While aficionados and detractors will argue over the cause-and-effect nature of the matter, it remains true that chess’s greatest players—grandmasters and world champions—have suffered mental breakdowns at statistically implausible rates. But even among his peers the American world champion Bobby Fischer stood out, particularly in two stages of his life. The first was in 1972 when, against all odds, Fischer made chess not just front page news but actually, preposterously, cool.
The excitement over Fischer’s world championship battle with Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky was sparked by Cold War fever, of course—Americans would have become absorbed in a knitting contest, so long as one of theirs was challenging a Russian—but it was fuelled by Fischer’s character. As petulant as any prima donna, he would harp endlessly about tournament playing conditions, and how his mostly Soviet competitors were colluding against him; if he was unhappy he often wouldn’t show up for matches. The months-long negotiations required to get him to Iceland to play Spassky were Byzantine, partly because Fischer was demanding what, in chess terms, was an impossible purse. Fischer looked like a crazed egomaniac at the time, but Brady, who first met Bobby when he was a 10-year-old prodigy, argues convincingly that Fischer was—then—crazy like a fox: keeping the Soviets off balance while successfully ratcheting up the prize money.
The same can’t be said for Fischer’s weird and disturbing later life—in chess terms, his own personal endgame. His anti-Semitism became vicious, and increasingly linked to his hatred for his own country. Within hours of 9/11 he phoned a Philippines radio station to exult in the situation and urge “sane” military people to take over the U.S. and “execute several hundred thousand Jews.” He died in Iceland in 2008, still paranoid, bitter and inclined, as always, to turn on those who had previously helped him. Endgame is marvellously thought-provoking, the sad and inexplicable life story of possibly the greatest ever practitioner of the game that, in the words of King James I, “filleth and troubleth men’s heads.”