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Article by Ken Owen
2008 was not the first time that Reykjavik was the focus of worldwide headlines. More improbably, it was chess, not the imminent collapse of the international banking system, which generated such interest. The 1972 world championship final represented the first time that an American had played on such a grand stage. Bobby Fischer’s challenge to reigning champion Boris Spassky, moreover, came at the height of the Cold War. The narrative of the brash young American taking on the Soviet machine at its own game proved irresistible to the world media, and so the final of a sport which had previously generated little excitement suddenly became box-office gold.
In Bobby Fischer Goes To War, David Edmonds and John Eidinow attempt to place the Fischer-Spassky match in its wider context. (Correctly) arguing that the chess itself is both already well-documented and insufficient to explain the enduring appeal of the match, they focus instead on the intense media interest, and the mutual suspicion between the American and Soviet camps. It is a gripping story, full of complexity, and in concentrating on the build-up to and the atmosphere of the event, the authors demonstrate the difficulty of shoehorning any event into typical ‘East against West’ or ‘democracy versus communism’ narratives.
The realm of sporting culture is fruitful for the historian. The growth of sports in the 20th century gave the world a new kind of identity politics – communities across the world gave their sports teams parts of their own identity. In looking at the way people react to certain sporting events, then, historians can find unconscious reflections or unthinking assumptions of different communities. This brings about particular benefits for the study of history and for historians themselves. Using popular culture in this way allows us to look at two familiar things – broad political narratives and major sporting events – and in comparing them, gain new insights on each. Moreover, in tying historical work to a sporting narrative, a sporting book gains a structure that can more easily appeal to a wide audience.
The leading figures in the 1972 chess championship seem to be fertile ground for re-examining our conceptions of the USA and USSR at the height of the Cold War. Fischer, the American, is a figure notorious for his demands of complete control over the matches he played – backed up by a willingness to walk away from the table if they were not met (the 1975 World Championship would be awarded to his opponent in a walkover after Fischer refused to play). Spassky, on the other hand, may have been the product of an unrelenting Soviet machine, yet he was tolerated only because of his brilliance at the chess board. Not a member of the Communist Party, and identifying as a ‘Russian’, rather than a ‘Soviet’, he would frequently tweak the noses of Soviet officials – to the extent that they would ask his coaches whether he understood his duties to the Soviet people.
Edmonds and Eidinow do an excellent job of recreating this complexity, where both Americans and Soviets have difficulty identifying with their figureheads, but recognise the symbolic importance of their man succeeding. Fischer’s threats to walk away from the World Championship unless a series of ultimatums were met saw Henry Kissinger get on the phone to help resolve the impasse. More impressive still is the recreation of the culture of Soviet chess at the start of the 1970s – a system where losing to Fischer could see travel privileges revoked; a sport where leading figures, such as Latvian Mikhail Tal or Armenian Tigran Petrosian could become proxies for the frustrated nationalism of their countrymen.
The nature of the book, however, changes significantly once the scene has been set and the chess begins. Yes, the focus is still on the extraordinary events surrounding the event, with the twists and turns of the chess itself something of a side issue. Yes, these details are illuminating and gripping. Fischer’s volatility sees the action moved from the main arena, constructed for a large audience, into a tiny back room. Suspicion becomes so strong in the middle of the game that the KGB are accused of interfering with Fischer’s chair. The authors’ eye for detail is particularly impressive; they have researched the event with diligence, and their long interviews with many of the figures involved bring much of the human drama to life.
It lets the reader down, however, in the wider reaction to the event itself. The geopolitical events of the summer of 1972, the public perception of the contest, and its position as an avatar of the broader struggle between East and West lose their place as the action at the chess table heats up. Their implicit aim of casting a new light on public feeling regarding the Cold War suffers as a result. While it is perhaps churlish to criticise authors for not writing a different book, one feels that it would not have taken considerably more effort to integrate a new part of the story – looking more closely at media coverage, and bringing in some speculative conclusions about how wider reaction to the event reflected, or even changed, assumptions about the Cold War.
Edmonds and Eidinow have written an excellent book. Their journalistic eye for a story, and their ability to bring in tension (even for those for whom the story is familiar) bring the Fischer-Spassky match to life, and they hold the reader’s attention for longer than is typically associated with a game of chess. That is no small achievement. Yet the notion of Bobby Fischer as Cold Warrior deserves greater attention. The authors begin “What turned this championship into a… compelling confrontation was… the conviction that history was being made”. By the end of the book, however, there is more on the use of chess in popular and political culture than of the significance of the event itself.
In short, the book works better as a Cold War thriller than as a piece of sporting cultural history. There is much room left to consider whether something as seemingly insignificant as an American taking on a Russian over a game of chess can really tell us something meaningful about the largest geopolitical conflict of the 20th century.
Harper Perennial, 384 pp., ISBN: 978-0060510251