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- BOOK REVIEW, E

“Endgame: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Bobby Fischer” (2011) by Frank Brady

I feel bereft. After 4 or 5 days of reading Endgame there is no more Bobby Fischer in my life. For most of us Fischer is two things; the greatest chess player the world has ever seen and a ranting madman. To write a biography of such an unpleasant character and about the intense, niche world of chess, to do this and make it a real page-turner is a great feat. The greater feat perhaps is in helping us to understand the complex character of Bobby Fischer. Here we have a teenager with a genius IQ who fails at school; a man of liberal Jewish background who turns into a fervent anti-Semite and a patriotic competitor who becomes an anti-American exile. This book attempts to unravel some of the mystery behind Fischer’s rapid ascent as a chess superstar to his downfall as a lonely exile in Iceland.

The first part of the book describes Bobby’s childhood spent in poverty and his first forays into the insular world of the Manhattan Chess Club. The clumsy unkempt Fischer spent a strange teenagehood in the hushed rooms of the club, his all encompassing studies of chess strategy enabling him to rise steadily in the ranks. With this ascent came ever increasing publicity, fame and eventually money. This culminated into the famous and frustrating match against the reigning World champion Boris Spassky. The second part takes us to a darker part of Bobby’s world and his eventual fall from grace. We learn about the influence of the cult like Worldwide Church, the development of his racist beliefs, his wilderness years in LA and eventual exile.

Brady himself is extremely knowledgeable about the chess world having been involved with the FIDE for many years and founding the magazine “Chess Life”. He also knows his subject well befriending Bobby Fischer as a youngster and spending many hours in his company.  Thus, the book is nuanced, detailed and well-researched. If you are a chess player I’m sure the details of the various championships, the famous games and the legendary moves made are of immense interest. If you don’t know much about chess, don’t be put off. The book does throw a lot of chess player’s names at you. This can be quite confusing but it doesn’t detract from the human story. And that’s where this book really succeeds.

Having recently watched ‘Bobby Fischer Against the World’ I almost didn’t pick this book up. I wondered what else there was to say? He was awkward, arrogant and coldly cruel. Brady shows another side of the story and a deep compassion for his subject without flinching from showing the more disturbing aspects of his character and his later extreme anti-Semitic views. To understand is not to sympathise. The author evokes more of a sadness than an anger for his subject. Brady writes from the perspective of a friend, albeit one of the many snubbed by Fischer for some minor affront. That Bobby Fischer offended so many but inspired so much kindness in people shows what a contradictory and fascinating person he really was. Of particular interest was the loyalty shown to Fischer by his great rival Boris Spassky. Watching the afore-mentioned documentary I felt frustration on Spassky’s behalf. But Spassky remained a friend to the end, in awe of his rival’s chess powers and defending him till his death.

The book succeeds on another wider level. The major championships Fischer played in reflect what was occurring on the political scene.  The cold-war backdrop plays an important role in how these games played out and gives us an intriguing insight into how important it was for the Soviets to defeat Bobby Fischer and the tactics they used. Although Fischer could be accused of being paranoid about his Soviet enemies ganging up against him, Brady shows us that his view was not without some merit.  It really was Bobby versus the world (or rather the USSR). He was a one man threat to an entire country’s national game that they had dominated for years. On a lighter note, Brady’s descriptions of some of the appearance and mannerisms of the various Grandmasters are delightful.

Brady has written a book that will appeal both to those who are interested in the history and strategies of chess and to those who are interested in reading a powerful character study of a complicated human being. He gives us no definite answers but rather a greater understanding of a modern genius.

In short:  Nothing is black and white. A fascinating, nuanced biography.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Read more about Bobby Fischer on Wikipedia

View the book on Amazon

Check out the trailer for the movie “Bobby Fischer Against the World”

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