This gripping book tells of a psychological war fought in different arenas and on different levels.
The opening chapters describe the childhoods and crucibles that forged the World Champion Chess careers of Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Brought up solely by his Mother in Brooklyn, Fischer's main struggle in these early years was with the rest of world, desperately trying to exclude everything but his growing mania for the 64 squares. His world collapses inwards, and this warped battlefield is the territory where Bobby would fight all his wars.
Spassky grows up in a land ravaged by Stalinism, characterised by poverty and paranoia. His struggles are more determined by survival than Bobby's comparatively cushioned life. Spassky develops a strong patriotic love for his country, but not it's ruling political ideology, with which he is always at odds. He is a Russian, not a Soviet, never endorsing the party line as his superiors would wish, and at times making comments that would land a less privileged individual in jail or hospital.
The book is fascinating in its insights into the importance of Chess to the Soviet mind, how it becomes politicised into a proof that the superiority of the Russian players means a validation of the superiority of the Soviet worldview.
The insights given into the Chess cultures of both America and Russia are also a fascinating way of exploring the hold Chess has on the imaginations of many, and how these are worked out.
Fischer's incredible hat-trick defeat of Russian Champions makes for a compelling read. The prose gives the openings and moves of the game urgency like the swinging of punches, and the effect of defeat on these Champions varies, but one man is utterly ruined, personally and politically, for the rest of his life, his Soviet masters becoming ruthless.
The action then moves to Reykjavik, intertwined with an account of the preparations of both the Fischer and Spassky camp for their World Championship face-off, and the politicking behind the scenes. Fischer's demands for the game become increasingly strident, unreasonable and risible, demanding for example whole rows of audience seating removed, absolutely no television cameras, and sole use of the swimming pool, and his demands on remuneration become so out of proportion a millionaire eventually steps in to save the match. Why, then, do the authorities cave in at nearly every turn? The book offers a fascinating view based on 'game theory' typified by the driving game 'chicken' and in the 'other man blinked' mindset, that is when one convinces that one is determined to do anything to achieve an aim, no matter how destructive, the other party feels they have no choice but to submit. For Fischer, he seemed determined at times to wreck not only this Championship but also his own career.
The games of this championship are again grippingly told (the book avoids any considerable chess notation, paraphrasing instead for dramatic effect, which in this case works admirably.
"Fischer was able to create and then remorselessly exploit vulnerable spots in Spassky's barricade, prising his defences apart before battering him with the Rooks and Queen..."
Doesn't that make you want to play?
Spassky is eventually smashed, his morale in pieces, his will to win, apart from a few dramatic sorties and defences, seemingly drained. Opponents describe this as some kind of malevolent influence only Fischer brings to the game, a kind of psychic vampire.
The final chapters of the book explore the match in the wider context of the Cold War, in which terms it is often described. The writers describe this as something of a misapprehension, as this was the age of detente and numerous treaties aimed at US/USSR co-operation, but still seeing the match as a clash of world views is unavoidable, especially given Fischers fear and distrust of the Soviet camp (he certainly saw his victory as a vindication of the American way and a humiliation for the Soviet one) and the importance to the match to various Soviet engines of State.
The book ends with an account of Fischer's decline to a recluse with increasingly bizarre and obscene views, with a shrill strand of anti-Semitism and hatred this time for his own country. He openly celebrates the destruction of the World Trade Centre on Philippine Radio.
Spassky on the other hand recovers his mental health and continues with his Chess career, accounts of last interviews showing him to be as sanguine and urbane as ever.
If the book has a fault it's that its accessibility can lead to a lack of focus (the final chapters seem a bit meandering). But, taken in sum, if you're not fascinated by Chess when picking this up, odds are you will be at its close. An accessible, wide ranging, fast moving account of one of the strangest and most compelling sporting events ever.