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 Drawing upon unpublished Soviet and U.S. records, the authors reconstruct the full and incredible saga, one far more poignant and layered than hitherto believed.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 manip-ulative, 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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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
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.
Table of Contents
|Note on the Transliteration of Russian||xi|
|World Chess Champions to 1969||xxiii|
|1||Match of the Century||1|
|4||Child of Destruction||33|
|5||The Russian from Leningrad||50|
|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|
|13||Blood in the Back Room||177|
|14||Eyeball to Eyeball||186|
|15||A Love-Hate Relationship||191|
|19||To the Bitter End||233|
|20||Extra-Chess Means and Hidden Hands||249|
|22||Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears the Crown||281|
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.
- How would you characterize Bobby Fischer's ascension as a chess prodigy? Discuss how his childhood may have contributed to his obsession with chess.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- What were the biggest surprises in the preparation for the match? Who do you feel was driving the agenda -- Fischer or Spassky?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The most monumental chess match in the modern era. Fischer vs. Spassky changed popular culture and ignited a "chess boom" in the United States. It was partly played out on the gameboard of politics. It also pitted two wildly different personalities in the elegant but somwhat lazy champion Spassky, and the crude but driven challenger Fischer. Fascinating for even the non chess playing reader. This is not an annotation of games, but a multifaceted reporting of events.
Chances are, if you know anything about chess history, you've heard about this match, where the lone American star triumphs over the big Soviet chess machine to take the world championship. Fischer has his advocates as the best player ever, as well, and this was his crowning moment, the apex of his career. It's definitely important.Here, though, it seems that the received story doesn't get the full picture, and that's the point of the book: to draw out the rest of the details and reframe the story, as many history books aim to do. In this case, it's not just an intellectual exercise, as the availability of documents and interviews with people from the Soviet side, along with Freedom of Information Act documents for the American, really does add a lot to the story, and does make it come across differently. I knew Fischer was nuts, but I didn't realize to what degree; Spassky, the champ, turned out to be a lot more complex, thoughtful, and interesting than I thought. He viewed himself as a Russian, and not a Soviet, patriot, and the implication that has on the course of the process were surprising for me.So while the basic story was familiar, a lot of the details, and thus the implications, were different, and I enjoyed that. On the minus side, I think they should have at least included the games in an appendix or such, if not in the main text; I realize it wasn't part of the story they were telling, exactly, but they go into enough detail, I'd have liked to see what was going on. Also, while they talk about a lot of the geopolitical stuff and the ramifications of all the hoopla and building of the match and such, it's not always well-organized, and so it feels a bit scattershot sometimes.It's still a fast and interesting read, though, with a lot of interesting characters and insight into how the heights of the chess world work. If you're into chess, you'll probably enjoy it. If not, it'll probably never occur to you to try, anyway. It's a self-selecting book that way.
Read Early 2008 - Shortly after Fischer's death in early 2008, I was motivated to read this book. I remembered the news reports I heard as a child, but didn't really understand the larger context. There was plenty of context supplied here, but I personally would have liked more focus on the chess games themselves. Still, it held some interest.
Relates the chess world championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. A fascinating look at the growth and rise of Bobby Fischer through the chess ranks. Looks at the personalities and attitudes of each throughout. Also reports on the aftermath of the match. Bobby seems to have come to the match with a do or die attitude to defeating the USSR. Boris came looking forward to some exciting and fascinating chess games. There were some great games, but Bobby's behaviour generally cast a cloudy haze over the match.
Some criticize the book for failing to analyze the chess, but as the authors state, there are books out there that do this. This is instead aimed at those who may find the events and politics interesting. Care to see a behind the scenes look into the Soviet political machine? Now you can. Chess history is clearly a small market, and this book might fail for many if not for the interest added by the cold way intrigue. If you are interested in the cold war, you may like this book. If you are interested in chess, you may like this book. It also appears that the work is being turned into a film, so you can wait and see that and then decide if you want to delve deeper.