Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time

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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 ...
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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 Drawing upon unpublished Soviet and U.S. records, the authors reconstruct the full and incredible saga, one far more poignant and layered than hitherto believed.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.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
… the details of the square-off remain compelling. And Bobby Fischer Goes to War underscores the extent to which each player became the uneasy flag-bearer for his government. — Janet Maslin
The Washington Post
Bobby Fischer Goes to War, by British journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow, professes to break ground: to tell, as its subtitle announces, how the Soviets lost the most extraordinary chess match of all time. Edmonds and Eidinow, BBC veterans and authors of the acclaimed Wittgenstein's Poker, have met their goal: This is the definitive history of Fischer vs. Spassky. Edmonds and Eidinow carefully relate the complex turns of the championship while detailing the unseen prodding of the powers behind the Cold War curtains (namely, KGB minders and Henry Kissinger), without allowing the match's twin plots -- the moves on the chessboard and in the political arena -- to eclipse each other. — Andrew Meier
Publishers Weekly
Tsoutsouvas turns in a steady, suitably understated performance of this eminently engrossing account of the 1972 world championship chess match between the eccentric American challenger Bobby Fischer and the then-reigning Soviet title holder Boris Spassky. Edmonds and Eidinow (Wittgenstein's Poker) explore not only the widely variant backgrounds of each of the players, but also the nuances of the Cold War societies that produced them. The political wrangling on both sides-coupled with Fischer's outrageous, often petulant demands-turn what might have been a humdrum tale of logistics and chess analysis into a vibrant carnival of human stubbornness, ego and, occasionally, brilliance. Tsoutsouvas reads in a level, largely unembellished style, but his approach suits this sober text. And while characterization is not a highlight of the reading, Tsoutsouvas, with his natural baritone, can't resist a pass at some of the Russian accents or the voice of Henry Kissinger, which he does admirably. It all makes for a fitting rendition of this intriguing take on the forbearance and political gamesmanship it took to get two grown men to sit down across a table from one another and play a game. Simultaneous release with the Ecco hardcover (Forecasts, Dec. 8, 2003). (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was conducted on numerous fronts, with the chess contest between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky being one of the strangest. Edmonds and Eidinow, who earlier brought us the innovative Wittgenstein's Poker, have now teamed up to write a sprightly narrative about the famous 1972 championship match in Reykjavik, Iceland, between the mercurial and eccentric Fischer and his quiet and long-suffering Soviet opponent Spassky, the reigning world chess champion. Fischer showed up late and consistently complained about everything from the size of the chessboard to the type of transportation he was provided. In the middle of it all, Henry Kissinger, President Nixon's national security adviser, would phone Fischer to offer encouragement, thus indicating that this was more than a simple chess match: it was a titanic battle between two ideologies and two political systems. This engagingly written book delves into the arcane world of international chess and into the peculiar minds of the men who fought mightily over those 64 black-and-white squares. And, believe it or not, it is a real page-turner! Recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/03.]-Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The BBC journalists who honed their skills in amassing minutiae with Wittgenstein's Poker (2001) re-create the furor surrounding a chess match that was also one of the Cold War's most bizarre confrontations. The attention focused on the 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky world championship match in Iceland was extraordinary: Edmonds and Eidinow recount that one reporter hit 21 Manhattan bars and found l8 TVs tuned to PBS, which showed a chess pundit posting teletyped moves on a magnetic board, while only three carried a Mets game. The authors build to a crescendo with other fascinating details, taking the reader inside the two camps in Reykjavik. Spassky got full-time analysis from a whole team of international champions, some of whom had been studying Fischer's key games for a year, plus a psychologist, a physical trainer, and several KGB operatives traveling under false colors. Fischer's two assistants, one a grandmaster, were primarily gofers and experienced complainers. Spassky's congeniality and savoir faire charmed the watching world; Fischer's constant carping over playing conditions and his outrageous allegations of conspiracy, including possible assassination, dismayed fans even in the US, but the desperate Icelandic organizers bent to his every whim. Finally goaded by a phone call from Henry Kissinger-Nixon was busy pondering the implications of the recent Watergate break-in-Fischer showed up, played a bad first game and lost, then forfeited the second out of sheer petulance. When the magic finally began in game three, Fischer played the brutal, grinding chess that had brought him an unprecedented string of consecutive victories during the two preceding years. In the end it wasSpassky who was in psychological shock and the Soviets who claimed (and still maintain) that they were victims of a sinister plot: telepathy, poisoned food, "electronic rays," anything that would explain their champion's embarrassing loss. Mavens will mourn the dearth of move-by-move analysis, but general readers will savor a marvelous portrait of East against West, with perceived societal superiority as the real prize. Author tour. Agent: Phyllis Westberg/Harold Ober & Associates
Entertainment Weekly
“Note to Hollywood: It’s Miracle meets A Beautiful Mind. Get on it.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Enthralling…. Edmonds and Eidinow are ideal guides through the history and psychology of chess.”
Time magazine
“Bobby Fischer Goes to War tells the story in fine, brisk style…conveying the richness of the world beyond the chessboard.”
Christian Science Monitor
“[Edmonds and Eidinow] show themselves once again to be grandmasters of nonfiction narrative.”
Washington Post Book World
“This is the definitive history of Fischer vs. Spassky.”
Florida Sun-Sentinel
“Superbly researched…. Bobby Fischer Goes to War fills an important gab in the literature on this showdown.”
Los Angeles Times
“The finest addendum ever to the 1972 chess world championship.’”
Washington Times
“David Edmonds and John Eidinow have penned a delightful book about the politics of that legendary match.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A superbly researched reminder of a 20th century culture clash.”
Chess Life
“[A] praiseworthy, terrific book… marvelous.”
“[An] intriguing look at the world of competitive chess, circa 1972.... Good reading, especially for chess buffs.”
Boston Globe
“The book will be one of the major sources of history for new generations of chess players.”
Nashville Tennessean
“A fascinating story well told.”
Time Magazine
"Bobby Fischer Goes to War tells the story in fine, brisk style…conveying the richness of the world beyond the chessboard."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780571214112
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Publication date: 1/1/2004
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 8.78 (h) x 1.05 (d)

