Friday, February 04, 2011

Frank Brady's "Endgame": Review and Webliography

Frank Brady's Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness is the only book that tells the complete story of Bobby Fischer (now that his years have been numbered at 64), and the only biography to do so with deep knowledge and compassion.  It has justly received widespread attention and praise, as detailed in the webliography below (which I have updated to include Kasparov's comments).  

From the opening chapter (available for preview online), readers sense that this is not a standard biography of the Cold War chess champion and later reclusive anti-American anti-Semite.  Instead, it is a compelling recreation of Fischer's life and times that helps us understand how he saw the world so that we can leap over the barriers of negativity we may have constructed around him to recognize again what an amazing person Fischer was (especially given his circumstances).  Brady does a remarkable job of combining scrupulous historical research with a storyteller's gift for significant detail, so that readers not only trust the teller but allow themselves to be transported by the tale.  It is quite appropriate that Brady has recorded an audio CD of the book (you can hear clips online), since the author -- a famous biographer who knew Fischer well -- has a powerful ethos and deep affection for his subject that is made contagious through his voice.  I have often said to myself that I "despise the man but love his games," but Endgame's humanizing vision of Fischer makes it possible to accept the whole package.

Brady's description of Fischer's economically impoverished childhood inspires the most sympathy, not only for Fischer but for his entire family.  Many biographers have portrayed Fischer's mother, Regina, in a very negative way, practically blaming her for Fischer's later greed and paranoia.  But Brady gives the full background, more accurately depicting Regina as a WWII Jewish immigrant forced to flee Europe and return to the country of her childhood, leaving behind her credentials (she had studied medicine for six years) and her husband (Gerhardt Fischer's German citizenship prevented him from emigrating to the U.S.)  She raised two children in Brooklyn as a single, working mother driven to take a variety of jobs while studying to be a nurse.  I am fully persuaded by Brady's view (mentioned in "In Defense of Bobby Fischer's Family," where he mostly debunks ridiculous spying allegations) that Regina did the best she could for young Bobby and that we should admire how tirelessly she worked to support her kids and to promote Fischer's success.  I knew some things about Fischer's family and childhood circumstances, but Brady's account helped me appreciate what it must have been like for Fischer as a "latchkey child" coming home "to an empty apartment," with no father and "little sense of neighborhood" due to his family's frequent moves.  We come to see how chess provided the male mentoring and sense of community that Fischer craved, inspiring him to the long hours of study that made it possible to rise to the top and achieve international celebrity.

Probably anyone could make us sympathetic toward Fischer the child.  That's the Fischer we already love -- the brilliant boy who played the Game of the Century.  It takes a lot of work to make us sympathetic to Fischer the adult, especially in the pages that follow the description of Fischer's many diatribes against the U.S. and "the Jews" during interviews on Hungarian and Phillipine radio, including the infamous interview following 9/11 when he said "I applaud the act" and "I want to see the U.S. wiped out."  Brady reports these facts carefully and offers no defense of Fischer's ravings, though he suggests some of what inspired his animus.  But while he rejects the words, he does not give up on the man, and Fischer remains always very human, if very flawed, in Brady's account. 

