Customer Reviews: Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How A Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine (P.S.)
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For a brief time in 1972, chess was the only game in the world. Bobby Fischer came face to face with Boris Spassky in Iceland, and the world took delight in a simple morality play. Fischer was depicted as the lone American hero gunning to win the title from the Soviets who had held it for decades. The Cold War was reduced to the free world's champion versus the apparatchiks spawned by the Soviet socialist chess machine. It was fun to watch the battle in such black and white terms, but in _Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time_ (Ecco), David Edmonds and John Eidinow show that the true story was much more complicated although just as exciting. For instance, Spassky may have been a Russian patriot, but he was not a Soviet patriot and he was not a member of the Communist Party. Fischer was eccentric and asocial, and his bratty behavior seemed un-American to many of his fellow Americans. But both their governments had a stake in the match, and people all over the world who knew nothing about chess watched the contest carefully, and many took up the game. It was quite truly the most extraordinary chess match of all time, just as the book's subtitle says, and the book makes clear in how many ways it was extraordinary.
Spassky loved the game for itself, and, as a well-rounded gentleman who liked fishing and festive parties with his friends, seemed sincerely to be looking forward to what he called "a feast of chess," win or lose. He admired Fischer, but the book shows that beyond a colossal talent for chess, Fischer possessed few admirable qualities. He was a morose man who one journalist said "was likely to greet even an old friend as if he were expecting a subpoena". His frequent tantrums (which earned him much derision from his compatriots) did, at least, stop when he sat down to play, and he never attempted to disturb an opponent across the table. He was called by Dr. Henry Kissinger when he did not show up for the match, assured that he was "our man up against the commies." Having lost the first game, he didn't even show up for the second, and thus lost it as well. But then he crushed Spassky in the third, and went on to a match full of hard-fought draws and wins, many of which are regarded as among the finest games ever played. President Nixon sent congratulations. Spassky eventually went into contented retirement in France, continuing to regard the Soviet chess administration with disdain. Fischer never defended his title, although he has played some exposition games. He went on to join a fundamentalist Christian church, then to denounce it as satanic. He may have been the American hope during the match, but he is now deeply anti-American, spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (ironic, given his parentage on both sides, revealed here) to any radio station that will allow him voice.
The authors have interviewed all the important officials involved who are still alive, especially Spassky; they didn't interview Fischer, and don't say why, but that was probably just not possible. _Bobby Fischer Goes to War_ is not a book for those who want to study the chess games. It has exactly one board diagram, and the games are described generally, not play by play. Chess players interested in this aspect of the match already have bought better books on the games themselves. This is a book about personalities, about the history of the times, and about the off-board gambits and counter-gambits, and you certainly don't have to know any details about chess to enjoy it. There is, to be sure, a great deal to enjoy here, in the re-creation of the match and the geopolitics of the time that lent it importance.
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If Bobby Fischer's name is affiliated with a book, it comes to reason that there is some amount of weirdness forthcoming. I am not referring to the chess books Fischer wrote, as those are guidelines to chess perfection. This refers to any discussion of his life, which this book does. The world's greatest chess player, Fischer, has lived his personal life much less logically than his life is an eight by eight square cell.

To help the nonchess reader sort out the menagerie, authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow provide a "Dramatis Personae," listing 21 Americans, 24 Soviets, six Icelanders, four match officials, and six sundry others, explaining their relationship to the Reykjavik, Iceland chess match. They also include a short glossary to educate us in the vocabulary of competitive chess.

The book begins with a vital quote by Boris Spassky, "When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive. This sets the tone for all that follows.

Edmonds and Eidinow lay out the social mire Fischer was growing up in, and his quick rise to chess dominance.

In 1954, when Fischer was 11, he was attending matches and doing well enough but not at his later prodigy level. In that year, as he is quoted, he "just got good." Modern chess history, or at least for one its most colorful characters, begins then.

1972: Boris Spassky was the champ. He deserved to be there. Bobby Fischer was the contender. He deserved to have the opportunity. Between these two men stood a world of complex politics, money, national pride, idiosyncrasies, and suitors to the game. Reykjavik, Iceland was the location of what has become one of the most legendary chess matches ever, between Spassky and Fischer.

