Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness
by Frank Brady
Reviewed by Marc Mohan
Right up front, Frank Brady states his intentions in writing Endgame, his new biography of chess-wunderkind-turned-enigmatic-crackpot Bobby Fischer: to answer the question "What was Bobby Fischer really like?"
Brady is successful enough at that, relating with detail and perspective Fischer's astonishing, mercurial life. This is enough to make Endgame a compelling and useful biography but not a great one, for Brady never manages to get at the question one level deeper: "What was Bobby Fischer really thinking?"
Attempting to decipher that puzzle may be a quixotic task beyond the reach of any mortal scribe, but Fischer's unknown mental state haunts the margins of his tale. From 1950s Brooklyn, where he evinced chessboard skills more precocious than anyone before or since, to 2000s Iceland, where paranoia and reckless speech exiled him, Fischer is as inexplicable as ever.
If one were to seek a reductive source for both his genius and his madness, it would be in the nature of a quest for order in an inherently disordered world. Fischer's early, peripatetic childhood and uncertain paternity may have instilled a desperate desire for stability and predictability; Brady notes that "[u]ltimately, he rejected all games of chance." And of course, chess is one of the few board games with no randomness to it. Fischer's later mania toward controlling the physical environment of his epic chess clashes, from the type of chair to the presence of cameras, demonstrates a similar lust for control. When, inevitably, things didn't work out the way he'd anticipated, Fischer needed a scapegoat, whether it was Jews, Russians or Americans.
"Bobby fears the unknown, whatever lies beyond his control," said his lawyer in 1975 as Fischer resigned his world title rather than play under rules not to his liking. Later, his stipulations to appear in a match read like the chess version of the absurd contract riders insisted upon by many pop stars. Like many people questing for certainty, he latched onto a religion, in his case the marginal sect The Worldwide Church of God. Life, it turned out, wasn't as black-and-white as the 64 squares on a chessboard, but Fischer clearly needed it to be so.
Even the bare facts of his story, though, are remarkable. Fischer's rise, culminating in the epic 1972 world championship match against Boris Spassky, is the stuff of legend, and Brady captures how chess mania gripped America for a time. After reaching that peak, however, Fischer began to lose his grip. To a degree, he began to believe his own press, even claiming that Muhammad Ali stole the sobriquet "The Greatest" from him. (To out-ego Ali takes some doing.) He eventually resigned the world championship, and fell out of sight for years before re-emerging to play a rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia in 1992.
It was during these "wilderness years" that Fischer leapt whole-heartedly into a hateful stew of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, falling hook, line and sinker for tracts such as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." How a mind as brilliant in one sense as his could be susceptible to this garbage is a matter, perhaps, for neuroscience -- Fischer's rants, though inexcusable, seem more the result of mental illness than a genuinely hateful soul.
Fischer's remarks on Sept. 11, 2001, in which he profanely expressed his joy at the day's events and his desire for the U.S. to be "wiped out," were certainly the last straw for many who tried to remain sympathetic to him, and yet they are also the clearest evidence that he was, for all intents and purposes, mad.
"Nobody has single-handedly done more for the U.S. than me. I really believe this." Such delusions of grandeur make you wonder how much sadder, and probably shorter, Fischer's life would have been had he not discovered the infinite, rational, rigorous beauty of chess. As much as we can mourn what was lost when he fled from reality, perhaps it's just as appropriate to be grateful he did stumble across the game as a child and was able to provide a glimpse for the rest of us, for a while there, into one variety of nearly absolute genius.