Review: Endgame

The enigmatic Bobby Fischer, chess genius and primitive, paranoid bigot is the subject of a new, detailed biography.


By Frank Brady
Constable, £20

'You are a good man, a good person, so you are not a Jew."

In his well-researched and enjoyable new biography of Bobby Fischer, Frank Brady quotes this Fischer remark to the Hungarian grandmaster Andrei Lilenthal.

Brady seems oddly wary of offering an explanation for Fischer's repulsive antisemitic views - though, to be fair, unmasking Fischer's complex relationship with Jewishness and Judaism might take a monograph in itself.

Fischer was talking to Lilienthal more than two decades after his momentous victory against Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972. He had become world chess champion and beaten the Soviets at what they regarded as their own game. His antics and brilliance had made this cerebral sport front-page news.

For much of the rest of his life he became a recluse and immersed himself in antisemitic and Holocaust-denial literature. He read Mein Kampf and became fixated on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Brady says Fischer was once spotted in a parking lot distributing antisemitic flyers to passers-by. He would rail against "kikes" and "Jew-bastards".

There is an irony in this. It has always been known that Bobby's mother Regina was Jewish. But when I and my co-author were researching a book on the 1972 match, we were granted the release of the FBI file on Regina: they had followed Regina, a left-wing activist, for 25 years. A photocopy of the heavy FBI tome landed with a thud through the letter-box: inside was extraordinary evidence that Fischer's biological father was not Gerhardt Fischer, the name on his birth certificate, but Jewish Hungarian physicist, Paul Nemenyi. Whether Regina ever told Bobby this is unclear.

Inevitably, as a chess player Fischer mixed in Jewish circles. Historians and academics still dispute the origins of the ancient game of chess. But perhaps the real reason chess was invented was to boost Jewish self-esteem. A vastly disproportionate number of the greatest players in chess have been Jewish, including the first two official world champions, Wilhelm Steinitz and Emmanuel Lasker. When Fischer was growing up, the leading American players included Samuel Reshevsky and Reuben Fine.

So why did Fischer tolerate Jewish chess players? And why did they tolerate him? In fact, not only did they tolerate him but, as the saying goes, many of his best friends were Jewish. When dealing with individual Jews, he seemed to be able to forget his hatred for Judaism as a religion and Jews as an ethnic group.

And there perhaps lies a solution to this double conundrum. Fischer became ever more sick, paranoid and delusional. Most of those who met him understood he was ill and, at least for a time, tolerated and pitied him. His antisemitism was almost cartoon-like in character - a poison that he would spout at an abstract level but which he found more difficult to apply in the particular.

Fischer lived in Hungary for a period in the early 1990s. The Hungarian Jewish grandmaster Andrei Lilienthal "adored" Bobby, according to Frank Brady. And when not at the Lilienthals', Fischer was often being fed and watered at the Jewish home of Laszlo Polgar, playing chess with his three immensely talented daughters, and informing them that Auschwitz was a hoax.

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