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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
Bobby Fischer Goes to War
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VINE VOICEon 9 February 2005
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.
For example,
"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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 July 2004
I'm a chess player. And just about every chess player finds themselves fascinated by the enigma that is Bobby Fischer. Possibly the strongest player ever (though many will put forth other players as possibly stronger), who almost single-handedly changed the rules (and the prize money) for tournament players everywhere, he is also the only man to ever forfeit the World Championship, the only one to earn almost universal disgust for his anti-Semite and anti-American diatribes.
This book details the events and characters that led up to the 1972 World Championship match in Reykjavik, Iceland. You don't have to be a chess player to read this (almost none of the actual game details are covered here - there are many other books that perform this task). The focus is on how a lone American challenged for and finally won the world title, a title that had been held by the Soviets since the end of World War II. The Cold War between these two countries forms the backdrop for this encounter, and incredible as it may sound, diplomats, lawyers, the KGB, high political figures in both countries, and multi-millionaires helped create and shape many of the events leading to the match - for a game that had, at the time, perhaps 10,000 serious adherents in the U.S.
The authors delve deeply into the characters of both Bobby and Boris Spassky, giving a large amount of biographical detail, some of which is either not widely known or newly revealed here, using as sources both FBI files and documents from the KGB and other Soviet agencies. Their assessments of the mental state of both participants will generally ring true, amply supported by documents, interview material, photos and assessments by other grandmasters, though at times I thought they may have gone a bit overboard with generalizations. Also well presented is the political and chess climate that swirled around the match itself and the InterZonal and Candidates Matches leading to it. Much of this information was originally published somewhat piecemeal by both the regular and chess press, and often left many areas of confusion and blank spots in what was really happening. Here it is well organized, rich in detail, and brought back to me the feeling of just what it was like back in '72.
The fate of the participants after the match is also covered, including the 1992 re-match between Bobby and Boris, though not nearly in the level of detail of the main event. The picture painted of both players is somewhat saddening, one for his descent into near-psychosis, the other for his fall from grace in the USSR and his personal troubles.
For anyone who has a passing interest in chess, or who likes to read about classic clashes between the lone hero and the staid and possibly nefarious establishment, this is an excellent book. For Americans, it will engender feelings of pride, shame, and total embarrassment at some of the inexcusably rude actions and statements by those on that side. For Russians, perhaps sadness at opportunities missed, and anger at their own bungling. For everyone, a rich historical adventure, with more twists than a James Bond movie.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
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on 3 November 2004
The opening chapters are some of the most fascinating in this book, concerning Fischer's childhood and his obsession with chess and prodigious ability. The story of Fischer's life - which is at least outlined here, though the bulk of the book is focussed on the years around the 1972 world championship match - would make Fischer seem perhaps a little hyperbolic if he were a character in a novel, making the novel slightly unrealistic, but in this case the truth is more fascinating than fiction. It is hard to believe how difficult Fischer was during the match with Spassky in 1972, and I believe that nowadays he would have been accused of blatant gamesmanship in the psychological effect his actions would have had on his opponent. In fact, when reading this book the reader actually takes the stance of feeling sorry for the Russians as though they are the underdogs, despite them having been the titans of chess for decades, (and decades to come after Fischer), so in that respect at least Fischer's extreme fussiness and fickleness got him a fair match, or maybe even an unfair one in his favour. Fischer's future opponent Spassky's childhood is narrated after Fischer's and then chapters concerning the Soviet chess establishment and the big names such as Petrosian, Tal, Botvinnik and Spassky cover the next fifty or so pages. These were the parts that I felt were the least interesting or the least compelling to read, but others with more knowledge of Russian history might enjoy these chapters a lot. The narrative then shifts to the early 70s where Fischer qualifies as challenger for the world title in his famous bulldozing of the top Soviet chess players. It seems that everyone was certain Fischer was the strongest player in the world even when Spassky was champion, and the main challenge was to just get him to play and prove his superiority to the rest of the world in this game.
This book kept me happy reading in any spare hours for about a week and is a fascinating piece of chess history, and is largely a psychological profile of Fischer. I would find it unlikely for someone interested in grandmaster chess and the grandmasters of the past to not find this book compulsive reading. There are some unanswered questions about Fischer such as rumour that he studied a single move for thirty years to decide whether h2-h4 was a good move or not on a particular position from a 1960s chess game. It is hard not to be awed with some of these details and they may illuminate the person that managed to get such a great edge over the other best grandmasters of the time.