Early on during Fischer's career, he had the same impact Michael Jordan would later enjoy later enjoy as professional basketball player. "Fischer-fear" was the description of some players' psychosomatic illnesses from Fischer's intimidation. Opponents would make mistakes as a result. Fischer had the bravado of Muhammad Ali, but none of his class. He would take this personality and boorish demands to the match.

Boris Spassky is painted differently. A product of the Soviet support system, he became professional about the game. Affable and popular, an opposite to in every way to Fischer, he still had what Fischer lacked -- the title "World Champion."

The bulk of the book moves on from biography and personality profiles. It follows the path the chess culture -- all chaotic in its apparent systemic approach. Going from the need to compete to the actual match turned through every convoluted corner, with Kissinger's involvement, the FBI, the KGB, and as much intrigue as a James Bond movie.

The travails of the match are outlined as needed (but not heavily), highlighting the most interesting parts and never boring nonchess players. The psychology of the players and chess players in general is discussed, as is the history of modern champions, providing a field for tension and a framework for the match.

This was in the midst of the Cold War, and the Soviets -- not just Spassky, owned the chess champ title. Nixon was president. Fischer, the bombastic, arrogant American who hated Russia, had a knack for successfully risking it all on the board by knowing the principles of chess as a sublime art form. Spassky, the methodical Russian, against Fischer, became a symbol of the Cold war itself. The image of the match was only half of the matter. Neither man was the caricature the press saw them as, but such are the stories of legend.

I fully recommend "Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time," by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Oh, and if you somehow missed the big news back in 1972, Fischer won the match.

Anthony Trendl
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VINE VOICEon July 21, 2004
I am not what you would call a chess enthusiast. Although I can play the game, I do not do so often. What I do enjoy, however, are good tales about the Cold War. It was on that basis that I purchased this book. It is also on that basis that the book succeeds very, very well.

There are three themes that I thought were well illuminated by this book. First was Bobby Fischer's behavior. Of course I had heard that he was eccentric and difficult, but never did I imagine just how bizarre he really could be. His unbelievable micromanagement of every aspect of a tournament, his antisocial behavior, his forfeiting of a game in the world championship, all these are brought to life in a way that provides the reader a real taste for the character of the man that was wonderful, if frustrating, to read.

Second, the book did an excellent job of detailing exactly how beneficial Fischer, and the Fischer/Spassky match, was to chess overall. Bizarre behavior or not, Fischer took chess from a poor man's game to one in which top players could demand top dollar. This was far more interesting than most people would probably imagine and more interesting than I can convey with a simple review.

Third, and most fascinating, was the description of the Cold War chess match that was being played by the US and USSR on the world stage over the Fischer/Spassky match itself. Think about it - the Soviets not only dominated chess but explicitly stated that their chess superiority was evidence of the superiority of their socialist system. Then, not only are the Soviets knocked off their perch, they are utterly demolished. Even worse (from the Soviet perspective), the person doing the demolishing is not only an American, but one who is extremely arrogant, openly states that he will crush anyone the Soviets put up against him, and whose behavior is so odd and obnoxious that he would have been thrown in the Gulag if the nationalities were reversed. You could almost feel the Soviets squirm!

I must admit that I did feel bad for poor Boris Spassky, a good man representing a bad system which used him for propaganda purposes. Alas, such is history, and this book serves a very delicious slice of it.
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VINE VOICEon February 5, 2008
I was pretty excited about buying this book, because who wouldn't want a book about how one man stood up to a Superpower at the height of the Cold War and won?

But then, when you get into it, the book becomes more of a breakdown of the Fischer/Spassky match, only one written for non-chess players. Apparently most all of the story comes from interviews and the recollections and memos of the participants

The problem with that is that they couldn't get an interview with Fischer, and the book shows it. In terms of pages, "Bobby Fischer Goes to War" is 40% about Spassky, 20% about chess, 30% about the reporters or other GMs at the match or whatever, and maybe 10% about Bobby Fischer. Which would be fine if it wasn't put out there as a book about Bobby Fischer, but it was and its not that at all

Written by 2 co-authors and apparently not edited at all, the book meanders from place to place and anecdote to anecdote, and the last 100 pages are intolerably slow. They cover the post-mortem of the match; what went wrong and where the participants ended up. The main problem with that, again, is maybe 10 of those 100 pages are about Fischer. I mean, its really great to know that some Soviet minister of whatever retired and had a good life, but to my mind the book is crippled by long detours into side characters' lives, and I think the authors only indulged in those detours because they had next to no information about Bobby, so they had to talk about something to run up the page count

