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Friday, February 05, 2016

Review: Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time by David Edmonds

Audiobook: A fascinating analysis of both the players and the chess culture and its history in both the United States and Soviet Union leading up to the famous duel between Fischer and Spassky in 1972 when chess, for a short period of time, captured the attention of the world.

Bobby Fischer had never grown up and was uniquely focused on chess. Outside of the game he could be obnoxious, eccentric, bratty, rude, and incomprehensible. At the chess table he was unfailingly polite, obsessed with the rules and the game. The beginning of the book is a bit disjointed with quick summaries of his appearances or lack thereof at national and international tournaments. His paranoia and need for control was already quite apparent as was his chess brilliance (he had little brilliance in most other areas of his life.)

The author is stronger when discussing Spassky and chess in Russia. Chess players were expected to play in service to the state where the aftereffects of the "Great Patriotic War" was a sort of Russian exceptionalism that celebrated state nationalism. Everything was in service of the state and chess was no exception.

Their match became a symbolic battle for leadership in the Cold War. Here you had the Soviets who had dominated chess for decades on the one hand, and the lone, individualist Fischer on the other. Spassky was complicated. A Russian patriot, he was no Soviet one. He loved the game and admired Fischer who hated everyone and was the archetypal loner with no admirable qualities.

The authors could not get an interview with Fischer who was notoriously devoted to his privacy so the reader might sometimes feel as if the book is mostly about Spassky and the Russian perspective since they were quite willing to be interviewed. That's OK. Fischer’s erratic and paranoid behavior make him less prone to analysis.

Whatever else you say about Fischer, he was a tormented soul one cannot help but feel sorry for. He was often derided and celebrated. In the end he must have been extremely lonely and he died alone and embittered, a prisoner to his genius. I remember the extraordinary attention surrounding the match which probably did more to elevate the popularity of chess than anything before. The section on game theory and the value of irrationality in determining outcomes I found to be quite interesting if overly speculative in Fischer's case.

Political science junkies and chess fanatics will love this book. Nicely read by Sam Tsoutsouvas.
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