Review of Frank Brady’s Endgame

by admin on February 1, 2011

Today (February 1) is the official publication date of a book that will certainly be avidly read and discussed by many chess players and fans — Endgame, Frank Brady’s second biography of Bobby Fischer. As part of the publicity effort on behalf of the book, the publishers sent complimentary copies to me and other chess bloggers.

There will undoubtedly be some people who will ask, “Why should I read a biography of one of the most conceited, paranoid, spiteful humans of the twentieth century, a man who antagonized nearly everyone who ever cared about him, a man who created great art and then sullied it?” To these people I can only say that I sympathize with your point of view and you need not feel any obligation to read Brady’s book. Some painful memories are best left alone.

However, to anyone else who is curious about the life of the eleventh world champion, you will not find the book disappointing and you will often find it surprising. Brady has not written the book to vilify Fischer, nor to glorify him. He simply tries to peel back the layers of secrecy and rumors and tell us what really transpired. There is not a great deal of speculation or editorializing in this book, no attempts at deep psychoanalysis. Brady makes it possible for us to make up our own minds about Fischer.

Brady is certainly the most qualified person in the world to write this book. He has known Fischer since his youth, and supplements his personal knowledge with voluminous research and the expertise of a professional historian. He has consulted virtually every source there is about Fischer’s life, even the FBI file of his mother. He provides details that sometimes leave you scratching your head: “How could he possibly know?” — things like how much money Fischer’s mother made, what Fischer ate, Fischer’s unique walking style. (He took gigantic strides and walked like Frankenstein — left arm and left leg forward, then right arm and right leg.)

The first 200 pages of Endgame, which take us through the end of the Fischer-Spassky world championship match, do not contain any revelations that will knock your socks off. But they do provide a rich narrative of this more public part of Fischer’s life, which will help you understand Fischer’s point of view a little bit better.

For example, Brady strongly emphasizes the absolute poverty that Bobby grew up in — something that might explain his strange love-hate attitude towards money later in his life. On the one hand, Bobby acted like a supremely greedy person, always trying to get the maximum amount of money he deserved — and then some. On the other hand, he was remarkably ready to walk away from money if his conditions weren’t met. He spurned the $5 million cash prize that was offered for a Fischer-Karpov championship match. And yet Brady suggests that Fischer came to regret this. A telling detail is that Fischer’s conditions for the second Fischer-Spassky match in 1992 were identical to the conditions he had walked away from in 1975: $5 million, $3.5 million to the winner and $1.5 million to the loser. Bobby’s actions seem to reflect a person who desperately wanted money, and yet at the same time absolutely knew how to live without it.

The last 130 pages are the ones that chess players, I think, will read the most avidly. Brady fills us in on all the things we didn’t know about Fischer’s life after 1972, the details that Fischer himself tried his best to keep hidden (as, indeed, he tried to keep himself hidden). For example:

Why did Fischer drop out of chess for so long? Brady has a very interesting theory. It has often been said that Fischer did not have a proper education, that the only thing he learned in his childhood was chess. After he became world champion, Brady says, Fischer suddenly developed a lust for knowledge about the world — especially history and philosophy — and spent his time reading everything he could get his hands on. Chess was pushed to the back burner. Reading this, you can almost sympathize with Fischer. Unfortunately, Fischer’s self-education process was heavy on conspiracy theories, Holocaust denials and anti-Semitic literature. At this point, your sympathy with him starts to wane.

Why did Fischer play his second match with Spassky? Again, Brady reveals a very human reason. Fischer was in love, or at least had a crush on a Hungarian chess player named Zita Rajcsanyi. He wanted her to marry him — even though his interest was mostly unrequited — and he realized that he would not have much chance as a suitor with no income and with a thirty-five square foot apartment. (Yes, you read that right. Thirty-five square feet.)

How did Fischer end up in jail in Japan? Again, Brady has tracked down all the details we didn’t know, including the very amusing stories of how Fischer renewed his U.S. passport after he had become a fugitive. The story involves picking the right embassy to go to (Switzerland, so that if arrested he would have access to his Swiss bank account) and making plans for a quick getaway if things went wrong. Ironically, there is not the slightest evidence that the U.S. government cared about his subterfuges until Fischer started making headlines with his rants against the U.S. after 9/11. (Fischer said he was glad that the attacks happened.) In 2003, Fischer’s passport was revoked, but he did not know about it and by then he had become complacent. Ironically, one of the most paranoid people on Earth lost his paranoia when he needed it most, and he was completely blindsided when he was arrested at the Tokyo airport.

