The Troubled Genius of Bobby Fischer

Chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer pictured in 1971, at age 28.

Grandmaster Bobby Fischer, pictured above in 1971 at age 28, is considered to have been the world's most brilliant chess player. In his new Fischer biography, Endgame, Frank Brady writes that the chess prodigy was a man of paradox: "Bobby was secretive, yet candid; generous, yet parsimonious; naive, yet well informed; cruel, yet kind; religious, yet heretical. His games were filled with charm and beauty and significance. His outrageous pronouncements were filled with cruelty and prejudice and hate." /AP hide caption

itoggle caption /AP
Endgame
Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness
By Franky Brady
Hardcover, 416 pages
Crown
List Price: $25.99
Read An Excerpt
Author Frank Brady first met Bobby Fischer at a chess tournament, when he was teen and Fischer was a child. They would go on to play hundreds of chess games and become lifelong friends — though Brady describes it as a "tempestuous relationship." i i

Author Frank Brady was a teen when he first met Bobby Fischer at a chess tournament. The two men would go on to play hundreds of chess games and become lifelong friends — though Brady describes it as a "tempestuous relationship." Richard Rex Thomas/ hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Rex Thomas/
Author Frank Brady first met Bobby Fischer at a chess tournament, when he was teen and Fischer was a child. They would go on to play hundreds of chess games and become lifelong friends — though Brady describes it as a "tempestuous relationship."

Author Frank Brady was a teen when he first met Bobby Fischer at a chess tournament. The two men would go on to play hundreds of chess games and become lifelong friends — though Brady describes it as a "tempestuous relationship."

Richard Rex Thomas/

One night in 1960, author and chess fan Frank Brady sat down for dinner in a Greenwich Village tavern.

Across the table from him was Bobby Fischer, just a teenager but already a grand master of the game. Fischer was never without his pocket chessboard, and as they lingered over dinner, he pulled it out and began to rehearse for an upcoming match. His eyes glazed, his fingers flew over the little board, and he seemed completely unaware of his surroundings as he whispered to himself about possible moves.

Brady found that in the presence of Fischer's chess genius, his eyes were full of tears.

He describes the scene in his new book, Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall — From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness.

Brady tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz that he first became aware of Fischer while both were playing in a New York chess tournament in the mid 1950s.

"I remember some older man kibitzing the game, and Bobby spun around and said, 'Please! This is a chess game!' The man was about 65 years old, and he was silenced by this child."

Brady later became friends with Fischer, and wrote about him often, including a 1965 biography.

But Fischer was a troubled genius. He dropped out of sight after winning the 1972 World Championship against Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union. Today, he's better known as a paranoid recluse whose frequent anti-Semitic and anti-American rants drove away friends and angered the U.S. government.

"Paraphrasing Churchill, he was an enigma inside of a conundrum," Brady says. "Think of him as the greatest chess player who ever lived. The Mozart of chess. And then think of him as a failed human being, one who fell, tremendously and quickly and swiftly, fell from grace."

Excerpt: Endgame

Endgame
Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness
By Franky Brady
Hardcover, 416 pages
Crown
List Price: $25.99

As someone who knew Bobby Fischer from the time he was quite young, I've been asked hundreds of times, "What was Bobby Fischer really like?" This book is an attempt to answer that question. But a warning to those who turn these pages: Paradoxes abound. Bobby was secretive, yet candid; generous, yet parsimonious; naive, yet well informed; cruel, yet kind; religious, yet heretical. His games were filled with charm and beauty and significance. His outrageous pronouncements were filled with cruelty and prejudice and hate. And though for a period of decades he poured most of his energy and passion into a quest for chess excellence, he was not the idiot savant often portrayed by the press.

As Virginia Woolf observed in her one attempt at writing a life story, that of artist Roger Fry: "A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many as one thousand." Many lives, and then second and even third acts, constitute the drama of Bobby Fischer, but my attempt here was to delineate just one of Fischer's kaleidoscopic personalities — that of a genius, an inwardly tortured warrior — and within that framework to capture his shifting identities and roles. The renowned psychologist Alfred Binet noted that if we could look inside the mind of a chess player we would see there "a whole world of feelings, images, ideas, emotions and passions." And so it was with Bobby: His head was not merely filled with chess bytes, phantom computer connections on a grid of sixty-four squares, but with poetry and song and lyricism.

