Synopses & Reviews
Authors' Note on "Bobby Fischer Goes To War
by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
We did not plan to follow a book about the duel for supremacy between two of the twentieth-century's greatest philosophers with a sequel about the duel for supremacy between two of that century's greatest chess-players.
"Wittgenstein's Poker took off from a series of splenetic letters in the "Times Literary Supplement" discussing whether Karl Popper had lied in his autobiography about an argument with Ludwig Wittgenstein. Vituperation ruled between Wittgensteinians and Popperians for six weeks amid charge and counter-charge over the incident. John sent the correspondence to David for his amusement, and eighteen months later the result was a 350-page book. "Bobby Fischer Goes To War has its origins in a later BBC radio programme David produced on the history of the world chess championship. It was a lightning tour, from Steinitz (1886) to Kramnik (2001). Coverage of the 1972 showdown was perfunctory but the story had a Poker-like resonance. Here was a compelling tale involving singular personalities, yet with plainly much more to be said than currently on the record.
There are obvious parallels between "Bobby Fischer Goes To War and "Wittgenstein's Poker." In each case, one of the two protagonists was generally considered a genius, possessing all the strangeness we eagerly associate with the word, while the other was seen as brilliant but normal. In each case, one of the pair intended to destroy the other or at least to make off with his crown. In each case, the story takes us on a journey into the cerebral high peaks: first world-class philosophy, now world-class chess, with the challenge tomake philosophy and chess accessible to the general reader.
The mechanics of the research were also very similar. Both books, for example, had international scope. For Wittgenstein's Poker we had to track down eyewitnesses in all parts of the world. In "Bobby Fischer Goes To War we travelled to meet Boris's tennis partner in Estonia, Bobby's bodyguard in Iceland, Boris's ex-wife in Moscow, and the match referee in Bamberg, Germany.
But there were also profound differences between the two events that we took as our subject. At the heart of "Wittgenstein's Poker lay a ten-minute philosophical argument and a mystery to be unravelled. When the American challenger Bobby Fischer met the Soviet world champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972, their battle lasted two months and was fought in public. Every move on the chessboard was endlessly dissected; the meaning of the confrontation and the roles of the characters seemed clear. A lone American star was challenging the long Soviet grip on the world title. His success would dispose of the Soviets' claim that their chess hegemony reflected the superiority of their political system. The chessboard was a Cold War arena where expressionless, hard-faced Soviet chess apparatchiks confronted the solitary champion of the free world, urged on by President Nixon's National Security Adviser, Dr Kissinger, to fight for liberty and justice. Here was the "High Noon of chess, coming to you from a concrete sports hall in Iceland.
That is the version remembered today by an astonishing number of people. Even non-chess players - those who can't tell their King's Gambit from their Sicilian Defence, their "fianchettos from their "en passants - willreact with, 'Fischer-Spassky?' 'Oh yes, that was a Cold War battle, wasn't it.'
If it were as simple as that, the events of Reykjavik could be left safely to the myriad books already detailing the contest, many written in its immediate aftermath. But it is not.
Detached by time and history from the mind-sets of the period, driven by the feeling that the preconceptions about the match were ripe for reconsideration, we set out to take a new look at the episode. The end of the Cold War has allowed access to people and records that reveal the human beings inside the Soviet monolith, a system that was as impoverished as it was cruel, recasting Spassky as the most unSoviet of champions. White House, State Department and FBI sources also offer remarkable insights on official attitudes to the match and to Fischer. With these resources, we can relate the tale from a new perspective. The simplicities of "High Noon no longer apply. We have entered the nuanced world of Le Carré, a world of individuals and the often subversive choices that bring personal tragedy in their wake.
"Bobby Fischer Goes To War is a story on several levels. Against the background of superpower politics, there are the careers and personalities of the champion and the challenger. Spassky was the product of Stalin's "imperium," Fischer the child of post WWII America, an era of economic boom at home and communist-containment abroad. The two men had little in common but their gift for chess: their disparity of outlook and values conditioned their struggle over the board.
Then there is the chess itself - which produced both creative masterpieces and unbelievable gaffes. Finally, there is the full account ofthe match beyond the chessboard. In the Icelandic capital, the plot turns into tragi-farce as Fischer risks all to seize control of the contest with the organizers manoeuvring frantically under the eyes of the world press to save it. We follow the clash to its conclusion, with events away from the platform as dramatic as those on it, displaying the cultural differences between the dynamic, media-savvy representatives of the West and the baffled and impotent Soviets. Even the KGB could not help.
