two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
11-July-Aug-2004
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How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time

A-BobbyFischerGoesWarIn July 1972, two men met their match in Reykjavik, Iceland. The 29-year-old Bobby Fischer, spurred by Henry Kissinger and bribed by an English millionaire, challenged Soviet world champ Boris Spassky to a game that became "the most notorious chess duel in history." The authors recreate the events, controversy, and psychological warfare waged by both sides, placing the masters’ careers and personalities in the context of an American presidential crisis and superpower politics. As egos and nations collided, the rebellious Fischer did everything he could to control the match—as its organizers desperately tried to save it.
Ecco. 342 pages. $24.95.

SD Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In short, Edmonds and Eidinow have plenty of material but no real vision. … Bobby Fischer Goes to War is a book well-suited to general readers, although anyone contemplating a career in chess should also read it." Scott Leibs

SF Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This intellectual thriller documents a unique collision of people, politics and culture with wit and an appropriate sense of proportion about the real meaning of games in our nuclear world." Jesse Berrett

Houston Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"An understanding of chess is not required to enjoy this book; the matches are secondary to the personalities and politics that dominated this competition. … The authors do a good job with the atmosphere surrounding the competition, providing a history lesson of a world teetering on the brink." John W. Royal

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Reading a book about a chess match that discusses the games at length without providing the actual sequence of moves is like attending a banquet where the most delicious recipes are discussed yet not a bite of food is served." Gabriel Schoenfeld

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"This is the definitive history of Fischer vs. Spassky. … At the heart of their tale, the authors stress not the games but the antics that marginalized them, and they couch Fischer’s behavior in terms of psy-ops, not psychosis." Andrew Meier

Newsday 2 of 5 Stars
"The emphasis on the context and subtext of the match works to the book’s detriment. … [W]e are left with a too comprehensive account of an individual temper tantrum and a collective bout of paranoia recollected in tranquillity." Wesley Yang

Wall Street Journal 1 of 5 Stars
"The truth is that Mr. Fischer, when not playing or talking about chess, is uninteresting; he’s a run-of-the-mill paranoid conspiracy theorist. … The authors’ obsession with finding more political significance than the match warrants drains their account of drama and prevents them from landing a knockout punch." Roger Lowenstein

Critical Summary

When Fischer, a product of the post-World War II economic boom, met Spassky, not yet a modern Soviet man, the whole world watched. To the authors of Wittgenstein’s Poker, the match epitomized thawing Cold War relations and détente. Never mind that neither master fit his nation’s stereotype, nor do we ever see a move-by-move replay of the game. Mining declassified Soviet and FBI files, the authors paint vivid portraits of the volatile American genius and his calmer Soviet counterpart. But overall, they substitute details for analysis; Fischer might have been mad, but how did his beliefs shape his game? And how, exactly, did individual behavior shape government policy? The book, while informative, lacks singular vision and energy. Better to read a chess primer and learn the game yourself.

Supplemental Reading

A-WittgensteinsPoker.epsWittgenstein’s Poker The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers | David Edmonds and John Eidinow (2001): Did Wittgenstein actually start waving a fire poker toward Karl Popper at their first and only encounter at Cambridge in 1946? Biography, history, and philosophy combine in this book that uses their 10-minute tussle as a jumping-off point.

A-SearchingBobbyFischer.epsSearching for Bobby Fischer The Father of a Prodigy Observes the World of Chess | Fred Waitzkin (1988): This basis for the movie is (no surprise) as good or better in written form.