The first half of the book is interesting and relatively fast-paced, and actually does illuminate the Spassky/Fischer match, even if it doesn't offer any actual insights into Bobby Fischer, beyond what some people who met him once or twice think of him. The second half is just a re-hash of things already stated, and a "where are they now?" type piece on each of the officials of the various organizations who put the match together

So to sum up: this book is basically just a story about that historic match up, and its more told from Spassky's side than anyone else's. If that's what you want, great. Here it is. If you wanted a book about Bobby Fischer, about any part of his life other than those few months in Iceland, you won't find it here. If you wanted his insight into the matches, or analysis of the matches, that's not here either

Also, you should be warned that the story is told about 75% from the Soviet side of things, so there are alot of Russian names and governmental titles. That might bother some readers; I found it difficult after awhile to differentiate between the various Russian officials, especially since some are referred to by nicknames at one point, then by their given names, then by title, etc.

Hope that helps you make an informed decision on whether or not to buy the book
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on August 30, 2006
I was pleasantly surprised at this very urbane, almost panoramic, and far-sighted treatment of the clash of the two Titans of chess.

The authors not only captured the essential elements of the decisive games that led to Fischer's stunning victory, but more importantly, they also did a masterful job of situating the meaning of the match in the political context of the times. Their parallel overlaying of the times with the events going on in Iceland, left us with an enduring picture of the tension of those troubled times, demonstrating how a single chess match managed to relieve much of it, if only for a brief spell.

In the hands of these very skilled writers, a chess match became more than just a report on the World Championship, it became a metaphor of the Cold War: The clash in Iceland was as much a battle of ideas, political systems and ideologies as it was a parlor game waged with great skill, tension, and tenacity across a wooden board of 64 squares.

Edmonds and Eidinow brought it all alive in grand, almost epic fashion -- from the humble beginnings of the players, and the idyllic surroundings in Reykjavik, to a resounding crescendo of fireworks at the last game of the grand finale in Iceland. Through this book, we are not just eye witnesses to history in the making, we are made to feel that we are a vicarious part of it!

For chess lovers everywhere, this is the book to read if you want to know about the game, the particpants, the politics, the ideosyncracies and emotional ups-and-downs of the participants, as well as the events in the background in Reykjavik. A great read FIVE STARS!
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"Bobby Fischer Goes to War" succinctly recounts the events leading up to and surrounding the famous 1972 chess match that (briefly) wrested the world championship away from the Soviets. The story was compelling then as a surrogate battle of the Cold War. Now, however, it fascinates because of the incredible and tragic story of the American champion who was made famous by and ultimately consumed by the game of chess.
The authors do a great job of telling the story, giving just enough history of the game of chess and biography of the participants to set the stage. A particularly surprising revelation is what a sympathetic character Soviet champion Boris Spassky actualy was. A poltical maveric (at least by contemporary standards) Spassky comes off as a decent guy, especially when compared to the notoriously unstable and anti-Semitic Fisher.
The book climaxes with aa compelling description of the match itself, which would have been memorable even without the geopolitical implications. The authors wind down by revealing what became of the principle players in the drama, including the sad and notoriouslt paranoid state into which Fisher has descended.
Overall, this is a fascinating book that will delight the chess enthusiest as well as anyone else who likes a great story.
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on January 14, 2016
I'm rounding up a bit.

I knew a certain amount about Bobby Fischer before reading this book, but little about Boris Spassky, the World Champion Fischer defeated. As the subtitle suggests, this book is particularly informative on the subject of the Soviet chess program of that era, and how that program did and didn't cope with the personalities of both players. It also chronicles a number of Fischer's demands, escapades, and eccentricities. I would have liked the authors to address more directly (as the title promises) the question of to what extent Fischer was intentionally waging psychological warfare -- which, in effect, he did quite successfully.

There are a few odd discontinuities, contradictions of sorts between earlier and later chapters, as well as redundancies, both of which may be the result of some problems with the authors' collaborative process.
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on December 23, 2014
The 1972 World Chess Championship probably attracted more widespread attention than any other chess championship before or since. Taking place during the Cold War, the match featured a duel between reigning champion Boris Spassky, from the Soviet Union, and challenger Bobby Fischer, from the United States.