Brady's description of Bobby's indomitable fighting spirit as a youth helps us to understand and even identify with some of the more uncivil and even bizarre ways that trait was expressed in later life.  Fischer's demands, his seemingly peevish outrage over arbitrary limitations, his refusal to bow to authority under any circumstances -- all these behaviors can be interpreted as natural extensions (if sometimes exaggerations) of the very personality that helped him at the chessboard.  With his personality and background in mind, it becomes easier to understand Fischer's actions, as when Brady tells the story of Fischer's incarceration in Japan, where he physically resisted arrest and fought the guards on numerous occasions.  Fischer's behavior had been depicted in the press as obvious evidence of dementia, but Brady simply presents the facts in the context of Fischer's personality so that we see him as fighting for his right to be free and independent -- desires with which we can all identify.  To make this work, Brady turns to the techniques of a fiction writer.  Reader preconceptions dissolve from the opening sentence as Brady recreates the scene of Fischer's 2004 arrest, using the moment when our epic hero most felt like he was facing death to transport us, in medias res, into Fischer's worldview: "'I can't breathe!  I can't breathe!' Bobby Fischer's screams were muffled by the black hood tied tightly around his head.  He felt as if he were suffocating, near death.  He shook his head furiously to loosen the covering" (1). By making us occupy Fischer's perspective, he helps us to understand better what drove him to the perpetual struggle against his jailers, who Fischer clearly saw as adversaries in a very serious game.  One passage from the book gives some telling details:
Bobby was like a caged panther, pacing up and down, continually complaining about everything, from the food, to the temperature, to the disrespect his captors showed him, and screaming at the guards. [...]  Once, when he told the guard who brought him his breakfast that his soft-boiled eggs were really hard-boiled and that he wanted an additional egg, they got into a scuffle.  He ended up in solitary confinement for several days and wasn't permitted visits or even allowed to leave his cell.  Another time, he purposely stepped on the glasses of a guard he didn't like and was given solitary again (283).
When I heard about similar behavior in news accounts following Fischer's arrest, I think it made me less sympathetic toward him and simply sad that he was so "insane."  But reading this in the context of Brady's biography, I felt a sense of identification with Bobby, some agreement with his view that his detention was unjust (as Brady points out, he was the only known individual against whom the U.S. government attempted to enforce sanctions), and a willingness to see his behavior -- while atrocious -- as a potentially sane response to a crazy situation (simply exaggerated by what Malcolm Gladwell would call "the power of context").

Brady's book brings readers to a place where they can sympathize with Fischer even at his worst, such as in his seemingly grasping and greedy behavior. I was especially persuaded by Brady's parallels between Fischer and impoverished artists who rarely are able to capitalize on the fair market value of the beautiful things they produce or the memorabilia they owned.  Again, Brady's specific and scrupulously researched details tell the story.  Of the Game of the Century he writes: "In today's market, the estimate auction price for the original score sheet is $100,000.  Bobby's remuneration from the American Chess Foundation for his sparkling brilliancy?  Fifty dollars" (65).  In 1982, Fischer sold his infamous pamphlet I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse for $1 per copy.  "Twenty five years later, an original copy of I Was Tortured... was selling as a collector's item for upward of $500" (228).  You begin to understand why Fischer may have become so obsessed, late in his life, with the fact that his possessions in U.S. storage were auctioned off (a Jewish conspiracy against him according to Bobby, but an unfortunate mistake that those responsible for tried to correct according to Brady). With so many out to exploit and profit from his celebrity, why shouldn't Bobby get a piece of the action?  Why shouldn't he feel deeply betrayed that his possessions were auctioned off to become items of trade among the chess public?  These are the type of sympathetic questions that Brady's book makes readers consider, and we cannot help but gain a much more rounded view of a very complex man after reading it.

The book's release seems to coincide with a rising tide of Fischer reappraisals, including Liz Garbus's much-touted documentary film Bobby Fischer Against the World (HBO).  It may just do a lot to help restore Bobby to the country and the people he worked so hard to alienate and make it possible for chess to have its king again.

