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Checkmate

When Bobby Fischer went off to war to defeat the Soviets.

By 7.1.04

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Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (Ecco, 342 pages, $24.95)

Bobby Fischer might not have been the strongest chessplayer of the 20th century, but he is the gold standard. If you want to prove that Capablanca or Tal or Petrosian was the best, Fischer is the comparison you try on first. When a young player crushes an older hero convincingly, the game everyone looks to is Byrne-Fischer 1956, a chaotic masterpiece won by Fischer at 13.

At 15 Fischer became history's youngest grandmaster. Later prodigies have moved the bar lower, by inches, but none has emulated Fischer's further rise to the top. Any devastating rout in match play, now not much seen, would undoubtedly be measured against Fischer's 6-0 annihilations of Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen in the 1970 Candidates playdowns. These victories are chess's analogue to Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point night, or Wayne Gretzky's 50 goals in 39 games: They represent the incomparable.

Fischer emerged on the scene, accomplished things no other human has, captured the wider world's imagination for a few precious months -- and, in essence, vanished, spurning competitive chess to travel the world in search of privacy and pretty girls. Today he lives in Japan, where go and shogi are preferred to the Indo-European game. It is the only place where Bobby Fischer isn't BOBBY FISCHER. The new book Bobby Fischer Goes to War recounts the apotheosis and terminus of Fischer's chess career -- his decisive victory in the 1972 World Championship against the Russian Boris Spassky.

Chess was an unlikely venue for a '70s sporting showdown between bear and eagle. Russians had held the World Championship continuously since 1937. Soviet Man had taken over in 1948, when Mikhail Botvinnik won a tournament to succeed the late champion, the alcoholic émigré Alexander Alekhine.

By then, chess dominance had become a Soviet obsession, a symbol of communism's moral strength. Politically orthodox top players, particularly Botvinnik, enjoyed state funding and help from teams of talented assistants. Soviet-bloc players visibly tended to agree to quick draws with one another in major tournaments, and the occasional game may have been thrown to favorites of officialdom. It seemed unlikely that any foreign player could overcome such coordination and passion, and less likely still that he would be an American.

BUT A PRETERNATURAL TALENT for pure abstract thinking can appear anywhere. Young New Yorker Bobby Fischer started out as just another smart youngster hanging out at the Marshall Chess Club. But in 1956 he suddenly seems to have intuited some deep secret at the game's heart: in his own words, he "just got good." Within two years he was the U.S. champion.

Always neurotic and anti-social, Fischer spent the '60s eternally frustrated at earning so little money for being a star in a sport played worldwide. The tacit Russian cooperation in skewing tournament outcomes infuriated him; although he finished as low as second only twice between 1962 and 1972, he felt he was being robbed. A red-diaper baby whose mother had trained as a nurse in Moscow, Fischer conceived an enduring, venomous hatred for Russians and Soviets in general.

Fischer's tournament play was always characterized by tantrums, and in 1972, when his title shot came along, they reached the point of absurdity. With the chess world agog over a credible challenge to Soviet supremacy, he refused to fly to Reykjavik until a British businessman doubled the $125,000 purse and dared him to turn up. On arriving, Fischer quarreled about the chairs provided for the competitors, whined about the lighting and the composition of the chessboard custom-built for the match, had the games transplanted behind a curtain on the stage of the Laugardalshoell arena, and tried to ban "noisy" cameras whose footage was necessary to recoup the staggering costs of the exhibition.

After losing the first game on an embarrassing error, he refused to show up for the second on account of the imagined distractions. His clock was started, and after an hour he was forfeited. Down 2-0, he was widely written off; it seemed doubtful he would return to play at all. But once again, the intolerable thought that he might go down in history as a coward brought Fischer back to the board, where he won Game Three and never looked back.

Fischer's antics were surely no mere tactic; he was to prove convincingly over time that he really was nuts. In 1982 he published a pamphlet with the incomparable title "I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!" Today he gives occasional, and invariably demented, radio interviews in Asia. Before the sun had set on September 11, 2001, in the Western hemisphere, he was on the Filipino airwaves crowing, "I applaud the act... F -- k the U.S. I want to see the U.S. wiped out."

But by Game Three, his opponent had been driven nearly mad himself by the tension Fischer had created. Spassky, one of the greatest postwar Soviet players, was never the same after Reykjavik. Fischer, for his part, refused to defend his title. For the history of chess, 1972 will forever be an unmistakable border between eras.

EDMONDS AND EIDONOW'S BOOK tells the story well, though one finds oneself a little nostalgic for Bobby Fischer vs. The Rest of the World, an uproarious (and out-of-print) first-hand account issued in 1975 by Brad Darrach. Darrach, sent to cover the championship by Life magazine, became an informal member of Fischer's team, penning tales of the challenger's absent-mindedness, misanthropy, and social ineptitude. His work of New Journalism remains the best extant psychological portrait of Fischer. What the new book supplies -- along with a more detached, scholarly attitude -- is our first detailed view of the struggles of Spassky, the squabbles within his own team, and the Soviet documentation on the match.

There is nothing, however, that dramatically alters the former consensus. Soviet participants (including Spassky) are sticking mostly to their old and self-serving stories, and there's no indication that the sports commissars ever knew anything beyond the obvious -- namely, that Fischer had unparalleled ability to throw an opponent off, and that Spassky's gentlemanly passivity would probably make it hard for him to overcome Fischer's genius.

One senses that this book was undertaken in the hope of a post-Cold War archival bounty of revisionism. It has ended up as a competent, somewhat perfunctory recounting of events, rendered in the same flat tones as most multi-author books. But it is also the most thorough tome yet on a fascinating, tragic subject.

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About the Author

Colby Cosh is a columnist for the National Post of Canada.