Review: Two chess lives

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Two chess livesLast month, two biographies of legendary chess figures were published. One is a modest booklet about a great man who just turned 100 years old, the other is a 350-page volume on the eleventh World Champion, who died at the age of 64. The difference between the two couldn't be bigger.

I'd been looking forward to Frank Brady's much-discussed Fischer-biography Endgame - Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall, published by Crown Publishers earlier this month. Brady, of course, is best known for having written the legendary book Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, but he's also published biographies on other celebrities like Orson Welles and Barbra Streisand. Indeed, as Garry Kasparov notes in his lengthy and interesting piece on the book in the New York Review of Books: "There is little doubt that none of the authors of (...) future works will be more qualified to write on Bobby Fischer than Frank Brady."

EndgameHaving known Fischer from childhood, Brady has not only written a very thorough memoir but has also done extensive and groundbreaking research. This has sometimes led him to fascinating discoveries, such as the fact that Fischer didn't learn to play chess in Brooklyn (as had been assumed before), but in Manhattan, where he lived earlier, in 1949, at the age of 6. We all know about Fischer's mythical rise to glory and fall from grace, but Brady has enough new material to make the story fresh again.

The book follows Fischer's active chess life more or less chronologically, culminating in the World Championship match against Spassky in 1972. Some of the material is absolutely fascinating. For me it was a shock to read Fischer's letter of apology to Spassky after he failed to show up on the opening day - a rare display of self-knowledge and modesty:

Dear Boris:

Please accept my sincerest apologies for my disrespectful behavior in not attending the opening ceremony. I simply became carried away by my petty dispute over money with the Icelandic chess organizers. I have offended you and your country, the Soviet Union, where chess has a prestigious position. (...)

It's weird to read this letter knowing about Fischer's unrealistic (if not always unreasonable) demands and paranoid ideas later on in life. Brady describes them all in great detail: the "wilderness years" after his retirement from professional chess; the second, scandalous and sensational match against Spassky in 1992, his restless life as an exile after an indictment was issued for his arrest by the US government following the match, and, finally, his last years as an Icelandic citizen.

And yet, while reading the book, I had the constant feeling something was missing in Brady's prose. Although the author makes admirable attempts to describe Fischer's games vividly in non-chess player's language, such as in his 3-page account of the famous game against Donald Byrne, sometimes dubbed "The Game of the Century", I kept wanting to look up the actual moves and play over those great encounters with a real board and pieces.

Judge for yourself which option you'd prefer. Here's Brady's take on the game's most spectacular moment:

(...) The idea for the move grew on Bobby slowly, instinctually at first, without any rationale. It was as though he'd been peering through a narrow lens and the aperture began to widen to take in the entire landscape in a kind of efflorescent illumination. He wasn't absolutely certain he could see the full consequences of allowing Byrne to take his queen, but he plunged ahead, nevertheless.

If the sacrifice was not accepted, Bobby conjectured, Byrne would be lost; but if he did accept it, he'd also be lost. Whatever Byrne did, he was theoretically defeated, although the game was far from over. A whisper of spectators could be heard: "Impossible! Byrne is losing to a 13-year old nobody." Byrne took the queen.

And here's the actual game:

Byrne-Fischer New York 1956


17...Be6!! 18.Bxb6?! (18.Bd3!?; 18.Be2!?) 18...Bxc4+ 19.Kg1 Ne2+ 20.Kf1 Nxd4+ 21.Kg1 Ne2+ 22.Kf1 Nc3+ 23.Kg1 axb6 and Black won.

In contrast to the lengthy description of the Byrne-Fischer game, the entire 1972 match in Reykjavik (apart from the incidents at the start of the match) is described in just five pages. What to make of this? Maybe Brady didn't feel like going through all the games of the "Match of the Century" in the same fashion but it's curious at least that a match that has spawned dozens of books and inspired thousands of chess enthusiasts gets just a few pages in this biography.

Clearly, to me as a chess player at least, what's most appealing about Bobby Fischer isn't, in fact, his life, the things he did or said - it's his chess games, which are brilliant, inspiring and immortal. Unfortunately, Endgame doesn't feature a single diagram or any game notation. This isn't something we should blame the author for - his biography is obviously intended for a much larger audience than just us chess players, and diagrams and algebraic chess moves would probably scare away many if not most readers. (For the same reason, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time only includes one equation: E=mc^2.)

But once this had sunk in, I couldn't help thinking that actually, Fischer's life wasn't particularly interesting apart from the games he played. Didn't Bobby Fischer just live for chess, after all? Wasn't he chess-fanaticism personified, interested in little else but the game he loved so madly? What else is there to say about him, really, apart from describing the great duels he played? To chess players reading the book I would suggest having a copy of Karsten Mueller's recent Bobby Fischer - Career and Complete Games at hand to look up the most crucial fragments.