Selective Webliography of Thoughtful Reviews and Interviews
  • Mike Barry, "Eye on the Island" at AntonNews "This might sound odd but Fischer’s career arc was comparable to that of a successful boxer, with a meteoric rise followed by a stunning, slow-motion fall. "
  • Kim Becker, "Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall" at LiquidHip blog
  • Will Boisvert, "The Troubled King of Chess" interview with Frank Brady
  • Brooklyn64 blog, "Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall"
  • John Carroll, "Juggling chain saws" at
  • Caroline Jackson, "Mentor helped young Bobby Fischer make right moves" interview in The Villager.  "Brady met the chess master-to-be when he was in his late teens and Fischer was 10 or 11. Brady saw a group surrounding a table where Fischer was playing a quick match between tournament games. Brady said a man asked Fischer why he made a certain move and Fischer exclaimed, 'Please, this is a chess game. This is brain surgery. Don’t ask me that.'"
  • Garry Kasparov, "The Bobby Fischer Defense" in The New York Review of Books.  "Brady’s book is an impressive balancing act and a great accomplishment. Before even picking up the book there is no reason to doubt that Brady liked Bobby Fischer and that he has a friend’s as well as a fan’s rooting interest for the American chess hero. But there are few obvious traces of that in Endgame, which does not shy away from presenting the darker sides of Fischer’s character even while it does not attempt to judge or diagnose it. What results is a chance for the reader to weigh up the evidence and come to his own conclusions—or skip judgments completely and simply enjoy reading a rise-and-fall story that has more than a few affinities with Greek tragedy."
  • Al Lawrence, "Looks at Books: Frank Brady's Masterpiece" at USCF Online. "The book’s you-are-there quality comes in large part from the fact that Brady was indeed so often there, involved in directing both the 1963-64 U.S. Championship, in which Bobby scored his famous 11-0 sweep, as well as Fischer’s participation by telex in the 1965 Capablanca Memorial, where the rest of the competitors played face-to-face in Havana, while Fischer hunched over a board at the New York City’s Marshall Chess Club through games extended several hours by the transmission process. Brady shared walks, talks and dinners with the young chess champion, experiencing first-hand both Bobby’s comradeship and pique."
  • Dana Mackenzie, "Review of Frank Brady's Endgame" at Dana Blogs Chess "The first 200 pages of Endgame, which take us through the end of the Fischer-Spassky world championship match, do not contain any revelations that will knock your socks off. But they do provide a rich narrative of this more public part of Fischer’s life, which will help you understand Fischer’s point of view a little bit better. ... The last 130 pages are the ones that chess players, I think, will read the most avidly. Brady fills us in on all the things we didn’t know about Fischer’s life after 1972, the details that Fischer himself tried his best to keep hidden (as, indeed, he tried to keep himself hidden)."
  • Tom Mackin, "Endgame: A book review" in The Star Ledger.  "In this stark, unsparing biography, Frank Brady, who spent a good deal of time with Fischer, calls him “a brilliant, quixotic chess prince.” He also displays his deep knowledge of the game, managing to make a simple chess notation like “pawn to king four” as exciting as a game-winning pass to a receiver in the end zone."
  • Janet Maslin, Odd, Odd Case of Bobby Fischer in The New York Times.  "Mr. Brady, a biographer dangerously drawn to megalomania (he has also written books about Aristotle Onassis and Orson Welles), takes a demystifying approach to Fischer’s eccentricities. He sees the person behind the bluster, and he presents that person in a reasonably realistic light."
  • Laura Miller, "Endgame: The genius and madness of Bobby Fischer" review at  "Frank Brady's Endgame ... presents Fischer's story with an almost Olympian evenhandedness that ends up making it far more absorbing than any sensationalized account. Brady knew Fischer as a child, as Fischer was emerging as a chess prodigy in New York City, but the author renders himself almost invisible in this book. The cloud of chaos and ire that Fischer walked around in all his life doesn't seem to have infected his biographer at all."
  • Dennis Monokroussos, "A Review of Frank Brady's 'Endgame'" at The Chess Mind blog.  "Brady is also rather gentle with Fischer. It’s by no means a whitewash, but it would be very easy to write a book – an accurate and objective book – in which he comes out looking far worse than he does in Endgame. My overall impression is that Brady is a little too sympathetic, but perhaps it helps balance one-sided portrayals of him as an anti-Jewish, anti-American nutjob."
  • Jamie P., "Check(mate) this ego - 'Endgame' by Frank Brady" at the Suchabooknerd blog.  "I don’t know jack about chess. ... Interesting note:  One of Fischer’s classmates was a young girl named Barbra Streisand, who admits to having had a crush on the mysterious Fischer.  Who knew?"
  • Matthew Price, "Brilliant Player, Bad Moves" in the Boston Globe. "In “Endgame,’’ Frank Brady, a communications professor at St. John’s University, tells the story of Fischer’s life with dramatic flair and a sense of judiciousness. Fischer could be unruly, pathologically touchy, and repulsively insulting, but he played chess brilliantly. At times, Brady, who knew Fischer and studied his life for decades, cannot quite keep the fiend and genius in balance, however much he fills us with a sense of Fischer’s torments. “Endgame,’’ to its credit, is not written solely with chess aficionados in mind; Brady, a longtime chess hand and founder of Chess Life magazine, explains the technical aspects of the game with an appealing clarity as he tells the story of Fischer’s fame and fall."
  • Guy Raz, "The Troubled Genius of Bobby Fischer" on NPR's All Things Considered.  Interview and book excerpt.
  • Jim West, "Definitive Book on Bobby Fischer" at Jim West on Chess.  "Endgame is a page turner, like a detective novel except the mystery never gets solved because Fischer's life is stranger than fiction."


