18 January 2011

'We Have to Take Him as He Is'

A few weeks ago, when I started reading ENDGAME by Frank Brady (Crown Publishers), I posted on the subject and asked myself two questions (from Blitzing Fischer):

First, given the great mass of material that is already available, what can one say about Bobby Fischer that hasn't been said? Second, what can Frank Brady say about Bobby Fischer that he hasn't said in 'Profile of a Prodigy'?

I often end up doing things backwards and this time was no different. I answered the second question, 'what can Frank Brady say about Bobby Fischer that he hasn't said in 'Profile of a Prodigy'?', in The Brady Bunch, and now I'll tackle the first question, 'what can one say about Bobby Fischer that hasn't been said?' Brady starts to answer this himself in his Author's Note:

As Virginia Woolf observed in her one attempt at writing a life story, that of artist Roger Fry: 'A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many as one thousand.' Many lives, and then second and even third acts, constitute the drama of Bobby Fischer, but my attempt here was to delineate just one of Fischer’s kaleidoscopic personalities — that of a genius, an inwardly tortured warrior — and within that framework to capture his shifting identities and roles.

It will surprise no one that Fischer's main identity revolved around chess. Here I can easily identify over a dozen roles that Fischer played during his tumultuous career.

Fischer the chess player: the beginner -- the prodigy -- the U.S. champion -- the openings researcher -- the participant with endless demands -- the psychologist -- the World Championship candidate -- the World Champion -- the World Champion who refused to defend his title -- the World Champion who attempted a Rip Van Winkle comeback.

While Brady touches on all of the above, the first two and last two topics receive particular scrutiny. Since that list doesn't quite make a dozen, here are a few more topics related to Fischer's chess.

Fischer the chess author: Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess -- Boys Life -- My 60 Memorable GamesFischer the chess inventor: Fischer clock -- Fischer Random

I have a particular interest in Fischer Random chess, aka chess960, and posted about the subject in Brady on Fischer Random. While it's often remarked that Fischer died when he was 64 six years old, it's less often noticed that his life was divided into two halves, the first 32 years covering his chess years and the last 32 covering his anti-chess years.

During the first half of his life, Fischer had chess and chess had Fischer. His obsession made him World Champion, and becoming World Champion made him famous. During the second half of his life -- except for the second match with Spassky, nevertheless the source of serious future problems -- he shunned chess and became infamous. The same odd dichotomy of self-evident contrasts can be seen in other aspects of his life.

Fischer the fatherless; the boy with two fathers: Gerhard Fischer and Paul Nemenyi • Fischer the genius; the idiot savant: an IQ in the stratosphere • Fischer the half-Jew; the anti-Semite: and, as it now seems likely, the full-Jew • Fischer the fearless; the spritual searcher; the paranoid.

On that last point, Brady sketches a memorable image of young Fischer.

Bobby continued to twist the dial searching for other broadcasts and shows. Sometimes he'd settle for pop music, which if the volume was turned down low, still allowed him to concentrate on his board analysis. At other times, he'd hear late-night preachers, often of a fundamentalist bent, giving sermons and talks, usually about the meaning and interpretation of the Bible.

Intrigued, Bobby began listening more and more to religious radio programs, such as the revivalists Billy Graham's Hour of Decision, which featured sermons calling for listeners to give up their lives and be saved by Jesus Christ. Fischer also followed The Lutheran Hour and Music and the Spoken Word, a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that contained inspiring messages. (p.119)

An older Fischer is equally memorable, for completely different reasons.

He thought he needed protection from the U.S. government, which just might have him assassinated instead of extraditing him and bringing him home for a costly and unpopular trial. He was worried about Israel as well. because of his statements finding fault with Jews, he believed that either the Mossad or an inflamed pro-Israeli patriot might also try to kill him. And he'd always thought that the Soviets wanted him dead, because of the international embarrassment over the 1972 match, and his accusations of Russian cheating.

To protect himself, he bought a heavy coat made of horse leather that weighed more than thirty pounds; he hoped it would be thick enough to deflect a knife attack. It's also likely that he wore a bulletproof vest. (p.259)

There is much more material in the same vein.

Fischer the cold warrior: the hero of a nation; Fischer the stateless: the man without a country • Fischer the homeless; the penniless; the well-off: he was afraid of being exploited, died a millionaire, but left no will • Fischer the bachelor; the married; the father: or, as it now appears, not a father • Fischer the universally respected; the friendless.

That last point is the saddest dichotomy of them all. Fischer ultimately turned on everyone: his teacher Collins, his collaborator Evans, his negotiator Edmondson, his saviors the Icelanders.

By the fall of 2007, Bobby's disillusionment with Iceland was fixed. He called it a 'God-forsaken country' and referred to Icelanders as 'special but only in the negative sense'. If his Icelandic benefactors knew of his expressions of ingratitude ('I don't owe these people anything!' he spitefully proclaimed), they didn't discuss them publicly, a characteristic of many Scandinavians. Those who directly experienced his thanklessness were saddened but stoic. 'Well, that's Bobby', one Icelander observed. 'We have to take him as he is'. (p.313)

Good philosophy, that last remark; 'We have to take him as he is'. That's what we've always done and what we always will do. That's what Frank Brady has done in writing what is undoubtedly his last book on Fischer. Brady was fortunate to have known Fischer, and we are fortunate to have such a skilled observer and writer recounting the life of a most unusual chess player.

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