Saturday 18 June 2011

Book Review: ENDGAME by Frank Brady

ENDGAME: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise And Fall
By Frank Brady
Published by Constable (UK, 2011)

Frank Brady is perhaps uniquely placed to write with skill and authority about the enigmatic and controversial 11th World Chess Champion, Bobby Fischer. Brady had a close personal connection to Fischer, having first met the future world champion when he was a teen and Bobby still a child.

Nine years his senior, Brady remained good friends with Fischer for many years until he, like many others, fell out of favour with the temperamental chess genius.

Brady was the founding editor of Chess Life magazine, is a qualified International Arbiter, and is the current president of the Marshall Chess Club. He is a also professor of journalism at St. John’s University in New York and has authored many biographies, including an earlier biography of Fischer, Profile of a Prodigy (1969).

Brady’s research skills and personal knowledge of his subject are valuable assets, and he states his objective clearly at the outset, explicitly setting out to answer the question, “What was Bobby Fischer really like?”.

Ultimately Brady largely succeeds in answering this question, but in doing so merely raises the real question of why Fischer was like he was. It is the “why?” question that looms large throughout the book, and is mostly left for the reader to consider. Brady usually confines himself to facts and anecdotes (which are fascinating in themselves), only occasionally speculating on Fischer’s motivations. For the most part Brady abstains from voicing his personal opinions.

It’s not just Brady’s opinions that are absent, but Brady himself. This is a deliberate approach from the author who writes in the introduction, “(this) book is not in any way my memoir, and I’ve tried to remain invisible as much as possible.” One cannot help but wonder more about Brady’s relationship with Fischer, and whether his decision to absent himself from the narrative might have devalued the early chapters of the book.

Frank Brady (photo by Andrew Schwartz)

Despite this, the portrait Brady paints of Fischer is detailed, personal and compelling. Fischer’s unsettled childhood set a pattern that would find echoes in the itinerant lifestyle of his later years. However, Brady disagrees with other writers who have suggested that Regina Fischer neglected her son, arguing that despite her frequent absences she loved him deeply, and cared for him thoughtfully; mother and son remained in regular contact throughout her life.

Concerned at the young Bobby’s preoccupation with chess, Regina tried unsuccessfully to broaden his interests. But Bobby’s obsession with chess grew with his obvious talent, especially after he was admitted to the Manhattan Chess Club.

With her conspicuous left-wing sympathies, Regina was under investigation by the FBI during the infamous McCarthy era, and Brady reveals how Regina trained Bobby to repeat the phrase “I have nothing to say to you” in the event that government investigators approached him. Bobby never faced questioning, but it’s not hard to imagine the effect of such instruction on his young mind.

Regina Fischer (photo, Wikipedia) "my mother is a professional protestor" said Bobby's sister Joan

Brady’s earlier biography Profile of a Prodigy drew some criticism for glossing over Fischer’s anti-Semitic remarks, but this side of Fischer came to dominate his worldview in later years, and this time Endgame does not flinch from examining this deeply disturbing aspect of his character.

Yet Fischer tended to apply his anti-Semitic views only at an impersonal level of global world conspiracies, not to his personal day-to-day relationships. He was capable of very cordial relationships with Jewish friends. He stayed with the Polgar family in Hungary for an extended period in 1993, and often visited Andor Lilienthal and his wife around the same time.

When Lilienthal countered Bobby’s hateful opinions by explaining that he was a Jew, Bobby replied “You are a good man, a good person, so you are not a Jew”. Bobby seemed to use the racial epithet as an all-purpose term of abuse for anyone who upset him, not as a literal description.

Susan Polgar playing Fischer Random Chess (Chess960) against Bobby Fischer

The 1972 match against Boris Spassky is duly allotted a whole chapter, but so much has been said about the occasion that Brady has little new to add to the chorus. A reader more interested in that famous match might be better served by reading “Bobby Fischer Goes To War” (Edmonds & Eidinow, 2004), where it is examined in almost forensic detail.

After becoming the world chess champion Fischer slipped from public view, and Brady reports how Fischer became a voracious reader, especially of philosophical and religious works. Having missed out to a large extent on a conventional education as a child, Bobby yearned to know more about the world. However, his confused religious beliefs and often dubious choice of reading material ultimately only served to accentuate his extreme views.