The book is an excellently detailed description of the match and the events that led up to it. The first few chapters of the book form a biographical background of the two opponents. Bobby Fischer grew up in the United States, mainly in New York City, and was a chess prodigy from a young age including winning many titles while still a teenager. Boris Spassky grew up in the Soviet Union. In the post-war world, the Soviet government saw chess as an important playing field to prove the superiority of communism over capitalism. Spassky, like many other Soviet chess players, would receive government support to enhance their chess skills.

For the quarter of a century before 1972, the World Chess Championship was dominated by the Soviet Union often featuring a match only between players from the Soviet Union. Because of this, and the fact that chess was not very popular in the United States, these championship matches attracted little interest in the West. This changed as Fischer fought through the tournaments and won the right to challenge Spassky to the title of World Chess Champion.

Fischer had a reputation for bizarre and stubborn behavior and his approach to the championship match was no exception. While Spassky wanted to compete out of the love of chess, Fischer had numerous demands. The book goes into detail about the peculiarities that went into the planning. Some doubted that the match would even be held at all. It seemed that Fischer was most interested in the large prize money, but wanted more. Eventually, a multimillionaire British businessman and chess fan donated a large sum to increase the prize to help entice Fischer to play. Fischer ended up showing up, in Reykjavik, Iceland for the match, late. Many breathed a sigh of relief when he finally showed up.

But the drama would not end there. Fischer demanded that everything be set up according to how he saw fit. This went everywhere from the size of the squares on the chessboard, the type of chair he sat in, and the type of lighting to be used. Many people were frustrated over these numerous objections from Fischer, but for the most part they acquiesced. Game one went by with Fischer blundering causing him to lose. He ended up forfeiting the second game over objections that the match was being televised and claimed that the sound of the cameras disrupted his concentration. More frustration followed.

Eventually the match continued with some more exciting games and some mundane ones until Fischer had won after the twenty-first game following Spassky's resignation.

Following the championship, Spassky returned to the Soviet Union and continued to play chess, but eventually remarried and moved to France. Fischer became a recluse after the celebrations following his triumphant return to the United States. He stopped playing chess professionally and refused to defend his title in 1975 against challenger Anatoly Karpov. The organizers had apparently run out of patience in dealing with Fischer's antics.

The last chapter of this saga would come in 1992 when Fischer and Spassky agreed to a rematch in Yugoslavia. It was the last time Fischer publicly played chess. He became a refugee after the U.S. government issued an arrest warrant for him because the chess match, with the large monetary prize, violated sanctions on Yugoslavia at the time.

This is an excellent book detailing the behind-the-scenes actions of the 1972 World Chess Championship. One of the most impressive aspects was the Soviet side of the drama which features many people both working closely with Spassky and others in the Soviet government. This is not a traditional piece of chess literature and there is not much description about the games themselves. I would recommend this book to those interested in chess history.
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on March 22, 2015
Having known of this story for years yet it wasn't until catching a Fischer documentary on HBO did the urge to find out more detail occur. This is a fascinating and beautifully written story of the inside machinations of the chess "match of the century." Spassky comes off as the true gentleman and good sport even though he lost his crown in Iceland. Even more amazing is the Fischer side- the ultimatums and tantrums of a madman on the edge. While Bobby takes the crown, this is a be careful what you ask for as his descent into madness quickly follows. Great story which peels back the onion of the Cold War era relations between the United States and USSR.
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on May 2, 2015
I was just 13 when Spassky and Fischer played their match and it was, for many reasons, a magical summer. Part of the reason was playing chess. I had always enjoyed the game, but, this match brought so many players out. And, watching Shelby Lyman, then a relatively young man in his 30s, discuss and play out the moves on this very low budget PBS set was part of the magic too. Fischer was, of course, our man, but we all knew about his fiery and often unlovable personality and the trouble he caused both on and off the set. But, he was at that time the greatest player in the world and there was a feeling that if he gave Spassky a huge handicap, he'd still win. It was also the Cold War era, which is why the match was played out in Iceland, and that played a role too. I can't say that there was any great revelation in the book or call it absolutely riveting, and admittedly, part of my high score is no doubt due to my memories of this special event. But, they did an excellent job in researching and writing, which is what it is all about. And, they did not overwhelm it with chess details that would have made it tedious. It's a great gift for anyone you know in the right age group (maybe very late 40s and older), who has an interest in chess.
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