The BBC journalists who honed their skills in amassing minutiae with Wittgenstein’s Poker (2001) re-create the furor surrounding a chess match that was also one of the Cold War’s most bizarre confrontations.
The attention focused on the 1972 Bobby Fischer–Boris Spassky world championship match in Iceland was extraordinary: Edmonds and Eidinow recount that one reporter hit 21 Manhattan bars and found l8 TVs tuned to PBS, which showed a chess pundit posting teletyped moves on a magnetic board, while only three carried a Mets game. The authors build to a crescendo with other fascinating details, taking the reader inside the two camps in Reykjavik. Spassky got full-time analysis from a whole team of international champions, some of whom had been studying Fischer’s key games for a year, plus a psychologist, a physical trainer, and several KGB operatives traveling under false colors. Fischer’s two assistants, one a grandmaster, were primarily gofers and experienced complainers. Spassky’s congeniality and savoir faire charmed the watching world; Fischer’s constant carping over playing conditions and his outrageous allegations of conspiracy, including possible assassination, dismayed fans even in the US, but the desperate Icelandic organizers bent to his every whim. Finally goaded by a phone call from Henry Kissinger—Nixon was busy pondering the implications of the recent Watergate break-in—Fischer showed up, played a bad first game and lost, then forfeited the second out of sheer petulance. When the magic finally began in game three, Fischer played the brutal, grinding chess that had brought him an unprecedented string of consecutive victories during the two preceding years. In the end it was Spassky who was in psychological shock and the Soviets who claimed (and still maintain) that they were victims of a sinister plot: telepathy, poisoned food, “electronic rays,” anything that would explain their champion’s embarrassing loss.
Mavens will mourn the dearth of move-by-move analysis, but general readers will savor a marvelous portrait of East against West, with perceived societal superiority as the real prize.