I ask forgiveness for my occasional speculations in this book, but Fischer's motivations beg to be understood; and when conjecture is used, I inform the reader of my doing so. To vivify Bobby's extraordinary life I sometimes use the techniques of the novelist: elaboration of setting, magnification of detail, fragments of dialogue, and revelation of interior states. But always my use of those devices is based on my research, recollection, and study of the man. I want readers — whether they play chess or not — to feel as though they're sitting next to Bobby, on his side of the chessboard, or in the privacy of his home, experiencing the rush of his triumphs, the pain of his defeats, and the venom of his anger.

I've been following Bobby Fischer's life story from the first time we met — at a chess tournament when he was a child and I was a teen — all the way to his grave in the remote and windswept countryside of Iceland. Over the years we played hundreds of games together, dined in Greenwich Village restaurants, traveled to tournaments, attended dinner parties, and walked the streets of Manhattan for hours on end. He was light-years ahead of me in chess ability, but despite the yawning gap that separated us, we found ways to bond. I knew his family and had many talks about Bobby with his mother.

Though Bobby and I were friends, with a tempestuous relationship that remained on for years and eventually was off, I was also a privileged official witness to his greatness. As a director of one of the first rated tournaments he played in as a child, I noted his steadfastness. As an arbiter when he accomplished his historic 11–0 clean sweep at the 1963–64 U.S. Championship tournament, I stood by his board and observed his pride of accomplishment. And as the initial arbiter for Bobby when he was banned from traveling to Cuba for the Havana International Tournament and forced to play remotely by Teletype entry, I spent hours alone with him in a closed room of the Marshall Chess Club, watching how his deep concentration was being compromised by fatigue.

Although Endgame includes many incidents to which I was an eyewitness or in which I participated, the book is not in any way my memoir, and I've tried to remain invisible as much as possible. Through original research, analysis of documents and letters heretofore untapped, and hundreds of interviews over the years with people who knew or had a different perspective on Bobby, I've tried to capture the story of how he not only transformed himself, but also how, through a mysterious alchemy, he affected the image and status of chess in the minds of millions. And also how, unexpectedly, he saw his life become intertwined with the Cold War.

Mainly as a result of Bobby's charisma and his widely publicized contretemps, his winning the World Championship created more furor and attention — and more awareness of the game by the general public — than any other chess event in history. Bobby had an uneasy relationship with his extraordinary celebrity and ultimately grew to despise it. It was the public's intrusive gaze that caused him, in later years, to lead a determinedly reclusive, almost hermetic life.

For this book, I obtained access to portions of the KGB and FBI files on Bobby and his mother; the files not only provided me with insights but also with specific information that corrects previously published versions of Bobby's life (including my own).

In the course of researching Endgame, I came across an autobiographical essay — never published — that Bobby wrote when he was in his teens, roughhewn for sure, but introspective nevertheless, which in many ways gave the "story behind the story" of his life at that time, especially how he viewed his ascent and how he was treated by various chess organizations. Information that I found in this essay helped to rectify existing misconceptions. In addition, I obtained access to the personal archives of his chess mentor, Jack Collins, and of Bobby's mother, Regina Fischer. These invaluable troves of letters, photos, and clippings have been an important source for this book. Reading a letter from Bobby to Jack Collins, written decades ago, is almost like bringing Bobby back to life.

Whether one admires or despises Bobby Fischer — and it's quite easy to do both simultaneously, as these pages will show — I hope that his story proves that while he was a deeply troubled soul, he was also a serious and great artist, one who had a passion to know.

We may not — and perhaps should not — forgive Bobby Fischer's twisted political and antireligious assaults, but we should never forget his sheer brilliance on the chessboard. After reading this biography, I would suggest that the reader look to, and study, his games — the true testament to who he was, and his ultimate legacy.

From Endgame by Frank Brady. Copyright 2011 by Frank Brady. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Endgame

Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness

by Frank Brady

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