Reviews | February 21, 2011 4:53

Review: Two chess lives

Two chess livesLast month, two biographies of legendary chess figures were published. One is a modest booklet about a great man who just turned 100 years old, the other is a 350-page volume on the eleventh World Champion, who died at the age of 64. The difference between the two couldn't be bigger.

I'd been looking forward to Frank Brady's much-discussed Fischer-biography Endgame - Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall, published by Crown Publishers earlier this month. Brady, of course, is best known for having written the legendary book Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, but he's also published biographies on other celebrities like Orson Welles and Barbra Streisand. Indeed, as Garry Kasparov notes in his lengthy and interesting piece on the book in the New York Review of Books: "There is little doubt that none of the authors of (...) future works will be more qualified to write on Bobby Fischer than Frank Brady."

EndgameHaving known Fischer from childhood, Brady has not only written a very thorough memoir but has also done extensive and groundbreaking research. This has sometimes led him to fascinating discoveries, such as the fact that Fischer didn't learn to play chess in Brooklyn (as had been assumed before), but in Manhattan, where he lived earlier, in 1949, at the age of 6. We all know about Fischer's mythical rise to glory and fall from grace, but Brady has enough new material to make the story fresh again.

The book follows Fischer's active chess life more or less chronologically, culminating in the World Championship match against Spassky in 1972. Some of the material is absolutely fascinating. For me it was a shock to read Fischer's letter of apology to Spassky after he failed to show up on the opening day - a rare display of self-knowledge and modesty:

Dear Boris:

Please accept my sincerest apologies for my disrespectful behavior in not attending the opening ceremony. I simply became carried away by my petty dispute over money with the Icelandic chess organizers. I have offended you and your country, the Soviet Union, where chess has a prestigious position. (...)

It's weird to read this letter knowing about Fischer's unrealistic (if not always unreasonable) demands and paranoid ideas later on in life. Brady describes them all in great detail: the "wilderness years" after his retirement from professional chess; the second, scandalous and sensational match against Spassky in 1992, his restless life as an exile after an indictment was issued for his arrest by the US government following the match, and, finally, his last years as an Icelandic citizen.

And yet, while reading the book, I had the constant feeling something was missing in Brady's prose. Although the author makes admirable attempts to describe Fischer's games vividly in non-chess player's language, such as in his 3-page account of the famous game against Donald Byrne, sometimes dubbed "The Game of the Century", I kept wanting to look up the actual moves and play over those great encounters with a real board and pieces.

Judge for yourself which option you'd prefer. Here's Brady's take on the game's most spectacular moment:

(...) The idea for the move grew on Bobby slowly, instinctually at first, without any rationale. It was as though he'd been peering through a narrow lens and the aperture began to widen to take in the entire landscape in a kind of efflorescent illumination. He wasn't absolutely certain he could see the full consequences of allowing Byrne to take his queen, but he plunged ahead, nevertheless.

If the sacrifice was not accepted, Bobby conjectured, Byrne would be lost; but if he did accept it, he'd also be lost. Whatever Byrne did, he was theoretically defeated, although the game was far from over. A whisper of spectators could be heard: "Impossible! Byrne is losing to a 13-year old nobody." Byrne took the queen.

And here's the actual game:

Byrne-Fischer
New York 1956

Byrner-Fischer

17...Be6!! 18.Bxb6?! (18.Bd3!?; 18.Be2!?) 18...Bxc4+ 19.Kg1 Ne2+ 20.Kf1 Nxd4+ 21.Kg1 Ne2+ 22.Kf1 Nc3+ 23.Kg1 axb6 and Black won.

In contrast to the lengthy description of the Byrne-Fischer game, the entire 1972 match in Reykjavik (apart from the incidents at the start of the match) is described in just five pages. What to make of this? Maybe Brady didn't feel like going through all the games of the "Match of the Century" in the same fashion but it's curious at least that a match that has spawned dozens of books and inspired thousands of chess enthusiasts gets just a few pages in this biography.

