the real problem with protagonists runs much deeper than just whether or not he seems heroic, often times he might not even seem likable. The authors of Bobby Fischer Goes To War confront that very problem in the non-fiction treatment of the most famous chess game ever played.
Few countries offer a better host of bad guys than Russia. If given a choice between running into gang members in a dark alley or President Vladmir Putin in a well lit area…I’m really not sure which seems safer. And when it comes to the cerebral battlefield of the space race, the art race and the chess race, America languished behind for a long time.
Then into the fray leapt chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, a kid from New York whose skill was outmatched only by his fierce competitiveness. At the time that Bobby Fischer Goes to War begins, Fischer had become the tantrum throwing bad boy of the international chess circuit, even though he seemed like a straight from the Comicbook “CHESSMAN” superhero to Americans. Edmonds and Eidnow chronicle every lat drop of strategy that brought Fischer to the inhospitable climate of Reykjavik to battle then world champion, Soviet, Boris Spassky.
The authors first embrace the match as a metaphor for Cold War gamesmanship and then seek to complicate the scene by knocking down the superhero and building up the “dastardly” Soviet. But the overt recasting of these parts in later chapters seems irrelevant when the first chapters show it plainly in both men’s characters. Fischer seems unhinged at best, diabolical at worst; Spassky rises as an iconoclast uncomfortable within the Soviet regime, seeming downright American in his fiercely independent nature. Indeed, the only people who seem to need convincing that Fischer wasn’t the hero are the authors themselves.
The authors’ dedication to probing their characters comes at the expense of chess explanations. Those without a cursory knowledge of the game may feel lost. Even those who know enough to visualize the board at key moments may be frustrated by the maddeningly condescending accounts of “howlers” and “blunders” that are named, but never explained. The author’s clearly love chess, so too do the people who made the match the most popular chess spectacle in a century. But the fixation on Fischer, and attempts to complicate a person who is obviously, maddeningly complicated already, gives the reader fewer opportunities to learn to love the game.
Things have obviously changed since the Fischer/Spassky match in 1972. And though we’re still tempted to think of Russians as the bad guys and Americans as the good guys, the days of Rocky Balboa V.s. Ivan Drogo have been replaced by an appreciation of our shared human complexity. I still might worry about starting a brawl with President Putin, but beyond that Russia’s Rogues Gallery is running thin (though we could always posthumously loan them Fischer)