Frank Brady is a man who knew Bobby Fischer well—well enough to write a biography of him during the ‘sixties (Profile of a Prodigy) when Fischer was still busy attaining the status of one of the world’s most formidable chess players. Fifty years later he has returned to his subject, having consulted all the available material to hand, and drawing on his own memories and those of the many luminaries he had the privilege of meeting.
‘What was Bobby Fischer really like?’ is the question Brady sets himself the duty of answering in the forward, and of all those who have attempted this formidable challenge, his effort is the most comprehensive to date. At the age of 29, Fischer became World Chess Champion and was praised for his ‘complete mastery of the world’s most difficult and challenging game’—by the US President no less. He had risen to the pinnacle of his profession, and had scored a symbolic victory in the Cold War, for which he is today most fondly remembered.
Yet anyone even vaguely familiar with the trajectory of this chess champion’s life can’t forgo a feeling of great sadness when ‘the wilderness years’ inevitably appear, bleakest in their description of an autodidact gone astray, a fiercely independent mind seduced by fascist literature and forever victim to the ‘persecution mania’ or Verfolgungswahnsinn which led him to reject the hospitality of his friends, lucrative business offers, and the compromises which are the only way to make our lives practicable. This can be interpreted by his idolaters as monastic devotion to his convictions and conversely by his critics as a cruel and savage foolhardiness. Brady does well to negotiate the tensions in both how Fischer behaved, and how he has subsequently been regarded.
However many times you read an account of Fischer’s life, there are always aspects of his personality which are astounding. He had the bewildering charisma only someone who is totally blind to it can possess. He was at once desirous of solitude, and incredulous when American tourists failed to recognise him (as well as a poor Icelandic girl who mistook him for ‘Mr Bingo!’) He is a figure around whom myths and legends cluster: so we read in a paragraph that Fischer may have travelled to Italy to meet the mafia, that he was Barbara Streisand’’s high school crush, the list is endless. The extent of his reading post-1972 is a great surprise, ranging from Georg Henrik von Wright to the Markings (1963) of Dag Hammarskjöld. And all of this from a man who would sing ‘sixties R’n’B impromptu with childish glee, and once finished one of his inflammatory radio broadcasts with a quite staggering performance of ‘All You Need Is Love.’
Not everything about Endgame is an unqualified success. Brady has difficulty from time to time marshalling the vast wealth of information he wishes to impart—for instance, in one chapter he devotes a short section to Fischer’s conspiracy theories relating to the Kasparov-Karpov games, but apropos of nothing. It isn’t that it is uninteresting—quite the opposite—but simply that its positioning feels structurally inappropriate. Elsewhere, as other reviews have commented, Brady’s style can feel episodic and disjointed though never to an extent where it becomes displeasing to read.
Fischer could certainly inspire some excellent quotes. ‘It is difficult to play against Einstein’s theory’ said his rival Mikhail Tal. ‘Fischer should be thought of as a profound artist, a phenomenon on the order of Picasso.’ Larry Evans likens the sixth game of his match with Boris Spassky to a Mozart symphony, just as a Catholic Priest compared him to the hexenmeister at the old exile’s remote Icelandic funeral. But for someone with such an artistic gift, such sensitivity to his craft, he was still able to call for the merciless extermination of the Jews (despite his own Jewishness), and applaud depictions of Pearl Harbor. We return to the question of ‘What was Bobby Fischer really like?’ Himself, to a fault—although somehow he continues to elude us.