Clearly, to me as a chess player at least, what's most appealing about Bobby Fischer isn't, in fact, his life, the things he did or said - it's his chess games, which are brilliant, inspiring and immortal. Unfortunately, Endgame doesn't feature a single diagram or any game notation. This isn't something we should blame the author for - his biography is obviously intended for a much larger audience than just us chess players, and diagrams and algebraic chess moves would probably scare away many if not most readers. (For the same reason, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time only includes one equation: E=mc^2.)

But once this had sunk in, I couldn't help thinking that actually, Fischer's life wasn't particularly interesting apart from the games he played. Didn't Bobby Fischer just live for chess, after all? Wasn't he chess-fanaticism personified, interested in little else but the game he loved so madly? What else is there to say about him, really, apart from describing the great duels he played? To chess players reading the book I would suggest having a copy of Karsten Mueller's recent Bobby Fischer - Career and Complete Games at hand to look up the most crucial fragments.

Even though he was always surrounded by controversy, Fischer remained a loner; gossip and intrigue seems to have been lost on him. No juicy affairs for him, either - though Brady reveals that Barbra Streisand had a crush on him in high school. Even Fischer's antisemitic rants, however appalling, were full of cliches not really worthy of serious study. Chess is, after all, just chess, and, as J.H. Donner famously said, it cannot be compared to anything else.

Of course, Fischer's personality was very complex, his position as an American among Soviets unique, and his behaviour in some circumstances completely baffling even after all these years. But Brady, while doing a great job presenting known and unknown biographical facts about Fischer, doesn't offer an in-depth psychological study of the order of magnitude an enigmatic character like Fischer deserves. Kasparov, in his above-mentioned article, comes closer, although, as always, he seems more interested in his own opinion on Fischer than in any kind of objective perspective. But he does make good points, such as when he questions Brady's opinion on the outcome of a possible Fischer-Karpov match in 1975:

Byrne did not mention Karpov as a threat—he says he wouldn’t have stood a chance—but he pointed out that Fischer had always taken great precautions against defeat, to the point of declining to play in other events as well when he felt too much was being left to chance.

Brady’s dismissal of this theory misses the point: “What everyone seemed to overlook was that at the board Bobby feared no one.” Yes, once at the board he was fine! Where Fischer had his greatest crisis of confidence was always before getting to the board, before getting on the plane. Fischer’s perfectionism, his absolute belief that he could not fail, did not allow him to put that perfection at risk. And in Karpov, I have no doubt, especially after a three-year lay-off, Fischer saw a significant risk.

Such nuanced opinions by the best chess player of all time somehow feel more relevant than all the official and unofficial documentation in the world.

Johan van Hulst - Een leven lang schaak als sublieme bijzaakPerhaps the editors of a new book on the Dutch chess legend and centenarian Johan van Hulst, published in a limited edition by the Amsterdam chess club Schaakvereniging Caissa, understood that no book about a chess player can ever be complete if there aren't any chess games in it, so they included a great number. Subtitled "Chess as a life-long sublime side-issue", the differences between Van Hulst and Fischer couldn't have been emphasized in a better way: whereas to Fischer, chess was everything (and more), for Van Hulst it was (and still is) just a wonderful diversion alongside his long and impressive career as an academic and a politician.

In other aspects, too, it's tempting (if unfair) to draw comparisons between the two lives. Fischer, though himself Jewish by birth, became infamously antisemitic; Van Hulst played an active role in the Dutch resistance and was recognized by the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority Yad Vashem for his heroic role in the Second World War. While Fischer quit chess after he became World Champion, Van Hulst picked up chess again after his retirement and is now easily the oldest participant of the Tata Steel Chess Tournament.