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HALL OF FAMEon 11 July 2008
'Bobby Fischer Goes to War' is an in-depth account of the fischer-spassky matches in Reykjavik in 1972. It starts by briefly looking at each players history and development, before looking at how the match was set up and negotiated and then how it was played. It also looks at events that have come to light since the matches took place and in light of released CIA and KGB documents. It was a touch dry in places, but not excessively so and the rest of the book was so engaging that you quickly get back into the flow and are gripped by the events that unfold. There are various photographs reproduced throughout to illustrate the various points made and characters. There is also an appendix looking at FBI investigations into Fischers mother. Overall this seems to be well researched and written and you don't need to know about chess to enjoy this book. It is a snap shot of a particular place in time, when cold war sensibilities were high and national pride was at stake. A good read, about a landmark match and intriguing protagonists. Well worth a read.

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on 1 February 2004
Bobby Fischer Goes To War is, as the British Grandmaster Nigel Short has put it, an outstanding piece of investigative journalism. Rather than focus on the chess, it examines the colorful human drama away from the board. In the past it has traditionally been presented as a Cold War battle - the individualistic American genius versus the product of the Soviet machine. In fact, as the authors show, with fascinating new documentary evidence, it was far more nuanced than that. Indeed, both the volatile and eccentric American and the free-spirited Russian were considerable irritants to their respective nations. You don't need to know anything about the game to enjoy this gripping account of this most notorious of all chess matches.
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on 19 January 2004
This is quite an unusual book about chess - it concentrates on the human story, and not the games played. Although Fischer is the title character of the book, there is far more coverage of Spassky than I have seen before; portraying him as something of a victim of both Fischer and of the soviet chess machine.
The closing chapters are interesting in that they expose a number of investigations that went on during the match by the Russian authorities to discover how the US team was "getting at" Spassky - they were almost certain that he was being drugged in some way.
Like I said - it's an interesting book, but ultimately rather slow and tedious for long sections.
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VINE VOICEon 26 October 2004
This book covers the infamous Fischer v Spassky match played at the height of the Cold War. Told from a perspective of thirty years, it's clear that the behaviour of Fischer could only be acceptable within the context of the Cold War. His demands and general behaviour were so intolerable that under any other circumstances the match would probably not have taken place. Yet at the time it was a deadly serious encounter at the Soviet nation's favourite pastime!
You don't need to know anything about chess to read this book, it's more about the events surrounding the match than the individual games within it.
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on 26 January 2016
Fantastic book about the world of chess before the match of the century. What I liked most about the book was that good background is provided regarding Fischer's opponents, it's a common fallacy of many biographies to focus only on the person himself and not to put him in the historical context. Detailed description of soviet chess system and players adds a greater sense of Fischers achievement, hence I disagree with readers who think that too much attention is paid to the Russians.
In my opinion it also presents Bobby as a realistic complex persona with moral struggles and at times condemnable behaviour and not a flawless chess prodigy as some might think. The book does not deal with chess games in depth (no diagrams) and only mentions the important moments so it's up to the reader to look up those games in detail.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in history of chess and particularly Bobby Fischer, I certainly greatly enjoyed reading it.
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on 20 August 2014
This is a well researched and written book that probably concentrates a bit too much on the other things going on during the 1972 world championship match and not a lot on the chess, don't expect pages of moves or pictures of various positions. It does go into some detail on the two sides and the unfortunate Icelanders and it will reveal aspects of both Fischer's and Spassky's personalities that are quite revealing.

Overall worth a read as the book has a good tempo and the subject matter is interesting, my criticisms are that there's not enough chess in it and maybe a bit too much detail about extraneous personalitities particularly on the Soviet side.
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on 16 November 2011
This is the story of the epic 1972 World Chess Championship between Bobby Fischer ( the chess genius and challenger ) and Boris Spassky ( the Champion ). The authors began with a short description of both players' childhoods, explored their respective paths to Iceland and then focus on the build-up to the match including the incessant demands of Fischer. Fischer emerged as the champion but Spassky emerged the gentleman. The writing is breezy and it is obvious the authors have done a lot of research. If you are interested in an analysis of the games this book is not for you.This book focus on the drama of the match.
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