Following the lucrative return match with Spassky in war-torn Yugoslavia in defiance of international sanctions, the US government issued a warrant for Fischer’s arrest. Fischer nevertheless travelled unmolested around the world for many years thereafter, especially between Japan and the Philippines. Only when he crudely celebrated the 9/11 attacks on America in a radio interview was the US government spurred into real action against him, revoking his US passport.

Fischer's wife Miyoko Watai and his 1972 bodyguard Saemi Palsson with Fischer's Icelandic passport

Brady travelled to Iceland to conduct research about the last few years of Fischer’s life, spent trapped as a wanted fugitive in the only country that would accept him. To the end, Fischer was suspicious and fearful, refusing the medical treatment that would have extended his life beyond the mathematically apt 64-year time span that he attained.

I came away from this biography feeling sorry for Fischer, and deeply moved by his story in spite of the repugnant opinions he held and the appalling manner in which he treated many of those who offered him friendship. He wasted much of the latter half of his life, becoming a pitiful figure far removed from the young Brooklyn boy he once was, full of hope and ambition.

Fischer clearly had delusions of persecution, perhaps to the point of outright paranoia. Although it should be noted that Brady quotes the qualified psychiatrist Dr Magnus Skulasson, who spent time with the mortally ill Fischer, as saying “he definitely was not schizophrenic”.

Bobby Fischer in 2005 © Rax: Ragnar Axelsson

The biography assumes no knowledge of chess from the reader, yet is full of fascinating tidbits for the specialist audience. I would warmly recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about what Bobby Fischer was really like. Frank Brady has achieved his goal.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Chess Film - "A Game For Two"

I just discovered this wonderful short film and simply had to share it!

Written and directed by Stelios Koukouvitakis, it won the Platinum Remi award at the 42nd International Houston Film Festival.

Victoria, a chess champion, enters Argiris’ bookstore. A flirt begins.
In the post–feminist era, the roles of hunter and prey constantly change.

Is winning all that matters?

See it here.

Sunday 7 February 2010

Some St.Valentine's Day Romance

Once she may smile, or thrice, thy soul to fire,
In passing by, but when she turns her face,
Thou must persist and seek her with desire,
If thou wouldst win the favor of her grace.

And if, like some winged bird, she cleaves the air,
And leaves thee spent and stricken on the earth,
Still must thou strive to follow even there,
That she may know thy valor and thy worth.

From "Inspiration" by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Chess in the 19th century was a game played in respectable Gentlemen's clubs while enjoying a healthy smoke and some lively political discussion. One's reputation was of paramount importance, and it would be unsporting, not to mention an insult to the chess Goddess Caissa, to decline a sacrifice.

From a modern perspective, this Romantic era of chess was a more innocent time when daring and beautiful attacks were the pinnacle of chess art. A time before Steinitz elucidated his positional principles and gave defensive ploys respectability.

The essence of the Romantic era was captured best by Adolf Andersson (pictured above), who gave the chess world not one, but two games of outstanding aesthetic beauty - the Immortal Game and the Evergreen Game.

Adolf Andersson was (Morphy's brief but glorious reign excepted) the greatest player of his generation and a popular figure in the chess world of the day.

With St.Valentine's day approaching, what better way to celebrate than with another victory from the greatest Romantic of them all?

Thursday 30 October 2008

Congratulations to Vishy Anand

What a fantastic match! I'm simply in awe of Anand for the great job he did. Much respect to Kramnik as well for scoring a win when all seemed lost and for hanging in there as long as he did.

It was my pleasure to live blog the entire match at After relaying every single move of every single game I feel like I played Anand and Kramnik myself! I have a new respect for how tough it must be mentally and physically for the players.

If you would like to congratulate both players on the match, then why not leave a message on the e-cards for both players that have been sponsored by

I think either Topalov or Kamsky will have a tough job parting Anand with his title!

Sunday 7 September 2008

Chess Ratings: A Necessary Evil?