One thing I found interesting about Brady’s book is that even though it is a treasure trove of information, he pulls his punches on some of the biggest controversies surrounding Fischer. For example, in Bobby Fischer Goes to War, the most recent “big Fischer book” that I have read, the authors spend a great deal of time discussing who Fischer’s real father was, and they have a “big reveal” at the end. Brady devotes maybe one paragraph to the question and does not seem particularly interested in it. For Brady’s portrayal of Fischer, the really relevant fact is that his father was absent and he was raised by a single mother. On the question of why Fischer made so many demands on organizers, the authors of Bobby Fischer Goes to War theorize that he had an inordinate fear of losing. Brady does not even address this theory. On one of the most important questions — why did Fischer develop such an intense and idiosyncratic hatred of Jews? — Brady again punts. He mentions three existing theories, very briefly, and does not really lend his support to any of them. My sense is that Brady simply does not want to speculate when he does not have enough information. He is content to tell us what he knows, and let us fill in the rest.

The last sentence of the book (excluding the Epilogue) is typical Brady. When Fischer died, Brady writes, “Like the number of squares on a chessboard — an irony that nevertheless cannot be pressed too far — he was sixty-four.” Another writer would have read all sorts of nonsense into the coincidence. Brady is content merely to mention it.

However, in true blogger style I do not have to be so reserved. What strikes me about the chronology of Bobby Fischer’s life is that it follows so closely the path of a chess game. The parallel is implicit in the book’s title. The opening, moves 1 through 15: Fischer’s childhood and meteoric rise to grandmaster status (ages 1 through 15). The middlegame, moves 16 through 29: Fischer’s battle with the Russians and with his own demons for supremacy in world chess (ages 16 through 29). And as the title of the book implies, the endgame, moves 30 through 64: the logical unraveling of the position (ages 30 until the checkmate at age 64).

There is one more thing I will say, with a little bit more trepidation. One strange thought that came to mind as I finished the book was that Bobby Fischer was a rare example of an absolutely free man. He freed himself completely from caring what other people thought. He said and thought things that I would never even dare to, things that I would never even allow myself to consider because they would be so repugnant to me and to other people. There is something admirable and elemental about his courage. And yet it was so sadly wasted on delusions and hatred.

That is, of course, not Brady’s problem. He stared the monster in the face long enough to write two books about him. I congratulate him on this amazing accomplishment, and hope that his next biography will be about someone with compassion as well as courage.

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Rob February 4, 2011 at 9:44 pm

” One strange thought that came to mind as I finished the book was that Bobby Fischer was a rare example of an absolutely free man. He freed himself completely from caring what other people thought. He said and thought things that I would never even dare to, things that I would never even allow myself to consider because they would be so repugnant to me and to other people. There is something admirable and elemental about his courage ”

Dana, I would take issue with your comment I have quoted.

I think your judgment that Bobby Fischer was an ‘”absolutely free man” is wrong. How could anyone be free who is so caught up in their thoughts, judgments, or beliefs be free ? If anyone one of us examined our own lives in ways that revealed how we came to see the world (and in turn making us react accordingly), I suspect we would find that our visions had been tinted by the experiences we have accumulated over time and which lets us see what only we can through a filter that occludes. Which, unless there is some sort of disruption, intervention, or new understanding in the way we see or experience our world, would seem pretty much self-confirming.

I am reminded of an experience I read about in a magazine which discussed what was found to be said by pilots who died in plane crashes (and which were found in the cockpit recorders). One recording of a pilot, who when told by the co-pilot that the plane was almost out of fuel responded that this could not be… “recheck your calculations” and when reconfirmed, again told the co-pilot he was wrong and to recheck…as a reader I did not find out who was right as the tape ended with the crash of the plane.

I guess the moral here is that some of us go to the grave holding beliefs and thoughts that blinded us to reality…kind of prisoners of the mind so to speak.

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