I thoroughly enjoyed Frank Brady’s biography of chess legend Bobby Fischer, Endgame. It held my interest throughout; I’d put it in the top 10% of books I’ve read in that respect. The more I learned about Fischer, the more I wanted to know.
Yet somehow I always felt like understanding him was just how of reach, like however thoroughly the book recounted the events of his life and his behavior, somehow that didn’t provide as much insight into what was going on inside him and what truly made him tick as it normally would for most subjects of a biography. He still felt to me like an enigma at the end of the book.
I find it strangely appropriate or symbolic that there are precious few photos of him from after he left the world stage.
Maybe it’s the nature of his mental illness that makes him so hard to get inside. Maybe his unwillingness to be photographed is evidence of an obsessive need to hide some of the clues–facial expression, degree of dishevelment, etc.–that people might use to better understand him, or at least think they do.
I’d like to have seen maybe a chapter where various experts in psychology weigh in on his case. I don’t know enough about such matters to venture an opinion as to precisely what was technically wrong with him. Would it be obvious to the relevant professionals, or would they disagree? I would think paranoia would be part of the diagnosis, but what else might there be? Did he have something like Asperger’s syndrome? What are people like who have his mental illness but aren’t big shots? Does it manifest itself differently? What level of self-awareness did he have about his own mental abnormality?
By the way, one problem with including a chapter like that is–or so I’ve been told–that it is considered unethical for mental health professionals to speculate about the condition of someone they have not examined properly in person.
Brady is well qualified to write about Fischer, as he was a friend of his who knew him for most of his life, and wrote the first biography of him way back in the ’60s. He has obvious sympathy for his subject (though it doesn’t prevent him from relating all of Fischer’s ill behavior over the years). It seems like most people in the book have sympathy for Fischer, and root for him to overcome his demons. I too found myself mostly sympathetic toward him as I read.
Why? In some respects he was a total ass. He could be cocky, pig-headed, and inconsiderate. The older he got, the more miserable and bitter a human being he was. At times he espoused ugly, bizarre conspiratorial and anti-Semitic views. I’m not saying he’s some sort of universally beloved figure, but I do get the impression he’s perceived more favorably on the whole than you would expect someone of that description to be. But why?
That’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about the most since finishing the book. I suspect it’s a combination of multiple explanations.
One is that since some of the more outrageous things he said or did seem to be rooted in mental illness, perhaps some people are willing to excuse him, to not hold him as fully responsible as a more healthy, sane person.
A second reason could be that some of the odd things he did seem based on principle, or at least what he perceived as principle. He doesn’t come across as malicious per se, nor motivated solely by self-interest. He at times stuck to what he believed even when doing so was to his detriment.
I can see some of that in myself–trying to stick to what I think is right even when others see it as stubbornness or eccentricity. There’s plenty I don’t agree with him about, but I admire his disciplined non-conformity.
It’s easy to say that he was spoiled, that he was used to everyone treating him as special from when he was still a child, and wanting to keep him happy and functioning at his best, and so he expected people to suck up to him and let him have his way all his life. But I don’t think that fully captures him.
He’d take the perks and the adoration if they were there, but he could also give them up. When he was flying first class, staying in luxury hotels, having everyone kiss his ass, he accepted that as his due and wanted to be catered to all the more. But later when he was on skid row, he didn’t seem as frustrated as you might expect, and certainly he wasn’t willing to compromise to get the luxuries and the star treatment back.
It’s like he was just going to be himself, be stubborn and uncompromising, and accept whatever the results were. He was not too humble to accept the highs nor too arrogant to accept the lows. He was almost neutral about that stuff; he just wanted to be right and be true to himself, and maybe that’s an indication of some kind of character that people can admire.
But I think there’s another reason Fischer gets more sympathy than one might expect, and that’s the common tendency toward hero worship or celebrity worship, or I suppose in this case genius worship.
When someone is extraordinary, dynamic, a leader or at the top of his field in some sense, people want to be around him, to associate themselves with him, to root for him. Somehow it can seem more important that such a person be happy, or more important that you are somehow connected with such a person. Certainly the higher a person’s potential is, the more we want that potential to be realized, so we can be in the presence of greatness.
I’m not saying that’s a universal reaction by any means. Plenty of people delight in tearing down idols, or in repeating the most salacious gossip about anyone famous. But I do think it’s a factor for some people.
