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Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

25 November 2007

After reading about the arrest of Garry Kasparov at a protest rally in Moscow, I was reminded of this review that I’ve been meaning to post for some time now. Chess-related, understandably.

Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

David Edmonds and John Eidinow co-authored Wittgenstein’s Poker, an analytical study of an altercation between the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper (allegedly involving the brandishing of a fireplace poker). As might be gathered from this book’s title, Bobby Fischer Goes to War is about more than just a single incident — it’s the story of the 1972 World Chess Championship match played in Reykjavik, Iceland, between reigning chess champion Boris Spassky (of the Soviet Union) and challenger Bobby Fischer (of the United States). At the time, and even into the present day, the championship was touted as yet another Cold War confrontation between the US and the USSR, the plucky young American wunderkind standing up to the Soviet chess machine. Edmonds and Eidinow do their best to pick apart that Cold War myth by setting out the history of the players, the modern chess tournament system, and a near play-by-play account of the match itself.

Edmonds and Eidinow also do a marvellous job at explaining chess in terms that even non-chess players can understand. But the chess comes almost secondary to their description of the events surrounding the match itself, particularly the insane antics of Bobby Fischer. Some accounts of the match claim that Fischer’s constantly changing demands and prolonged temper tantrums over nearly every single aspect of the tournament were in reality a carefully planned psychological attack on Spassky…but reading Edmonds and Eidinow’s account, there seems to be very little question that Fischer’s behaviour was unsporting, uncivilised and just plain bizarre. Complaints about the lighting and the presence of television cameras seem understandable, but when Fischer refused to use the handcrafted marble chessboard made expressly for the match because he claimed that minute imperfections in the stone would distract him during match-play, it is difficult to feel anything but sympathy for anyone who had to spend more than five minutes in Fischer’s presence. Spassky definitely comes out as an unfortunate victim in Bobby Fischer Goes to War, conducting himself with good grace as best as he could — and then returning to the Soviet Union to face an official enquiry as to why he had lost to the brash young American.

My copy of Bobby Fischer Goes to War is subtitled ‘How a Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine’. The subtitle might better read ‘How a Deranged American Star Bullied His Way to Victory’. The book is definitely a gripping account, thoroughly entertaining and well-paced. I certainly came away knowing more about chess and chess play than I ever thought I could learn from 300-odd pages. The book could be made into a fantastic feature film — and if it ever is, I will definitely be there on opening night.

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