TEV inaugurates its new 1000 WORDS column, a semi-regular series of book reviews of - you guessed it - a thousand words (or less). Thoughts and comments are welcome as we test drive this new feature. Return tomorrow for the usual melange of links.
Bobby Fischer Goes to War
How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Match of All Time
David Edmonds and John Eidinow
More than a dozen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and thirty years after the event it chronicles, Bobby Fischer Goes to War returns us to the small gray Icelandic capital where, for a few months, East met West in a titanic showdown that was read as a surrogate for the nothing less than the Cold War itself. The Soviet machine would be brought to its knees by good old Yankee ingenuity.
But as authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow go to great pains to make clear, neither Fischer nor Spassky were ideal representatives of their native systems. Spassky was ever the free spirit, undisciplined in his party devotions, Russian but never Soviet. Fischer was an uncouth prima donna, berating match personnel, journalists and governmental figures alike. By the end, neither side was eager to claim their representatives – Spassky disgraced and defeated; Fischer rude and erratic, concerned only with his payout.
At its best, Bobby Fischer Goes to War is a riveting account of that brief window in 1972 when chess dominated the world’s attention. It does this in spite of an alternatingly workmanlike and breathless writing style. Happily, the inherent drama of the event rises above any authorial defects, which include an uncertainty with tense (disruptive switches into present tense, which are utterly unnecessary attempts at heightening a drama that needs no heightening), and a tendency to introduce episodes and anecdotes without completely resolving them.
Nevertheless, the book is thorough, well-arranged and offers a compelling behind the scenes look at the historic match. We learn of the early lives of Spassky and Fischer, including Fischer’s unprecedented, meteoric rise through the qualifying rounds nearly undefeated en route to Reykjavik. (The authors compare the achievement to winning Wimbledon without losing a game but it’s closer to winning the World Series without losing a game. It hadn’t happened before, and it hasn’t happened since.) The book effectively paints a picture of the world situation in 1972 as all eyes turned toward the chess board. (The authors are on less sure ground when they venture into political analysis.)
The single most fascinating chapter deals with the aftermath of the match. Spassky had good reason to fear returning home, having ceded his crown to the Americans. And in a near verbatim transcript of the post mortem, we observe a quintessential exercise in Soviet finger-pointing, even as the disgraced champion escapes with comparatively mild censure.
The book’s biggest problem – as has been noted elsewhere – is its lack of presentation of the games themselves. The authors do make game attempts to invoke the heady world of a chess tournament but sections like these are problematic:
One thinks of the magnificent game ten, apparently so effortless, so economical, so unshowy – yet so beautiful. There were also some staggering howlers, a function of the inhuman stress affecting both players: Bxh2 in game one (Fischer), Qc2 in game five (Spassky), pawn to b5 in game eight (Spassky) …
And so on. To the non-player, these notations are meaningless without a glimpse of the board, an understanding of the forces at play. Further, without an clear picture of just what made Fischer’s genius so dazzling – what it was about the beauty and power of his games that induced even his enemies to accede to his every whim – a key dimension of the story is weakened. Obviously, it’s not practicable for Bobby Fischer Goes to War to serve as a primer on chess strategy, but a more generous allotment of positional diagrams would go a long way toward helping the non-player understand what we mean when we talk about “the art of chess” or “the beauty of the game.”
And there I tip my hand as a chess player, albeit a crummy one, but that’s the idea that’s least effectively communicated in Bobby Fischer Goes to War. In the Steve Zaillian’s lovely 1993 film adaptation of Fred Waitzkin’s memoir Searching for Bobby Fischer, Ben Kingsley, playing chess teacher extraordinaire Bruce Pandolfini, says the following to Joe Mantegna, father of 7-year-old chess prodigy Josh:
“What is chess, do you think? People who play for fun, or not at all, dismiss it as a game. The ones who devote their lives to it – for the most part – insist it’s a science. It’s neither. Bobby Fischer got underneath it like no one before him and found, at its center – art.”
There’s a moment in every chess player’s life when the beauty of the game whispers to him or her from the board, and secrets are revealed. I recall playing an old friend, with whom I had been fairly evenly matched. For the first time, I saw a winning “combination” – a series of moves that, once begun, invoke forced responses. (This is what chess players mean when they refer to “seeing ten moves ahead.”) Checkmate in four moves, and at last the language of the game came to life for me. I advised my friend to resign. He refused and we played on, although with each move the terrible reality of his position began to sink in. Much as I imagine Spassky felt through many of the hard-fought twenty-one games that comprised the match. Which brings me to a final quibble – the title. As the authors’ own work makes clear, the Soviets did not lose the match. Boris Spassky did. Read Bobby Fischer Goes to War for an memorable account of just how it happened.
Addendum: If you are curious and want to examine some of these games for yourself, there are numerous volumes published and, although the analysis can sometimes become quite complicated, many were written for the newly arrived general audiences that had come to the game in the wake of the championship. Of particular note is Larry Evans’ Fischer-Spassky Move by Move which though out print can be found, and which, in over 1800 diagrams, shows not just every position in the match but every position in the extended analysis as well.