Even though he was always surrounded by controversy, Fischer remained a loner; gossip and intrigue seems to have been lost on him. No juicy affairs for him, either - though Brady reveals that Barbra Streisand had a crush on him in high school. Even Fischer's antisemitic rants, however appalling, were full of cliches not really worthy of serious study. Chess is, after all, just chess, and, as J.H. Donner famously said, it cannot be compared to anything else.

Of course, Fischer's personality was very complex, his position as an American among Soviets unique, and his behaviour in some circumstances completely baffling even after all these years. But Brady, while doing a great job presenting known and unknown biographical facts about Fischer, doesn't offer an in-depth psychological study of the order of magnitude an enigmatic character like Fischer deserves. Kasparov, in his above-mentioned article, comes closer, although, as always, he seems more interested in his own opinion on Fischer than in any kind of objective perspective. But he does make good points, such as when he questions Brady's opinion on the outcome of a possible Fischer-Karpov match in 1975:

Byrne did not mention Karpov as a threat—he says he wouldn’t have stood a chance—but he pointed out that Fischer had always taken great precautions against defeat, to the point of declining to play in other events as well when he felt too much was being left to chance.

Brady’s dismissal of this theory misses the point: “What everyone seemed to overlook was that at the board Bobby feared no one.” Yes, once at the board he was fine! Where Fischer had his greatest crisis of confidence was always before getting to the board, before getting on the plane. Fischer’s perfectionism, his absolute belief that he could not fail, did not allow him to put that perfection at risk. And in Karpov, I have no doubt, especially after a three-year lay-off, Fischer saw a significant risk.

Such nuanced opinions by the best chess player of all time somehow feel more relevant than all the official and unofficial documentation in the world.

Johan van Hulst - Een leven lang schaak als sublieme bijzaakPerhaps the editors of a new book on the Dutch chess legend and centenarian Johan van Hulst, published in a limited edition by the Amsterdam chess club Schaakvereniging Caissa, understood that no book about a chess player can ever be complete if there aren't any chess games in it, so they included a great number. Subtitled "Chess as a life-long sublime side-issue", the differences between Van Hulst and Fischer couldn't have been emphasized in a better way: whereas to Fischer, chess was everything (and more), for Van Hulst it was (and still is) just a wonderful diversion alongside his long and impressive career as an academic and a politician.

In other aspects, too, it's tempting (if unfair) to draw comparisons between the two lives. Fischer, though himself Jewish by birth, became infamously antisemitic; Van Hulst played an active role in the Dutch resistance and was recognized by the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority Yad Vashem for his heroic role in the Second World War. While Fischer quit chess after he became World Champion, Van Hulst picked up chess again after his retirement and is now easily the oldest participant of the Tata Steel Chess Tournament.

From the book it becomes clear that Van Hulst was once a pretty strong player himself. In the 1930s, he played first board in the Dutch Major League and gained a 50% score against some of Holland's best chess players. On one occasion, he managed to make a draw against Euwe - and he never fails to explain that he had actually been winning. Even last year, at the age of 99, he managed to hold ChessVibes editor-in-chief Peter Doggers, rated 2250, to a draw.

But however charming these games may be, it's arguable that the most interesting part of the Johan van Hulst booklet are his own contributions: a piece on Andor Lilienthal, with whom Van Hulst shares his year of birth, and a lengthy and fascinating piece about Jewish chess players during WW II. His remarks about the Dutch Chess Federation are shocking indeed:

My conclusion must be that Jewish chess players in Amsterdam didn't receive any support from the Dutch Chess Federation during the toughest years of our nation. (...) It's telling that 250 members of the Dutch Chess Federation were killed by acts of war; at least 135 of them were Jewish. Amsterdam paid the highest toll: more than 100 deported Jewish chess players never returned.

What does a good chess biography look like? Johan van Hulst - Een Leven Lang Schaak als Sublieme Bijzaak isn't a proper biography at all - it's a collection of mostly interesting and informative pieces in the Dutch language celebrating the great man's 100th birthday - but these pieces are telling and engaging and the book is alive with chess, hope and joy - after reading it, one simply can't help being jealous of Van Hulst in many ways.

Frank Brady's Endgame - Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall is a very well-researched, thorough biography, though with the most essential thing - real chess games - conspicuously absent (though I couldn't help noticing the book also lacks photographs and, puzzlingly, an index. - Update: Dennis Monokroussos points out in the comments that this is only true for the pre-publication review copies. In the published version, there's an extensive index and a photo section.) Moreover, Fischer remains a mystery all the same - and perhaps he'll always be one.

The book does, however, answer a lot of open questions and hence makes a good starting point for a next generation of biographies. With the most important facts of his life clarified and explained by someone who knew him closely, all hope of a definitive analysis of Fischer's personality is perhaps not yet lost.