From the book it becomes clear that Van Hulst was once a pretty strong player himself. In the 1930s, he played first board in the Dutch Major League and gained a 50% score against some of Holland's best chess players. On one occasion, he managed to make a draw against Euwe - and he never fails to explain that he had actually been winning. Even last year, at the age of 99, he managed to hold ChessVibes editor-in-chief Peter Doggers, rated 2250, to a draw.

But however charming these games may be, it's arguable that the most interesting part of the Johan van Hulst booklet are his own contributions: a piece on Andor Lilienthal, with whom Van Hulst shares his year of birth, and a lengthy and fascinating piece about Jewish chess players during WW II. His remarks about the Dutch Chess Federation are shocking indeed:

My conclusion must be that Jewish chess players in Amsterdam didn't receive any support from the Dutch Chess Federation during the toughest years of our nation. (...) It's telling that 250 members of the Dutch Chess Federation were killed by acts of war; at least 135 of them were Jewish. Amsterdam paid the highest toll: more than 100 deported Jewish chess players never returned.

What does a good chess biography look like? Johan van Hulst - Een Leven Lang Schaak als Sublieme Bijzaak isn't a proper biography at all - it's a collection of mostly interesting and informative pieces in the Dutch language celebrating the great man's 100th birthday - but these pieces are telling and engaging and the book is alive with chess, hope and joy - after reading it, one simply can't help being jealous of Van Hulst in many ways.

Frank Brady's Endgame - Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall is a very well-researched, thorough biography, though with the most essential thing - real chess games - conspicuously absent (though I couldn't help noticing the book also lacks photographs and, puzzlingly, an index. - Update: Dennis Monokroussos points out in the comments that this is only true for the pre-publication review copies. In the published version, there's an extensive index and a photo section.) Moreover, Fischer remains a mystery all the same - and perhaps he'll always be one.

The book does, however, answer a lot of open questions and hence makes a good starting point for a next generation of biographies. With the most important facts of his life clarified and explained by someone who knew him closely, all hope of a definitive analysis of Fischer's personality is perhaps not yet lost.

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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll

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Comments

RuralRob's picture

I had never heard of Johan van Hulst before I read this article - now I'd really like to read that book about him. Unfortunately, it appears to be available only in a Dutch edition at this time.

Arne Moll's picture

it is - except for Peter's contribution, which you can read here.

Wim Nijenhuis's picture

Arne does not mention a touchy thing.
Johan van Hulst says explicitly:
"I am forced to draw a conclusion: This can be no other than that Aljechin, both direct and indirect, has promoted the transportation and destruction of Amsterdam Jewish Chess-Players. On my part an absolute verdict".
So Van Hulst

Delinquncy's picture

"His remarks about the Dutch Chess Federation are shocking indeed: My conclusion must be that Jewish chess players in Amsterdam didn’t receive any support from the Dutch Chess Federation during the toughest years of our nation."

It is hard to guess at the context, so I'm not quite sure what one might expect? Did the Dutch Ballet Foundation support Jewish ballet dancers in Amsterdam during these years? What sort of support might they be expected to give? I guess maybe a Dutch audience is better equipped to decipher this, but to an outsider this seems a bit unwarranted, almost accusing the Dutch Chess Federation as actually being Nazi collaborators.

noyb's picture

Sorry Arne, but I have to take you to task for your review of Brady's bio of Fischer. You couldn't have been more wrong and it doesn't even seem like you read the book! I've just finished reading it and I found your review incomprehensible.

"But Brady, while doing a great job presenting known and unknown biographical facts about Fischer, doesn’t offer an in-depth psychological study of the order of magnitude an enigmatic character like Fischer deserves."

Brady spends dozens of pages going EXTREMELY in-depth on Fischer's psychology. Indeed, clearly that's the FOCUS of the book! Also, the edition I have has both pictures and an extensive index (18 pages!). I do wish the book had more photos, but the one of Fischer's mother in Iceland during the '72 World Championship was quite a score.

Also, the absence of games is clear; this is a BIO not a game collection (Frank Muller has pretty much done THE game collection of Fischer and there's no point in doing another).