Rating (noun): a classification according to order, rank or value ... an estimated value of a person's position (From Chambers 21st Century Dictionary).

Why do we have chess ratings? Shouldn't arguments over who is the best player be settled by direct competition across the board, not by a statistical calculation of probabilities (and I say that as a mathematics graduate).

I would not want to take anything away from Magnus Carlsen, but does the fact that his current live rating of 2791.6 is fractionally higher than Vishy Anand's of 2790.6 actually mean anything?

Arpad EloThe official "Elo" rating system, named after it's inventor, the Hungarian professor Arpad Elo (pictured), is a relatively recent phenomenon, only being officially adopted by FIDE in 1970. The chess world managed perfectly well without ratings before then, so why have them at all?

Of course, I'm partly playing devil's advocate here. Ratings are obviously useful to provide a benchmark to compare players' relative strengths, especially if they have never played one another before. But in a one-on-one adversarial contest like chess, surely ratings are wholly inadequate to describe the multitude of factors that come into play when two individuals with a variety of strengths and weaknesses face each other in combat?

It is my contention that chess ratings are being overused, misused and even sometimes abused, when they represent nothing more than a mathematical statement about players' past results. They assuredly do not prove that one player is better than another - only the estimated probability of the outcome of a game between them.

To contrast chess with another one-on-one contest, no-one cares if a boxer is ranked more highly than his adversary. It all comes down to what happens on the night. When standing toe-to-toe in the ring, 'rankings' count for nothing. So why are chess ratings given so much significance in comparison? In 1974, George Foreman would undoubtedly have been 'ranked' the best boxer in the world, but when Muhammed Ali floored Foreman in the eighth round of the Rumble In The Jungle, no-one questioned Ali's right to be known as the world champion.

Perhaps the answer is that being the 'world champion' and 'ranked the best in the world' are not always the same thing depending on the sport or game in question. Does it matter if the 'world champion' is not ranked number 1 in the world? If ratings matter so much in chess, why do we even have a World Chess Championship at all? Why not just declare the highest ranked player to be the world champion and save FIDE the expense of organising a world championship cycle?

This should never happen and with good reason. When Anand and Kramnik face each other in Bonn in October, they will be continuing a long chess tradition stretching back over a century with few interruptions, whereby a new champion must overthrow the old champion in a direct contest to prove his worth. Good luck to both players, and may the best (and not necessarily highest rated) man win!

Sunday 3 August 2008

What is the best form of tie-break?

Sometimes things are just too close to call...

The US Women's Chess Championship in May this year ended in controversy as the title was decided in an 'Armageddon' tie-break match.

The Chief Organiser of the event, Tom Braunlich, recently posted an interesting examination of the different types of tie-breaks possible and suggested firming up the guidance regarding tie-breaks in the FIDE (and USCF and other national) regulations, which are presently pretty thin. His article is here.

I generally like the ideas presented, but I must admit to being baffled by one suggestion:

Two-Game Sudden Death - The entire time available for the playoff is used to play no more than two playoff games. One player is given white (by any method of chance). If the first game is decisive, the winner wins the playoff. If it is drawn, another game is played, using the same colors, in which black will have draw odds.

Why would anyone want to be Black in these games? I find it hard to believe him when he says that when he canvassed opinion among GM's they were evenly split on whether they would prefer to be White or Black under these circumstances.

However, it's a well thought out article and worth a read (although he's clearly touchy about the criticism that the US championships received as a result of the Krush-Zatonskih playoff).

What do YOU think is the best method?

Sunday 13 July 2008

Making chess friends

I have had the pleasure of corresponding with many fellow chess players, both in the blogosphere and at specific chess sites, but today was the first time I actually got to meet one of them in the flesh.

Waldemar is from Amsterdam in the Netherlands and is currently visiting my country, Wales. He was kind enough to take time out of his holiday with his friend Erik to meet up with my wife and myself in Cardiff for a chat and a drink. He is a qualified chess teacher and it was fascinating to hear what he had to say about the game. If you are interested, then check out his Chessedelic blog!

It was great to be able to make a friend through chess, and it got me wondering how many other chess bloggers have met up as a result of first discovering one another online?

Tell me your stories... :)