camera," reproducing entire passages from PROFILE verbatim. Other writers have been able to dig up much more information on the Fischer-Spassky match (especially now that the old Soviet archives have been opened) and produce highly enjoyable works. The fact that Brady did not avail himself of these new data was highly disappointing.

Fischer's post-1972 life makes profoundly depressing reading, and Brady's book is at its most interesting (in a perverse sort of way) here. While he had a certain ability to charm people, Fischer's devouring need to control all aspects of his environment ultimately drove all but the most loyal of his compatriots away. His late-in-life anti-Americanism (e.g. his notorious cheering for "death to America" after 9/11) is attributed in part to a late detonation of warnings about "FBI snooping" passed on by Fischer's leftist mother, but the cynic in me is more inclined to blame his legal quarrels over money and unwillingness to pay taxes. (This is, after all, a man who wanted to be paid more for a chess championship defense than Muhammad Ali and George Foreman got for their "Rumble in the Jungle.") There is something touching in Fischer's desire to find romantic love as he aged, but in all other respects he is a particularly noxious example of how genius can destroy itself from within. I certainly think that there will be better Fischer biographies in the future, but this is a good "first draft" of Fischer's twisted history.

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