I found the book to be extraordinarily well written, Pulitzer Prize material IMO. I don't think a more clear psychological portrait has every been written about anyone. One of the more astounding revelations was how two fabricated "interviews" unfairly haunted Fischer for the rest of his life, and how, amazingly, the false-hoods in those "interviews" have been passed on for decades. Small wonder that Fischer reacted so harshly, and we now have proof of just how justifiable his feelings were.

Sorry Arne, but you really blew that one!

Delinquncy's picture

I might doubt Brady's objectivity in many matters, but it's still likely a decent read, if you have in mind that's it's a bio and not a history (or even a chess book as Arne says). I think I already knew about that apology to Spassky though - see http://www.chess.com/article/view/fischer-spassky-iceland-1972
"Fischer wrote a personal letter of apology to Boris Spassky which the Soviets accepted. [...]"

Arne Moll's picture

Perhaps I should have been more explicit in my remarks about lack of psychological depth, but here's one simple example. Chapter 11 starts with the promising remark that "Fischer's long, almost monastic pursuit of the World Championship, although not totally chaste, gave him little time to connect with women. 'I want to meet girls,' Bobby said when he moves back to L.A. in 1973. 'Vivacious girls with big breasts.' He was twenty-nine years old, and though there'd been a few brief liaisons, at no time had he experienced a meaningful romantic relationship."

Yet in the rest of the chapter, the subject is almost completely dropped except for one short fragment about dating some girls from his church without any result. The reader is left wondering how he coped with this (mentally, if not physically), and why he didn't chose to put more effort into it if it was apparently so important to him. Or wasn't it, after all? Was he interested in an emotional attachment at all, or was it just sex? Why did he mention it was important to him? Just to make an impression? Etc.

I've checked my copy (which I have read, of course) and there's really no index (and no photographs either). There is an extensive bibliography and notes. Perhaps it's because I received an uncorrected proof review copy - I'll check and let you know about it.

Davy's picture

To meet girls must have been the reason why he was so much in Asia later on.

Sumit Balan's picture

Robert James "Bobby" Fischer was the greatest chess player to ever played the game,we should rate him higher than Kasparov because of the simple fact that Fischer was a self taught,self made champion without the aid of a 'system',seconds to help him or a computer to assist him where as Kasparov is a product of Soviet chess machine and he had many masters helping him at various stages of his life.And Kasparov inherited and perfected from Fischer,that art of Opening preparation ,striving for Initiative and killer instinct.But having said that,Kasparov had a much more stable mindset and he always had his mother to help him and support him which Fischer missed.If Fischer were as sane as Kasparov,he would've crossed 2900 mark in the 80's itself and Karpov would have had no chance to become World Champion ! And even Kasparov ,for that matter ,would have to struggle to beat an aging Bobby..Its a real pity that he left chess at such an early age.

gg's picture

"we should rate him higher than Kasparov"

I'd never do that. If not for the year between the summers of -71 and -72 no one would rank Fischer ahead of Spassky. Kasparov ruled the chess world for decades, beating much stronger opposition than Fischer faced during his one great year.

giovlinn's picture

Fischer- Taimanov 6-0, Fischer- Larsen 6-0 . Nuff said.

Delinquncy's picture
Hugo van Hengel's picture

Johan van Hulst wrote some very nice words in order to thank everyone from the Caissa Chess Club for the great celebration of his100th anniversary and the realization of the book (in Dutch).
See http://www.caissa-amsterdam.nl/caissa/index.php/informatie/clubblad/aank...

john's picture

Fischer was an emotional and psychological fruit-cake so I think it is a good idea to keep his actual games out of the mess of the rest of his life analysed in the book.

Anthony's picture

Annoying how people always put Fischer away as a stupid Anti Semitic.

Spassky was closer to the truth, when a few years ago he said in New in Chess: 'anybody who doesn't know about the Jewish Question is just ignorant'.