The question we're most often asked is how it is possible to co-author a book, dividing the work, agreeing the narrative and the plot, achieving a single voice - all without coming to blows with red-hot pokers. Well, which of us wrote that last sentence? By the end of our editing process, we ourselves can't tell. John might begin chapter one, David chapter two - but after an intensive process of internet-ping-pong, the original authorships are lost in a cyber-haze. It's a time-consuming business - but it's also fun, launching and shooting down ideas, swapping phrases (and deleting them), testing theses to destruction, running jokes. "Wittgenstein's Poker rose out of this interaction; the same process has produced "Bobby Fischer Goes To War. With amazement, we contemplate the result: somehow, between us, they have taken on a life of their own.
"The duo that crafted the bestselling Wittgenstein's Poker returns to chronicle 'the most notorious chess duel in history,' the 1972 match between world champion Boris Spassky and challenger Bobby Fischer...Even if you think you know the story, this highly entertaining account will surprise and delight." Publishers Weekly
"[T]he book does a very good job of setting the scene, of making us feel as though it's 1972, and we are witnessing something of truly global importance. Good reading, especially for chess buffs." David Pitt, Booklist
"In Bobby Fischer Goes to War, the authors show themselves once again to be grandmasters of nonfiction narrative." Heller McAlpin, The Christian Science Monitor
"Bobby Fischer's 1972 chess match in Reykjavik, Iceland against world champion Boris Spassky is as iconic and intrigue-filled as Ali's fight in Zaire....The War Against Bobby Fischer
presents a richer Soviet perspective than has been offered before, and it's a page-turner for grandmasters and neophytes alike." Adrienne Miller, Esquire
(read the entire Esquire review
The authors of the bestselling Wittgenstein's Poker offer a riveting account of the legendary 1972 chess match between Boris Spassky, the world champion from the Soviet Union, and the American challenger Bobby Fischer.
In the summer of 1972, with a presidential crisis stirring in the United States and the cold war at a pivotal point, two men -- the Soviet world chess champion Boris Spassky and his American challenger Bobby Fischer -- met in the most notorious chess match of all time. Their showdown in Reykjavik, Iceland, held the world spellbound for two months with reports of psychological warfare, ultimatums, political intrigue, cliffhangers, and farce to rival a Marx Brothers film.
Thirty years later, David Edmonds and John Eidinow, authors of the national bestseller Wittgenstein's Poker, have set out to reexamine the story we recollect as the quintessential cold war clash between a lone American star and the Soviet chess machine -- a machine that had delivered the world title to the Kremlin for decades. Drawing upon unpublished Soviet and U.S. records, the authors reconstruct the full and incredible saga, one far more poignant and layered than hitherto believed.
Against the backdrop of superpower politics, the authors recount the careers and personalities of Boris Spassky, the product of Stalin's imperium, and Bobby Fischer, a child of post-World War II America, an era of economic boom at home and communist containment abroad. The two men had nothing in common but their gift for chess, and the disparity of their outlook and values conditioned the struggle over the board.
Then there was the match itself, which produced both creative masterpieces and some of the most improbable gaffes in chess history. And finally, there was the dramatic and protracted off-the-board battle -- in corridors and foyers, in back rooms and hotel suites, in Moscow offices and in the White House.
The authors chronicle how Fischer, a manipulative, dysfunctional genius, risked all to seize control of the contest as the organizers maneuvered frantically to save it -- under the eyes of the world's press. They can now tell the inside story of Moscow's response, and the bitter tensions within the Soviet camp as the anxious and frustrated apparatchiks strove to prop up Boris Spassky, the most un-Soviet of their champions -- fun-loving, sensitive, and a free spirit. Edmonds and Eidinow follow this careering, behind-the-scenes confrontation to its climax: a clash that displayed the cultural differences between the dynamic, media-savvy representatives of the West and the baffled, impotent Soviets. Try as they might, even the KGB couldn't help.
A mesmerizing narrative of brilliance and triumph, hubris and despair, Bobby Fischer Goes to War is a biting deconstruction of the Bobby Fischer myth, a nuanced study on the art of brinkmanship, and a revelatory cold war tragicomedy.
About the Author
David Edmonds is an award-winning journalists with the BBC. This book, his first, has been translated into more than a dozen languages.