A Review of Frank Brady's _Endgame_ (A Bobby Fischer Bio)
Tuesday, January 4, 2011 at 6:43PM
Dennis Monokroussos in Bobby Fischer, Book Reviews

Frank Brady, Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall—from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (New York: Crown Publishers, 2011). 384 pp. $25.99 hardcover. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.

Many years ago, Frank Brady wrote a well-acclaimed biography of Bobby Fischer called Profile of a Prodigy (POP). The first edition was published in 1965, and the second in 1973. This new volume is not a supplement to POP but a brand new work that discusses not only the intervening years between 1972 and Fischer’s death in 2008, but covers once again the earlier periods of his life. Those of you who have the first book will also want the second, but oddly enough the reverse is also true. POP has 16 pages of photos and Spassky-Fischer cartoons, 90 of Fischer’s games (with light notes), a list of his match and tournament results and the crosstables from all his classical round-robin events starting from 1956. In Endgame, all there is is the prose, which suggests that Brady is writing for a general audience and not just the chess playing public.

Another important difference between the two works – also in POP’s favor – is that the 1972 match with Boris Spassky is covered in greater detail in the older book. This is to be expected, as Fischer’s becoming world champion, and not his post-match fall, was the natural climax of the earlier work. Second, there have been other works on that match over the last few years, so it’s wise for Brady to focus on other areas of Fischer’s life where he has something new to offer.

The broad outlines of Fischer’s life are well-known. He was born in Chicago on March 9, 1943 to Regina Wender (Fischer) and allegedly to Hans-Gerhardt Fischer but more likely Paul Nemenyi, though this was generally unknown until the 2000s. He learned to play chess when he was 6 and was soon obsessed by the game. He was a very strong player by the time he was 13, winning the great by hyperbolically labeled “Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne. He won the first of eight U.S. Championships the next year, and at the age of 15 qualified for the Candidates, becoming the youngest-ever grandmaster in the process. He continued to improve over the next decade or more, but periods of self-sabotage imperiled his path to the top. Finally, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of his supporters, he was given the chance to compete in the 1970 Interzonal, which he won. He then defeated Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen by astonishing 6-0 scores in Candidates matches, beat Tigran Petrosian in the final, and went on to defeat Boris Spassky in a match that was as much as circus as chess. After winning the title he became a recluse, turning down opportunities for fortune, losing his title by default, and growing increasingly distant from former friends and any semblance of normalcy. This period came to an end in 1992 when, in response to entreaties from a young female admirer, he was willing to play a “world championship” rematch against Spassky. He won this match as well, and a big payday, but as the match was played in a location considered unacceptable to the U.S. government, he was given a legal warning not to play. He spit on the letter, played, and was unable to (overtly) return to America the rest of his life. The government didn’t forbid his travels, however, and even renewed his passport some years later. On September 11, 2001 Fischer gave an infamous, profanity-laced interview celebrating the terrorist attacks against the U.S., and after this it seemed that the U.S. government decided to take a second look at Fischer. In 2004 he was arrested in Tokyo on behalf of the U.S., and only thanks to the tremendous activity on his behalf in Iceland was he able to avoid extradition and to receive Icelandic citizenship. He was flown there in 2005, and spent the last three years of his life there in relative peace and comfort, dying of renal failure on January 17, 2008.

All of this is of course detailed in the book, with each of the major topics covered in great depth. Rather than give a blow-by-blow summary of the chapters, I’ll just mention the points that caught my attention.

Oddities: As noted above, there are no supplementary materials, not even pictures. This is a loss, I think. Second, there are many factual errors in the book (hopefully they will be corrected in later printings). My suspicion is that Brady sometimes relied a bit too much on his memory and his editors took him at his word. While unfortunate, it doesn’t detract too much from the book’s strengths, which come from the accounts of those who knew Fischer personally. I was also quite surprised by his relative neutrality about Fischer’s parentage. The case for Paul Nemenyi rather than Hans Gerhardt Fischer being Fischer’s father seems quite strong (especially when one looks at photos like this), but Brady seems unmoved about it. As the book goes, however, it’s of little significance to the story, so whatever one’s convictions (or the lack thereof) on the matter won’t have any lingering effect as you read on.

What’s new: Over the years, I had received the impression from various sources that Fischer’s mother, Regina Wender, was an annoying and difficult woman with whom Fischer had as little contact as possible, as soon as possible. Brady seeks to overturn both of those impressions: she comes across as feisty, yes, but always devoted to her son; further, she and Fischer remained emotionally close (or at least as close as anyone could be with Fischer) for the remainder of her life. Assuming this is so (and I have no reason to think otherwise), the book does a real service by further humanizing both mother and son.

Brady is also rather gentle with Fischer. It’s by no means a whitewash, but it would be very easy to write a book – an accurate and objective book – in which he comes out looking far worse than he does in Endgame. My overall impression is that Brady is a little too sympathetic, but perhaps it helps balance one-sided portrayals of him as an anti-Jewish, anti-American nutjob.

The book spends a large amount of time on his early years, and rightly so. For one thing, those are the years those of who didn’t know the young Fischer personally will know the least. Second, it helps give his early teachers their proper due in making Fischer the player he became. Third, while they were painful for Fischer in certain respects due to his poverty and lack of personal freedom, they are more pleasant for the reader than, say, the years following 1972. Nevertheless, despite the close attention Brady pays to that period, one never really gets much insight into how, when or why Fischer became such a narcissistic wreck. There’s something to be said for an author’s avoiding dime-store psychology, but Brady seems unwilling to even visit the dime-store’s city. The problem is that, as far as the reader can see, one day Fischer is (more or less) a sweet little kid, the next day he’s dropping in and out of chess events and the chess world in general, and the day after that he’s a rabid hater. From a major biography, one expects more from an author – even if it’s only to address the question and protest that there isn’t any clear answer.

Criticisms aside, I’m glad to have read the book and hope it finds a wide readership. I know a great deal more about the early Fischer than I did beforehand, and I learned new things even about periods of his life that were more familiar. Brady knew Fischer reasonably well, pre-1972, and he has done due diligence in researching and interviewing those who knew him afterwards. This is not the definitive book on Bobby Fischer for all eternity, but it’s the best book so far – by a long way – and one I can recommend to my readers – whether they play chess or not.

Update on Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 10:30PM by Registered CommenterDennis Monokroussos

Good news: According to the publisher, there will be a photo section in the book's finished copy.

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