Dennis M's picture

Arne,

Your version doesn't have photographs because it was an pre-publication copy. I received one too (I reviewed the book on my site as well), but also had the publisher send the "real" version, which includes plenty of photos along with an index.

As for the absence of games...seriously? Between other books (like Mueller's), databases and the internet it's absurdly easy to find Fischer's games. The book is already 400 pages long and is intended not just for us (is anyone reading this who doesn't have Fischer's games in a database?) but a general audience as well. Maybe Brady could have had the publisher set up a page for the book where all of Fischer's games are given in PGN and on some sort of replayable board, for the few readers who are curious, don't already have his games and don't know how to find them.

Dennis M's picture

I meant to say that it's a very good index in the published version.

Arne Moll's picture

Thanks, Dennis, I've updated the article. I deliberately hadn't read your review so I wouldn't be influenced by it, but in this case perhaps I should have. (Kasparov's piece, while good, obviously isn't a "real" review so I could safely read that.)

It's interesting that we seem to think roughly along the same lines, apart from the inclusion of games (which I guess was mostly just a way to make clear that for me - and presumably a lot of hardcore chess fans - Fischer's games are simply the most interesting thing about Fischer!) It's true there's a lot of interesting stuff about the young Fischer especially, but at the same time I found the prose in these chapters sometimes strangely childish (if that's the word), as if the author wanted to write an exciting boy-book instead. See the fragment about the Byrne-Fischer game: isn't that just straight from a cheap Hollywood script?

Anyway, the book is clearly an important milestone and Brady deserves all credit for the research he's done (including, apparently, a very good index).

Dennis M's picture

Arne,

I think we're in pretty substantial agreement here. The book is strongest when dealing with the young Fischer and his early relationships. (His early helpers, especially, and also his mother, who is often portrayed in other sources as a shrew who was largely estranged from Fischer. Brady does a real service by dispelling those ugly myths.) That's when Brady knew him best and most directly, so that isn't really so surprising. It's not a great book, but it's the best Fischer bio written so far, IMHO, by a long way.

sundararajan ganesan's picture

well, fisher's is a complex, colourful persona .... leave alone, his apology to spassky, ....... he was the one (not even the fellow soviets!) who visited the ailing tal! , friends, you all must have seen the famous photo of fisher visiting tal in the hospital and playing ches .... fisher had admiration for tal ( he mingled freely in general , during the sousse interzonal ( with averbakh and gufeld !) ; look for gufeld's article --- the fisher I know, where he describes his days/experiences/estimate of fisher . ( this was published in one of the issues of Chess mate, an indian chess monthly) ; gufeld goes on to say of gifting his book on sicilian dragon ; bobby in return, presents him with his "my 60 memorable games." ; the article speakes of Fisher's forfeit of his game against Larsen ; his eventual withdrawl from the tmt., ; fisher's withdrawl from the Lugano olympiad, citing the poor playing conditions etc.

sundararajan ganesan's picture

fisher played his chess with books and with little bit of help from trainers like larry evans. on the other hand, garry was a part of soviet chess machine, he belongs to the age of computers! (of course, this is said not to belittle his achievements) ; this is something like pitting a helmet-wearing cricketer Sachin tendulkar's world records against the 30+ centuries scored by another indian batsman gavaskar without helmet .

Shaun's picture

Thats a little unfair on Kasparov-the age of computers only arrived in about 1996-Kasparov had been playing 15 years before that.
Its clear though that with their seconds and trainers the Soviets had an advantage-on the other hand Fischer was never very keen on trainers or seconds anyway.
What distinguishes Fischer and Kasparov is not only their talent but their enormous appetite to work at the game-far beyond their contemparies.
You get the impression that after he won the world title Fischer lacked this capacity for hard work and he knew better than anyone what that might mean.
Taking into account rating inflation-2785 in 1972 is probably the equivalent of 2900 now.

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