Chess?

My memories of cold, winter nights growing up are colored in a warm glow.  I can hear the wind howling outside but the warmth from the fire erases all fears of wild weather.  And I remember playing chess with my dad. 

I used to love playing chess with my dad.  I don’t remember if we actually played all that often, but they were fond times to me.  I don’t remember if we were any good.  Who am I kidding?  I’m sure we were terrible and I’m sure that the only reason my dad won was because I was an impatient 11 year old.  The phase was short lived.  We must have gotten bored, and when the days warmed and lengthened we probably found other activities to fill the time.  I did try to play the chess game on my dad’s computer for a while, but loss after loss quickly turned me away.  And thus ended my experiences with chess…

until I read this new book, Endgame, by Frank Brady.  It is a biography of Bobby Fischer and it was surprisingly engaging.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Starting off, I only had the vaguest idea of who Bobby was-I knew he was a chess legend, I knew he was eccentric, I knew he was an outlaw, and I knew that someone in some movie was searching for him.  It turns out that pretty accurately sums him up. 

But this book thrives on the details of Bobby’s life.  It moves from his humble childhood in Brooklyn to his self-banishment from America to his neurotic end in Iceland.  It is in these details that Bobby becomes a much more likeable, sympathetic, though often pitiable person. 

As a boy, Bobby was recognized as a chess prodigy very early on.   At 13 he played a game that became known as “The Game of the Century.”  He quickly gained status as a Master (the youngest ever to do so) and established himself as a chess legend.  Yet the title of “The World Chess Champion” was not easily won and far too easily relinquished.  Bobby became a singular figure in America and spurred great interest in chess.  He even bordered on an American hero during the Cold War as he fought the Russians across a black and white board.  His personality, though, often overshadowed his chess prowess.

He was extremely demanding, meaning he made extreme demands, and then went to extremes to get his way.  He would sever friendships over simple issues.  He also bounced between Skid Row resident to multi-millionaire.  At times he seemed cold, mean, and psychotic.  But this biography also reveals the deeper details of his paradoxical life, which paint him in a much gentler way.  Bobby did have friends, many who remained loyal his whole life.  He fell in love and married.  He could be generous.  He was reported to be quite loving and fatherly to a girl he just might have fathered.  Ultimately, unfortunately, there was no redemption for Bobby.  He declined to near madness, making outrageous racist claims, hateful, anti-American proclamations, and alienating many of his friends.  And that really is the tragedy of Bobby, that he was crazy.

All this is given to the reader against the backdrop of Bobby’s fascination, obsession, and domination of chess.  Do not fear, however, if you are ignorant of the game.  I know very little and that lack of knowledge did not hinder my enjoyment of the book.  There were many names that I wasn’t familiar with but the main players grew quickly familiar.  

The facts concerning the game, the play, and prize money, and how a chess match was described as a boxing bout are all surprising and thrilling.  I believe that something on every page captivated me.  Really, captivated me.  Though I would most likely never have picked up this book, I’m very glad I did.

The one place where this book falls short is in the epilogue.  When Bobby died he still had a couple million which inevitably became an object of desire and contention between those with ties to Bobby. Oh, and the IRS wants its cut of the pie, too.    But we aren’t given any resolution.  2008 was apparently the last news on the issue.  This lack of detail really really irritated me. 

Don’t let that deter your from this book.  Chess lovers and chess neophytes alike will enjoy this original biography.  Checkmate.

(Okay, that checkmate doesn’t really go with anything I just felt it appropriate to say it once in a chess review.)

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