Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Timeby David Edmonds, John Eidinow
In the Summer of 1972, with a presidential crisis stirring in the United States and the cold war at a pivotal point, two men -- the Soviet world chess champion Boris Spassky and his American challenger Bobby Fischer -- met in the most notorious chess match of all time. Their showdown in Reykjavik, Iceland, held the world spellbound for two months with reports of psychological warfare, ultimatums, political intrigue, cliffhangers, and farce to rival a Marx Brothers film. Thirty years later, David Edmonds and John Eidinow, authors of the national bestseller Wittgenstein's Poker, have set out to reexamine the story we recollect as the quintessential cold war clash between a lone American star and the Soviet chess machine -- a machine that had delivered the world title to the Kremlin for decades. Drawing upon unpublished Soviet and U.S. records, the authors reconstruct the full and incredible saga, one far more poignant and layered than hitherto believed.
Against the backdrop of superpower politics, the authors recount the careers and personalities of Boris Spassky, the product of Stalin's imperium, and Bobby Fischer, a child of post-World War II America, an era of economic boom at home and communist containment abroad. The two men had nothing in common but their gift for chess, and the disparity of their outlook and values conditioned the struggle over the board. Then there was the match itself, which produced both creative masterpieces and some of the most improbable gaffes in chess history. And finally, there was the dramatic and protracted off-the-board battle -- in corridors and foyers, in back rooms and hotel suites, in Moscow offices and in the White House.
The authors chronicle how Fischer, a manipulative, dysfunctional genius, risked all to seize control of the contest as the organizers maneuvered frantically to save it -- under the eyes of the world's press. They can now tell the inside story of Moscow's response, and the bitter tensions within the Soviet camp as the anxious and frustrated apparatchiks strove to prop up Boris Spassky, the most un-Soviet of their champions -- fun-loving, sensitive, and a free spirit. Edmonds and Eidinow follow this careering, behind-the-scenes confrontation to its climax: a clash that displayed the cultural differences between the dynamic, media-savvy representatives of the West and the baffled, impotent Soviets. Try as they might, even the KGB couldn't help. A mesmerizing narrative of brilliance and triumph, hubris and despair, Bobby Fischer Goes to War is a biting deconstruction of the Bobby Fischer myth, a nuanced study on the art of brinkmanship, and a revelatory cold war tragicomedy.
- Faber and Faber
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Bobby Fischer Goes to War
How A Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine
Match of the Century
Funny to be a war correspondent again after all these years. -- Arthur Koestler
When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive. -- Boris Spassky
It is five o'clock in the evening of Tuesday, 11 July 1972. The seats filling the arena of the sports hall, the Laugardalsholl, in Reykjavik's featureless leisure complex are sold out. On the platform, the world chess champion, thirty-five-year-old Boris Vasilievich Spassky, sits alone at the chessboard. He is playing white. Precisely on the hour, the German chief arbiter, Lothar Schmid, starts the clock. Spassky picks up his queen's pawn and moves it forward two squares. The Soviet Union's king of chess has begun the defense of the title that has been his since 1969, and his country's without interruption since World War II. He glances up at the other side of the board. The expensive, low-slung, black leather, swivel chair, specially provided for his opponent, is empty.
Six minutes later, the American challenger, Bobby Fischer, arrives. A communal sigh of relief gusts through the hall. Because of his refusal to leave New York in time for the match's opening, the first game has already been postponed and many had feared that he might not appear at all: with Fischer, one can never be sure. Now a large hand reaches across the chessboard, plucks up the black king's knight, and places it on f6.
In the provincial and normally tranquil Icelandic capital, what is already being called "the Match of the Century" is at last under way.
The World Chess Championship has existed since 1886. But with this final, it is a front-page story for the first time; at $250,000, the prize money is nearly twenty times more than in the last title contest, when Boris Spassky triumphed over his fellow Soviet, the then champion Tigran Petrosian.
Why do the games make news on television and stars of commentators? Already a people's sport in the communist bloc, why does chess now become the rage in the West, the pastime of the moment, like the Charleston, canasta, or the Hula Hoop; what you talk about in the bar with strangers and over the dinner table with friends? The 1972 championship will become immortalized in film, on the stage, in song. It will remain incontrovertibly the most notorious chess duel in history. There will never be another like it.
This has little to do with the games themselves. If it had, the Reykjavik tale could be left to the existing books and myriad reports in chess volumes and articles that analyze the chess, game by game, in every detail. There are scores of them -- for the most part, instant works. What turned this championship into a unique and compelling confrontation was off the chessboard, beginning with the conviction that history was being made.
To Western commentators, the meaning of the confrontation seemed clear. A lone American star was challenging the long Soviet grip on the world title. His success would dispose of the Soviets' claim that their chess hegemony reflected the superiority of their political system. The board was a cold war arena where the champion of the free world fought for democracy against the apparatchiks of the Soviet socialist machine. Here was the High Noon of chess, coming to you from a concrete auditorium in Iceland.
Given the mutual hostility of the two great power blocs of the cold war, such a reading of the encounter was inevitable. But the story can now be retold from a new perspective, stripped of cold war distortions, a story more nuanced and surprising than could be seen in 1972. The end of the cold war has allowed access to people and records that reveal the individuals inside the Soviet monolith. White House, State Department, and FBI sources offer remarkable insights on official attitudes to the match and to Fischer. Far from being a simple ideological confrontation, the championship was played out on many levels, of which chess itself was only one. Reykjavik was the setting for a collision of personalities, of moral and legal obligations, of social and political beliefs.
However, in large measure, the sheer notoriety of the event was due to the presence of Bobby Fischer, a volatile genius, enthralling and shocking, appealing yet repellent.
In 1972, Fischer was still only twenty-nine, but he had already been at the summit of international chess for over a decade and the subject of increasing public fascination since he was a boy.Bobby Fischer Goes to War
How A Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine. Copyright © by David Edmonds. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
David Edmonds is an award-winning journalists with the BBC. He's the bestselling authors of Bobby Fischer Goes to War and Wittgenstein’s Poker.
John Eidinow is an award-winning journalist with the BBC. He's the bestselling authors of Bobby Fischer Goes to War and Wittgenstein’s Poker.
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