I never pursued chess in a real serious way, but I played as a child and I was interested in the game, and I certainly remember all the hoopla about the World Championship match between Boris Spassky and Fischer in Iceland in 1972. It was a huge deal, and nothing in chess before or since has come remotely close to mattering that much to the general public–American or I suppose world.
Fischer knew that all the money, all the publicity of the event was about the players, and mostly him, so here and on later occasions he gave the back of his hand to promoters, middlemen, governing bodies, etc.
He was temperamental and demanding, but building on a point I made earlier, I would say it wasn’t motivated the way it would be for most people in similar situations. He didn’t adopt that approach as a strategic ploy to exploit the leverage he perceived himself to have. He was more extreme about it than a skilled but rationally self-interested negotiator, and more sincere. He decided he was entitled to get his way in certain respects, and he would not cooperate until he did. He wasn’t negotiating, and he wasn’t pretending to be crazy; he genuinely preferred that the event blow up and everyone, including him, get nothing over backing down and voluntarily accepting less than he was convinced he was entitled to.
Sometimes sticking to his guns and insisting on getting his way about everything worked, and sometimes it didn’t. It mostly worked in the Spassky match. Once the chess powers that be saw that he was even willing to forfeit games if he didn’t get his way, they hastened to placate him because, again, he was the reason chess was big. But later, when he continued to call himself the champion and refuse to budge after they stripped him of the title, convinced they’d give in eventually if they ever wanted chess to be big again, they didn’t give in and he faded into obscurity.
One thing I didn’t realize until reading the book–and an indication that he truly was nuts–was that he got involved in that Herbert W. Armstrong Worldwide Church of God cult. That’s where a lot of his money went.
Even before Fischer went on his long hiatus from chess after the Spassky match, he wasn’t consistently excellent. Part of what’s fascinating about him is just how erratic his play was. He would have stretches that could be cited as evidence that he was the greatest chess player of all time (youngest to do this or that, unprecedented winning streaks at certain tournaments, etc.), then he would bomb at a tournament (often because something was going on with his fragile emotions and psyche), then he would have a tantrum and refuse to play for awhile, etc.
Imagine a baseball player who isn’t just a star, but at times seemingly an unprecedented superstar, like someone who hits .425 one season early in his career. But then he hits .275 the next season, hits an astonishing .450 the season after that, walks away from the sport for some eccentric reason for a season or two, and then plays four or five more seasons before blowing up his career, breaking .400 in about half of them and hitting at the level of a competent but unspectacular pro in the others. He’d be a Hall of Famer certainly, but determining whether he was the greatest hitter of all time would depend on how much weight you put on consistency and longevity.
In any case, he’d be as intriguing as anyone who ever played the game, and people would be awed by the fact that his potential substantially surpassed even his highly impressive achievements. That’s what Fischer was in chess.
One of the great obsessions of his life was Soviet cheating. And they did cheat, though I’m not sure how much what they did violated the letter of the rules, as opposed to just violating their spirit and engaging in poor sportsmanship.
For instance, while everyone had seconds and chess was a bit of a team sport (frantically analyzing the game with one’s countrymen overnight and such), the Soviets took that to an extreme and worked as efficiently as they could on a game as a large group. Also, they probably threw matches to each other to manipulate the records to ensure they’d have people advancing in the tournaments, or settled for quick draws against each other to save themselves.
Fischer analyzed all this statistically, and seemed at least as concerned with cleaning up chess of such corruption organizationally as with just getting better at playing the game.
Over the years, as his self-imposed exile from chess lengthened and his money dwindled, he grew increasingly bitter and paranoid toward other individuals, chess governing bodies, the U.S. government, Jews, etc. for a combination of coherent and incoherent reasons.
Far from chomping at the bit to get back to chess, for much of his time away he insisted he had little interest in playing conventional chess. He disliked that it was now dominated by the people (or teams of people) most skilled at memorizing openings that went deeper and deeper into the game. There were fewer and fewer occasions in a game where players had to call upon their ability to understand the game and all its nuances, as mostly what they did now was recall the times a given situation arose in past games or analyses and what the agreed upon best move was.
