Bobby Fischer Goes to War

By David Edmonds and John Eidinow

Chess is done better now by computers. So when the President of the Icelandic Chess Federation referred to the 1972 Reykjavik Spassky-Fischer match as not just the match of the century but the match of all time, he was probably right. No one wants to see IBM’s Deep Blue win, and yet his ultimate triumph over mortal minds seems to be inevitable. The “creative imaginations that go into a great chess game and a great piece of music are closely allied,” but not the same thing. There may be more possible variations in a game of chess than there are atoms in the universe and seconds that have elapsed since the solar system came into existence, but those calculations can be performed easily enough by silicon chips. All kinds of thought and feeling may go into a game of chess, and the psychological pressure can be intense, but what we are talking about is a finite system.

But Spassky-Fischer was a human conflict and human drama. It was not much of a Cold War story. (And here I would like to register a complaint about the title. Why the emphasis on Fischer when Spassky shares the narrative spotlight equally? Was this a match “the Soviets lost”, or one that Spassky lost? And why the bit about going to war? Fischer, whose ideology – if you can call it that – was wholly personal, seems to have understood chess as a type of individual combat, not military action.) True to totalitarian form, the Soviets saw chess as a tool in a system Spassky did not fairly represent. And by the end of the match Fischer had become merely an embarrassment to his own government (something he was probably conscious of).

Nor is this a chess book. Edmonds and Eidinow only make glancing references to the games themselves. Books offering move-by-move analysis are, apparently, already available.

Bobby Fischer Goes to War is, instead, another slice of cultural history for the general reader, a genre currently enjoying tremendous popularity. The game is placed in social, political and biographical context. But in the end what makes the book interesting is the same thing that made the 1972 championship match itself such an event: the eccentric character of Bobby Fischer.

There’s no denying our fascination with abnormal, even psychopathic, personalities. Bobby Fischer was a chess genius and a shocking jerk. His performance at Reykjavik (and I’m not talking about his game) was truly remarkable. Using his celebrity as a strategic weapon he relentlessly bullied and manipulated his hosts as well as his opponent. The mainstream Soviet interpretation, that Fischer was pathologically afraid of losing, seems plausible. But his paranoia is another story, one which his subsequent withdrawal from the public eye has only further muddied.

This is only a historical sketch, a grown-up magazine article really, on a curiously non-seminal event. The authors point to how the flurry of interest in chess in America did not long endure. “Just as Fischer had been primarily responsible for the boom, so, by disappearing from the scene, he was principally responsible for the bust.” They also note how Fischer’s own career trajectory testifies to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s proposition that there are no second acts in American lives.

Whether there will be any further acts in the epic of chess, or if competing teams of programmers will only wage virtual war with 21st century chess-playing battlebots, remains to be seen.

Review first published May 29, 2004.


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