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Review: ‘Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall’

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By Frank Brady

Crown, 416 pages, $29.99

Updated: February 27, 2011 6:31PM

Bobby Fischer was a bad man. A bad friend, he easily took offense, cut off those who helped him and held lifetime grudges. A bad American, he renounced his citizenship and went on the radio to gloat at our nation’s tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001. A bad son, he lived for years off his mother’s Social Security pension. A bad person all round: hateful, angry, grandiose, most likely, at least for a period, insane. Fischer wouldn’t just say awful things; he screamed them.

But he was a good chess player, not just good, great, maybe the greatest, and brought the game of chess to its pinnacle of international acclaim in the game’s very long history — his match against Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972.

Fischer beat Spassky, handily, an unexpected late Cold War victory in a realm the Soviets had dominated. It was hoped that chess would enter a new, popular phase. But it never happened — Fischer refused to defend his title and it passed back to the Soviets, and he entered decades of a shadow existence, shuttling from one country to the next, a protracted sulk that deteriorated into paranoia.

Endgame will appeal to those who always wondered what happened to Bobby Fischer, how he frittered away the tremendous goodwill earned by his skill on the chessboard, and author Frank Brady, who knew Fischer since he was a child, is uniquely positioned to tell the story.

It starts sunnily, with Fischer as a chess prodigy in Brooklyn (he was born in Chicago, at Michael Reese Hospital, but his homeless, single mother soon left the city) haunting the New York chess clubs and quickly rising to prominence. It’s the most appetizing part of the book, reading how high school classmate Barbra Streisand had a crush on him (“I found him very sexy,” the singer later said).

Chess was everything to Fischer. He studied constantly, working out games on a tiny board, furious at being beaten, muttering that his opponents had been “lucky.”

A fan of the radio, he became friends with Jean Shepherd and followed Herbert W. Armstrong’s “Radio Church of God,” the beginning of a lifelong adherence to fringe evangelical churches (though his mother was Jewish, Bobby never practiced the faith).

The deterioration started early.

“He was becoming a super-celebrity in the world of chess, but the more fame he achieved, the more unpleasant his behavior became,” Brady writes. “Inflamed by his successes on the board, his ego had begun to shut out other people. Gone was Charming Bobby with his electric smile. Enter Problematic Bobby with the disdainful attitude and frequently flashed warning scowl.”

Brady gamely chronicles Fischer’s astounding lapses and vengeful pronouncements, but his heart isn’t in giving Fischer the revulsion he deserves. Brady has the tendency to blurt out sentiments such as, after watching Fischer explain chess strategy at a Greenwich Village bar: “I began to weep quietly, aware that in that time-suspended moment I was in the presence of genius.”

It skews his judgment. Whatever living in L.A. flophouses and wandering around with your possessions in shopping bags while handing out hate tracts represents, whatever serving as a paid propaganda tool for Serbian butcher Slobodan Milosevic illustrates, “different-drum sensibilities” doesn’t seem to cover it. “He often preferred to dine alone; like Thomas Jefferson in the White House,” Brady writes. “He enjoyed his own company.” At least someone did. Brady ends the book by quoting one of Fischer’s Icelandic fans — that country was one of the few places in the world where Fischer could find refuge, in gratitude for bringing them international notice — deeming him “a caring and sensitive person.”

One of the Polgar girls — chess play-prodigies who tried to befriend Fischer — sum it up far more accurately: “He was an extremely great chess player, but crazy, a sick psycho.”

Brady does generally keep his panting fandom in check, enough to offer his unique perspective into the sad spectacle of Bobby Fischer’s life, a fascinating, depressing tale of how a person can be so good at one thing and so bad at everything else.

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