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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Thirteen-year-old Bobby Fischer contemplates his next move at the Manhattan Chess Club in 1956. / Photo: © Bettman/CorbisTiming and circumstance had a lot to do with Fischer’s celebrity outside the chess world. It was the middle of the Cold War, and beating the Soviets, who had for decades dominated international chess, became for Americans a matter of national pride. While his role as the American challenger made him an underdog, Fischer did not play the part well. His arrival (on a plane stocked with oranges, so that juice might be “squeezed in front of him”) was delayed by squabbles over money, and once he got to Reykjavik, he delayed the games with tantrums about distracting television cameras and lights. Fischer’s success became such a topic of geopolitical interest that Henry Kissinger telephoned — twice — to urge him to quit the antics and play the game. In the atmosphere of paranoia and accusation that lingered, Fischer believed for most of his adult life that the Soviets were plotting to kill him.

As a biographer, Brady is better placed than anyone to relate how Fischer’s genius warped into madness, but he resists this kind of analysis, being more concerned with persuading us that the Fischer who ranted against the Jews and applauded the September 11 attacks should also be remembered as a player of considerable grace. Brady is also remarkably adept at making both the mechanics and the beauty of chess understandable to the novice, and at making chess seem important and worthy to one who might otherwise have no interest in the game. He opens his book with a quote from the novelist A. S. Byatt, about a young chess player who saw movements across the board as beautiful lines of light. Brady, too, sees chess as a game and an art — and sees Fischer, then, as an artist.

While Brady’s passion for the game is one of his strengths, the reader at times can feel bogged down in long, consecutive descriptions of tournaments. It’s not that the various matches are hard to grasp, it’s that they are easy to forget, and so the reader might find it difficult to understand Fischer’s overall progress. The book both suffers and benefits from Brady’s enormous amount of research. Narrative transitions are occasionally buried under an overload of information.

It is the rare firsthand accounts from Bobby and those who loved him that provide the most affecting moments in the book. Chief among them is a 1973 letter from Regina to her son, in which she warns, “The greater the person’s mind and talent, the greater the destruction . . . Don’t let millions of people down who regard you as a genius and an example to themselves. It’s no joke to be in your position.” 

Anyone who reads Endgame will know how right she was.

Phoebe Magee is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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