Grandmaster Flash

Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall — from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness
By Frank Brady
Crown Publishers, 416 pages, $25.99
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Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall by Frank BradyIn the spring of 1949, Joan Fischer bought her six-year-old brother Bobby a plastic chess set at a candy store on their block. Bobby’s main opponent was his mother, and each time he beat her, he would turn the board around, play her side, then beat her again. “Since Bobby couldn’t find a worthy opponent, or any opponent for that matter,” writes Frank Brady in his new biography, “he made himself his principal adversary. Setting up the men on his tiny board, he’d play game after game alone, first assuming the white side and then spinning the board around . . . ‘Eventually I would checkmate the other guy,’ he chuckled when he described the experience years later.”

The lonely child in a Brooklyn apartment brilliantly playing two sides of the same board, and making himself his own “principal adversary” is one of many telling images in Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall — from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness. Two distinct Bobbys stand out in the public memory. One is the genius, a chess player of the highest caliber who brought new life to the ancient game. The other is the madman, the hate-spewing international fugitive. Where these two sides intersect is of particular interest to readers who seek the real Fischer.

Their guide is Frank Brady ’76SOA, a former professor of journalism at Barnard and now a professor of communication arts at St. John’s University, the founding editor of Chess Life magazine, and the president of Manhattan’s Marshall Chess Club, where a teenage Fischer played his “Game of the Century” in October 1956. Fischer’s unusual display of daring and instinct, including ingenious sacrifices of his knight and queen, earned the battle its nickname.

In that match, the 13-year-old Fischer defeated 26-year-old Donald Byrne, a Penn State professor of English and the 1953 U.S. Open Chess Champion. “It was as though [Fischer had] been peering through a narrow lens and the aperture began to widen to take in the entire landscape in a kind of efflorescent illumination,” writes Brady. “He wasn’t absolutely certain he could see the full consequences of allowing Byrne to take his queen, but he plunged ahead, nevertheless.” 

Brady knew Fischer from the time Fischer was a child, played games against him, ate dinner and took walks with him during the “on” times in their on-and-off friendship. From this relationship the author is able to fill in many missing details from his subject’s highly unusual life. A few months before the Byrne match, for example, Fischer was invited to join the eccentric neo-Nazi millionaire E. Forry Laucks and his Log Cabin Chess Club on a 3500-mile road trip to Havana. Bobby’s single mother, Regina, a travel-hungry intellectual, radical, and endlessly fascinating character (who warrants more space in the book than Brady is able to give), insisted on tagging along. Rounding out the party were two other chess-playing walk-ons: Norman T. Whitaker, a con man, pedophile, and disbarred lawyer who once falsely claimed to know the whereabouts of the kidnapped Lindbergh baby, and Glenn T. Hartleb, a bespectacled chess expert from Florida who greeted everyone he met “by bowing low and saying with deep reverence, Master!” Here, as throughout Endgame, Brady approaches the odd facts of Fischer’s life with the measured patience of the historian and the eye and ear of the novelist.

In the summer of 1972, at 29, Fischer faced the defending world champion, the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky, in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik. After 21 games, and with millions watching around the world, Fischer defeated Spassky 12½ to 8½ to become World Chess Champion. Fischer’s performance also brought chess into the spotlight in America — a considerable feat in itself. During the tournament, televisions in New York City bars were tuned to chess instead of to baseball. Chess sets sold out in department stores, and, as Fischer himself put it, the game was “all over the front pages” in a country where it had long been of interest to only a quiet few. 

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