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June 3, 2011 10:16 pm

Endgame

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Endgame: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Bobby Fischer, by Frank Brady, Constable, RRP£20, 416 pages

In his Schachnovelle, Stefan Zweig tells the story of an Austrian lawyer captured by the Gestapo and subjected to a torture in which he is deprived of all stimuli. The lawyer, an amateur chess player, keeps his mind active by secretly studying a book of great chess games. Later, when these become too familiar, he turns to playing against himself, splitting his personality into an “I white” and an “I black” in a bid to ward off insanity.

One of the most intriguing anecdotes in Endgame, Frank Brady’s biography of Bobby Fischer, is that the great American chess player and provocateur did exactly the same thing as a child. “Eventually I would checkmate the other guy,” he joked later in life. Such behaviour might not be unique inside the obsessive world of chess; even so, it is tempting to see this early solipsism as an omen of Fischer’s later instability and gradual decoupling from the world.

Fischer had many roles. He was not just a brilliant chess player, or even just the greatest player in history, as Brady and many others would rank him. He was also a cold warrior, and a celebrity far beyond the chess world. The two were not unrelated: Fischer’s fame, which recruited so many people to the game, was in large part due to the geopolitical drama of his 1972 world championship against Boris Spassky.

Soviet citizens had dominated international chess for decades. Moscow’s determined promotion of the game included ample public funds for the development of top players; in the west, hardly anyone could make a living from giving chess lessons, let alone from competitive play.

It was inevitable, then, that the meeting with Spassky in Reykjavik would be loaded with symbolism. Much as the space race was a proxy for the broader contest between the western and Soviet models, so a Fischer victory promised to prove that individualism ultimately defeats central planning.

And what an individualist he was. Brady – who knew Fischer first-hand as a member of the New York chess community – paints a picture of a cantankerous, arrogant man who terrorised officials with demands for unprecedented prize fees, accusations of match-fixing and all sorts of other caprices.

At the opening ceremony in Reykjavik, for example, Fischer’s chair was empty. Refusing to accept the terms of the tournament, the American challenger had not even flown to Iceland. The match was saved by two calls: one in which a sponsor offered to increase the prize pot; the other from Henry Kissinger, then US secretary of state, urging Fischer to play in the national interest.

Fischer’s victory over Spassky turned out to be the high point of his career. The world was his for the taking but he turned his back on it, walking away from the next championship match and pretty much everything else. Fischer’s “wilderness years” were a descent into poverty, isolation, and increasingly rabid rants against Jews and other imagined enemies.

Brady tells the ugly chapters of Fischer’s life without passing judgment. That is disappointing, and his unwillingness to delve into his subject’s mind can reduce his account to mere chronology. The same is true for the chess itself: only rarely are we given the chance to share the state of aesthetic contemplation that Fischer’s games can awaken in players.

A more accomplished biography would achieve this. But fiction would probably do it better. In Zweig’s story, the chess player finds himself in a game with the world champion on a cruise liner after being set free. But he is so used to playing himself that, tied up in countless variations, he forfeits with an illegal move. Perhaps something similar was true of Fischer: his mind was lost in a game that had nothing to do with the world in front of him.

Martin Sandbu is the FT’s economics leader writer and author of ‘Just Business: Arguments in Business Ethics’ (Pearson Education)

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