Thursday, October 06, 2011

Lethal moves

It’s a fool’s task to try to make sense of Bobby Fischer, the man who juxtaposed weird and wondrous like no one else. He was and remains the youngest ever US chess champion, and in 1972 he did what was thought impossible: he ended the Soviet Union’s 24-year stranglehold on the World Chess Championship. After that, he descended into what appears to have been a bottomless pit of anti-Semitism and mindless fulmination against the world. A biography by Frank Brady, Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall, and an HBO documentary, Bobby Fischer Against the World, flesh out this enigmatic figure.

With his credentials — he was founding editor of Chess Life magazine and deeply involved with the Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan, where Fischer hung out as a youngster — Brady is au fait with every cobble along Fischer’s path as he went, to quote the second half of the book’s subtitle, “From America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness”.

Fischer was born in Chicago in 1943 to Regina (Jewish) and Hans-Gerhardt Fischer (non-Jewish). His penchant for chess became apparent at age six: he would analyse chess games and try to replicate them in his own game. With constant self-training, Fischer scaled peak after new peak and grew increasingly unbeatable. An early triumph of Brady’s biography is a beautifully written description of the 13-year-old Fischer’s game against Donald Byrne, a former US champion, at an invitational tournament.

In describing this game, dubbed “the game of the century”, Brady's prose so effectively rises to the occasion that one begins to imagine a cross between Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway. These four pages will gain a death grip on the reader.

But this nearly flawless book has one dark spot: the Cold War-era Boris Spassky-versus-Bobby Fischer duel in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972. Brady gives it plenty of colour but does not offer a fly-on-the-wall account of the game. That void is filled by the HBO documentary, which gives a blow-by-blow account of the game, with insight into all the machinations and diplomatic wrangling, and Fischer’s clever brinkmanship. Just before the match was to begin, Fischer made many complaints, about everything from the location to the prize money.

* * * * *

For a better understanding of Fischer, one needs to know that when it came to money, Fischer could make Ebenezer Scrooge look open-handed. At one point it looked as if the Spassky-Fischer duel would never see the light of the day, thanks to Fischer’s incredibly petty financial objections. What put it back on track was an intervention from Henry Kissinger, no less.

Bobby Fischer Against the World, the documentary film, uses talking heads throughout rather than a running voiceover. Its portrayal of the Spassky-Fischer match is a cinematic tour-de-force. Director Liz Garbus’s use of archival footage will put cinéma vérité techniques to shame.

In his biography, Brady revels in describing the aftermath of that iconic duel. What has up to this point read like a hagiography suddenly shows signs of turning into a hatchet job. Here, as the book tells it, was a shy, unassuming, reclusive, well-mannered young man who suddenly morphed into a colossal egotist — eccentric, inconsiderate and intransigent.

After the Reykjavik match, Fischer spent two decades — widely known as the Wilderness Years — immured in a room not much larger than a chessboard, in Pasadena, California. He devoured anti-Semitic literature and made venomous statements about Jews. The floodgates really opened when Fischer defied a US embargo on Yugoslavia in 1992, imposed because of the ethnic war there, to participate in a rematch of the 1972 classic. What’s more, he spat on the official US letter that informed him about the conditions of the embargo. Ultimately he had to give up his American citizenship. What followed was a quixotic, peripatetic lifestyle.

Ever more convinced of (non-existent) Israeli and Russian conspiracies, Fischer turned into a paranoiac. He developed outlandish, even deranged fears: he suspected the Soviets could affect his mind by sending radio signals through the metal in his teeth; he feared a KGB assassination plot. He grew more unhinged with time. Just after 9/11, while America reeled from the most lethal terrorist attack in modern history, Fischer’s schadenfreude towards his former nation excited only repulsion: “Cry, you crybabies!” he said. “Whine, you bastards! Now your time is coming.”

The best thing about Brady’s book is that he realises that Fischer’s genius and his mental illness were closely connected. That is why Brady never expresses his opinion of Fischer, even though he is well acquainted with his subject. Brady also depicts Fischer’s final three years in Reykjavik well. From Fischer’s daily routine to his reading predilections, Brady gets the details and presentation right. If ever a course is taught on how to write warts-and-all biography, Brady’s unflinching book should be at the heart of the curriculum.


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