Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Endgame is a wonderful biography of Bobby Fischer, who became the youngest US chess champion at age 14. He went on to end the Russians' reign of world chess championships and then quickly descended into a sad world of conspiracy theories, and anti-Semitic and anti-U.S. hatred.

Fischer was a mess of contradictions. Born to a Jewish mother, he became one of the world's most infamous anti-Semites. A chess genius, he rarely played competitively after he won the world championship (he was not even 30 years old at the time). There were many attempts to lure him out of retirement but despite living a life of near homelessness he would reject matches with prizes of millions of dollars offered to the contestants.

How did Fischer become such a strong chess player at such a young age? There's no silver bullet - he spent a lot of time on his own with a chessboard and playing older and better players. He also had a head for the game and a great ability to visualize matches, even when there was not a chessboard in front of him. His mother, despite being poor, was strong and supportive and did everything within her means to allow Bobby to compete within New York, and eventually in other worldwide locales. It's interesting to note that Fischer was athletic, interested in sports and despite not having a traditional education, was interested in bettering himself. He could also be quite charming, which is especially apparent in this video from the Dick Cavett show, taken after he won the world championship.

Something appeared to be missing from Fischer's life though. He joined the fringe Worldwide Church of God (and later left it) before he started letting his anti-Semitic views be known in the 1970s. He also dabbled with other religions before settling upon Catholicism during his exile in Iceland. And despite an urge to have a child he was unable to enter a lasting relationship until his later years.

Fischer can perhaps be created with single-handedly raising the popularity of chess in the United States in the 1970s by defeating the Russian Boris Spassky (who became a friend for life, despite Fischer's combativeness over the chess board). Yet his mercurial demands over rules and settings for tournaments kept him from competing in any future sanctioned tournaments, including the defense of his world title. In addition, he spent much of his life obsessed with proving the Russian chess players to be in collusion with each other in order to secure Russian titles. His anti-Semitism seems more directed towards his perceived enemies in general, considering how many Jews he considered his friends.

Author Frank Brady, who had been an acquaintance of Bobby Fischer and as the founding editor of Chess Life magazine knows the game well, has done an excellent job at making the game of chess compelling. He doesn't get into too many move-by-move details as to how each match was played but does an excellent job of turning the tournaments into real page-turners. Also to his credit, Brady doesn't try to over-psychoanalyze Fischer, which can be a problem in biographies of strong personalities. I strongly recommend this story of a man who could have had it all, but became waylaid by some major personality flaws.

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