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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Table of Contents

Note on the Transliteration of Russian xi
Dramatis Personae xiii
Glossary xix
World Chess Champions to 1969 xxiii
1 Match of the Century 1
2 Brooklyn Boy 4
3 Mimophant 19
4 Child of Destruction 33
5 The Russian from Leningrad 50
6 Living Chess 70
7 Bulldozer to Reykjavik 82
8 Trouble in Paradise 99
9 Big Contest, Little Island 122
10 Bobby Is Missing 130
11 Who's Sorry Now? 153
12 Rage Rules 162
13 Blood in the Back Room 177
14 Eyeball to Eyeball 186
15 A Love-Hate Relationship 191
16 Smashed 197
17 Middle Game 211
18 Chess Contagion 225
19 To the Bitter End 233
20 Extra-Chess Means and Hidden Hands 249
21 Adversary Partners 270
22 Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears the Crown 281
Appendix 313
Acknowledgments 323
Selective Bibliography 327
Index 335
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First Chapter

Bobby Fischer Goes to War
How A Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine

Chapter One

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.
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Reading Group Guide

An Introduction from the Publisher
Since 1948, the USSR had dominated the World Chess Championships -- evidence, Moscow claimed, of the superiority of the Soviet system. But then along came Bobby Fischer. A dysfunctional and manipulative genius, Fischer was uniquely equipped to take on the Soviets. Against him was Boris Spassky: complex, sensitive, and most un-Soviet of champions. In the summer of 1972, they met in Reykjavik, Iceland, for the most notorious chess match of all time, in a confrontation that held the world spellbound for two months with reports of psychological warfare, ultimatums, political intrigue and cliffhangers. Thirty years later, David Edmonds and John Eidinow have set out to re-examine the story we recollect as the quintessential Cold War clash. Drawing upon unpublished Soviet and US records, they have reconstructed the full and incredible saga as it unfolded on the board, in corridors and foyers, in back rooms and hotel suites, in Moscow offices and in the White House.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you characterize Bobby Fischer's ascension as a chess prodigy? Discuss how his childhood may have contributed to his obsession with chess.

  2. How would you describe Bobby Fischer in one sentence? What, in your opinion, are his strengths and weaknesses and how did they help or hurt his career in chess? Has reading this book changed your perception of the legendary champion?

  3. Compare the circumstances of Boris Spassky's upbringing to Bobby Fischer's. If both men were by nature rebellious, how did their single-mindedness express itself off the chessboard?

  4. How did Spassky feel about his role in promoting the Soviet cause? In what ways did he align himself with and distance himself from the Soviet regime?

  5. The authors point out that there are more possible variations in a game of chess than there are atoms in the universe. Were you surprised to learn of the seemingly infinite complexity inherent in chess? What kind of personality, in your opinion, would most likely be drawn to this game?

  6. What were the biggest surprises in the preparation for the match? Who do you feel was driving the agenda -- Fischer or Spassky?

  7. At the time of the match, the Soviets and many Americans felt that national pride was at stake. Do you think this was an issue for either Fischer or Spassky? Behind the scenes, which team was able to exert more influence on the outcome of the match, the Soviets or the Americans?

  8. In the ongoing negotiations that took place at the match itself, did you feel that FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs) was a neutral party? Which person or individuals, besides Fischer and Spassky, had the most critical impact on the outcome of the match?

  9. The authors quote International master and psychologist Bill Hartston: "Chess is not something that drives people mad; chess is something that keeps mad people sane." Discuss this statement in the context of Bobby Fischer.

  10. What was the alleged role of the KGB in the match? What are your thoughts on the theory of conspiracy, on either side, with respect to its outcome?

  11. In your opinion, what was the turning point of the match? Do you think Fischer's antics were a deliberate psychological tactic to throw his opponent off balance? Compare the tactics used in this match to the tactics in popular contact sports, such as boxing or tennis.
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