During the Cold War, generations grew up with the knowledge that one mistake by those in power could doom the entire planet. When the other side is prepared to destroy you utterly, you tend to view every conflict as life or death. The Olympics, for instance, were much more than athletic competitions during that era they were ideological battlegrounds. So it was somehow appropriate that in 1972, in the waning days of the superpower struggle, a chess competition between an American and a Russian focused the world's attention on the chilly environs of Reykjavik, Iceland.
Bobby Fischer Goes To War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (the authors of the surprise 2001 hit book, Wittgenstein's Poker) is a detailed account of the most famous chess match in modern times, and a fascinating story it is. What should have been a straightforward us-against-them-morality tale was turned on its head by the personalities of the participants. The Soviet Grandmaster Boris Spassky was handsome, well spoken, gracious and self-effacing, while the American, Bobby Fischer, was a rude, greedy, tantrum-throwing bully. That Fischer was a genius at chess who was playing for "our" side was beside the point many Americans at the time were rooting against him.
Using various sources, including contemporary interviews with many participants, documents that became available after the fall of the Soviet Union and U.S. material obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Edmonds and Eidinow explore the background of each man. Spassky, while a star at chess, was hardly a poster-boy for the Soviet system. Much to the consternation of his superiors, he often was more concerned with his game than his ideology, and he openly flaunted the rules most Soviet citizens lived by. Fischer was a rule-breaker as well; with his enormous talent, he demanded and got special treatment from tournament committees around the world, alienating almost everyone with whom he came into contact. While Spassky's faux pas could be shrugged off due to his distracted nature, Fischer's actions were more calculated, and as the authors show us, his irritating behavior reached unbelievable heights at the World Championships in Iceland.
Swirling around the two grandmasters' gamesmanship were their respective governments. Henry Kissinger personally pleaded with Fischer to take the fight to the Soviets, while at the same time the American embassy was hoping the contest would end quickly, before Fischer damaged foreign relations irreparably. The Russian contingent in Iceland increased dramatically during the match, from psychiatrists surreptitiously analyzing Fischer to KGB agents examining Spassky's food. In truth, they had good reason to worry about Spassky his health fluctuated during the tournament but they should have looked no further than Fischer's antics to determine the cause of Spassky's angst. Fischer objected to the auditorium, the lights, the cameras, the size of the audience, the amount of prize money, the noise level, the color of the chess board and on and on; the psychological stress on Spassky must have been tremendous. Considering his tactics, Fisher's eventual victory was not surprising.
Fischer's "take no prisoners" attitude the attitude we celebrate every day in American sports, from headfirst slides in baseball to strutting end-zone celebrations leaves a bitter taste in this particular contest. It's hard to feel any joy at Fischer's victory over Spassky, especially in light of Spassky's gracious defeat and Fischer's eventual emergence as a Nazi apologist.
Bobby Fischer Goes To War takes a compelling look inside the world of high-stakes chess and recalls the fears and suspicions that marked a dangerous era in world history. James Neal Webb plays chess though not very well in Nashville.