Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane
By Frank Brady
Not a manual on the final phase of the game, no, this is Frank Brady’s summation of the life of the eleventh world chess champion. It is Brady’s third such biographical study, following on from Profile of a Prodigy (1965) and Bobby Fischer (1974) and the only one, of course, to cover the full span of Fischer’s life, up until his death in 2008 and beyond. His corpse was exhumed on 5 July 2010 in a dispute over the two million or so dollars that made up his estate, DNA samples being collected to establish (though in the event they disproved) paternity.
Brady knows his subject as well as anyone, and his account is sympathetic but not uncritical. On perhaps the most controversial aspect of Fischer’s life away from chess – his anti-Semiticism – Brady takes pains to make the point that culturally Fischer was Jewish and a New Yorker to boot. Here is the Fischer family home in the 1950s:
The three Fischers, prototypes of Talmudic scholars, were always studying: Joan her textbooks; Regina her medical tomes; and Bobby the latest chess periodical.
In attempting to understand Fischer’s anti-Semiticism, Brady makes reference to David Mamet’s The Wicked Son, a book which presents a portrait of ‘the prototypical self-hating Jew’. Yet there is still a mystery here, and quite an uncomfortable one for admirers of Fischer’s chess.
Although Brady (quoting Fischer’s friend Anthony Saidy) settles on the view that his anti-Semiticism came after 1972 – once he’d to all intents and purposes abandoned top-flight competitive chess – there is at least one substantive differing account. J.H. Donner is clear that Fischer’s anti-Semiticism was present much earlier, at Bled 1961. See his article ‘For the Last Time: Fischer’, collected in The King: Chess Pieces (2006).
Anyway, there’s a nice account here (in chapter 15) of Fischer looking for an apartment in Reykjavik in his last years, complaining and kvetching all the while. (Brady writes that, ‘Before he made a move, everything had to be perfect.’ Just as with his chess.) Read in a certain light, it’s hilarious and you could very well imagine it as a Woody Allen sketch. Now what does that tell you?
This is a fine biography, certainly the best account of Fischer’s life that’s appeared thus far. Brady is an excellent writer and knows his stuff. However, it is unlikely to be the last word on the subject.
About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org