He experimented with changing the rules, eventually settling on a version of chess–which he dubbed “Fischer chess”–where the positions of the pieces on the back row are determined randomly each game. (When he found out someone Jewish had invented a version of chess identical or similar to his long ago, he immediately changed a rule or two to make sure it was different.) He was more focused on getting people to switch to Fischer chess than he was on resuming his conventional chess career.
Ultimately though, Fischer chess went nowhere and he did resume his career, or at least came out of retirement for one blockbuster event.
Twenty years after their historic match, Fischer and Spassky competed again, in Serbia, in defiance of the American sanctions against that country. They received a great deal more money than for their first match, but the level of play was well below that first meeting. It was like if Ali and Frazier had had a rematch several years after the “Thrilla in Manila,” when they were well into their 40s.
Spassky was still an active player, but had dropped to about 100th in the world. Fischer hadn’t played serious chess since their first match.
I read a little online about the rematch, to augment the account in the book. The consensus of chess experts seems to be that the match had moments of brilliance, especially from Fischer, but also significantly more blunders than these players would have made in their prime. Fischer played at a level such that if he had been facing a player of the caliber of Anatoly Karpov or Viktor Korchnoi, maybe he would have found a way to win a game with some brilliant maneuver but he likely would have lost the tournament in one-sided fashion.
In the Spassky quotes in the book, he speaks of Fischer as if they are good friends, like Fischer is not only someone he respects as a chess player, but someone he is close to personally. Maybe, but I wonder if it’s more a matter of feeling grateful toward Fischer for giving him this shot at a huge payday and at least a fraction of the recognition he’d received decades ago, and maybe like I mentioned earlier a little of that desire to exaggerate how closely one is associated with a “great man.” I certainly don’t sense from what’s said of Fischer that he reciprocated such a supposed friendship. He didn’t seem to treat Spassky particularly badly, nor to feel the same anger toward him as an individual that he felt toward what he saw as the horribly corrupt Soviet chess system, but at the same time I didn’t sense any particular warmth.
Though then again, did Fischer display warmth toward anyone? Did people even matter to him emotionally? To some small degree, I guess. People who knew him in his private life indicate that at least occasionally he could be quite gracious and kind toward them, but that seems to have been an exception to what one usually got from him.
It was random and unpredictable. Say, for example, that he accepted an invitation to stay for an extended period at the home of a long-time friend from the chess world. Maybe it would go well, and the friend’s kids would play chess with him and report that he was like a kindly uncle and an all around fine fellow. But it was at least as likely that the decades-long friendship would come to an abrupt end due to some betrayal that only Fischer could discern and he would storm off.
Spassky, by the way, strongly implied that he threw at least one game in the rematch, after he built up an early lead and Fischer seemed to be deteriorating mentally. His highest priority, he claimed, was that the world once again be able to experience something as close as possible to the brilliance Fischer was capable of. Win or lose, he wanted a competitive match where Fischer would have an opportunity to shake off the cobwebs and would not just get frustrated and quit, or lose too quickly to adjust to the level of play.
Fischer not only bounced back from his early troubles, but went on to win the match, though as I mentioned, chess people claim there were only flashes of the former brilliance and overall his play wasn’t anything great–barely enough to overcome the 100th best player in the world.
From the rematch onward, Fischer was a criminal in the eyes of the U.S. government for having done business with the outlaw nation of Serbia. They didn’t go after him all that aggressively for awhile, but many years later at their behest Japanese officials seized him at an airport.
He was imprisoned for months while the U.S. tried to arrange for his extradition to face charges, and he and his people sought to avoid that. Eventually Iceland stepped up and offered him asylum, and then bumped up the offer to citizenship when Japan indicated that that would be necessary for them to let him go to Iceland rather than force him to return to the U.S.
Iceland evidently felt some gratitude toward Fischer for his having put them on the map through his historic first match with Spassky. Fischer lived the last few years of his life there. At first it seemed like a happy ending, as he liked Iceland and its people, and appreciated their taking him in. But eventually he grew bored there, and missed being able to travel freely, including coming home to the United States when he wanted. He felt trapped in Iceland. By the time of his death, he was as angry, miserable, and paranoid as he’d ever been.
For anyone who has any interest in Fischer–including those who hate him but find his mysterious type of mental illness or evil fascinating–this is a wonderful book. It’s hard to put down as you delve deeper and deeper into his bizarre life. Highly recommended.