lefthandsketch said...

Thank you for linking to Brooklyn 64, be sure to check out our Blog Carnival- hosting some of the best blog content from last month in the chess blogosphere. Fair warning, we're coming after the CJA's "Best Blog" award.

lefthandsketch said...

Also, Greenpoint Chess and Go is no longer an active blog as of six months ago- but we at Brooklyn 64 would be honored to take their place in your sidebar if you'd be so kind as to include us. (I was the author of that now defunkt blog as well.)

lefthandsketch said...

This morning I spoke with Dr. Brady and he was pleased with the positive reaction of the chess blog world, and in particular noted this post. Just passing along his appreciation.

Michael Goeller said...

Thanks for the note. The last time I visited the Marshall club -- which was years ago already -- Dr. Brady was very gracious and we had a very nice talk. It was near the end of a round of the tournament and people were going out to dinner and he invited me to join them. I got a very good impression of him then. But I am even more impressed after reading his book. It is very well done, and very well written. An impressive job all around by exactly the right person to write it.

I have noticed your blog and will be sure to add it to my blog roll soon. I think you have a good shot at the CJA award, so long as I don't follow through with my intention of nominating Kavalek...

lefthandsketch said...

Dr. Brady mentioned that you had stopped by the club years ago.

To be honest, I would be thrilled to see Kavalek win. His anecdotes are fantastic. I plan on nominating not my own blog but a blog within my circle friends. I have just discovered the CJA and it seems like such a niche organization that I really want to become an active member just to see who I meet through it.

It's a shame the NYTimes has just discontinued their blog "Gambit." Perhpas there's a void there that may be filled?

Tommyg said...

I haven't read Endgame yet. And I am a musician so I do understand the point of view of not always being financially recognized for one's work. BUT Fischer had the chance to be rewarded right after he won the championship but he turned a lot of those opportunities down (if I am no mistaken). America WANTED to embrace him. And then he ran away from the title.

Obviously Fischer had some problems and I AM sympathetic to that, but he had a golden opportunity and wasted it.

America LOVED him and was ready to open up their wallets to him.

Michael Goeller said...

Yes, Fischer's relationship to money seems really paradoxical -- so often making big demands, and then accepting poverty. Dana Mackenzie points this out, though it seems difficult to resolve:

"For example, Brady strongly emphasizes the absolute poverty that Bobby grew up in — something that might explain his strange love-hate attitude towards money later in his life. On the one hand, Bobby acted like a supremely greedy person, always trying to get the maximum amount of money he deserved — and then some. On the other hand, he was remarkably ready to walk away from money if his conditions weren’t met. He spurned the $5 million cash prize that was offered for a Fischer-Karpov championship match. And yet Brady suggests that Fischer came to regret this. A telling detail is that Fischer’s conditions for the second Fischer-Spassky match in 1992 were identical to the conditions he had walked away from in 1975: $5 million, $3.5 million to the winner and $1.5 million to the loser. Bobby’s actions seem to reflect a person who desperately wanted money, and yet at the same time absolutely knew how to live without it."

It's interesting that someone who could be so rational and purely calculating at chess could be so irrational in the way he conducted his life.

Taylor said...

Those of you who have read or are interested in Endgame and Bobby Fischer might be interested an upcoming screening of “Bobby Fischer Against the World” at the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC on June 22nd. The screening will be followed by a discussion with author Frank Brady and blogger Dylan McClain and Brady will also have a book signing before the screening.

Hope to see those of you in the NYC area! For more information on the screening, visit