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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Bobby Fischer Goes to War

David Edmonds and John Eidinow

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To purchase Bobby Fischer Goes to War

Title: Bobby Fischer Goes to War
Authors: David Edmonds and John Eidinow
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004
Length: 321 pages
Availability: Bobby Fischer Goes to War - US
Bobby Fischer Goes to War - UK
Bobby Fischer Goes to War - Canada
Wie Bobby Fischer den Kalten Krieg gewann - Deutschland
Bobby Fischer va alla guerra - Italia
  • US subtitle: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time
  • UK subtitle: The True Story of How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time
  • With a Dramatis Personae, Glossary, and numerous illustrations

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Our Assessment:

A : thorough, very entertaining

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 9/3/2004 Heller McAlpin
Entertainment Weekly A- 12/3/2004 Gregory Kirschling
The Guardian B- 31/1/2004 Steven Poole
The Independent . 13/2/2004 William Hartston
The NY Times . 1/3/2004 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. B 28/3/2004 Gabriel Schoenfeld
The New Yorker . 1/3/2004 Louis Menand
The Observer B- 11/1/2004 Jay Rayner
San Francisco Chronicle A 7/3/2004 Jesse Berrett
The Spectator . 24/1/2004 David Caute
Sunday Telegraph . 11/1/2004 Daniel Johnson
The Telegraph . 26/1/2004 Lewis Jones
Time . 15/3/2004 Lev Grossman
The Times . 31/1/2004 Ian Brunskill
TLS . 16/4/2004 David Ekserdjian
USA Today . 3/3/2004 Stephen J. Lyons
Wall St. Journal . 4/3/2004 Roger Lowenstein
The Washington Post B+ 21/3/2004 Andrew Meier

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though most like at least aspects of the book. Most also more concerned with the 1972 events rather than the book.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Part of the brilliance of Wittgenstein's Poker was both the freshness of the story and the lucidity with which the writers conveyed the philosophers' ideas. In contrast, the Fischer-Spassky story is well-trodden, and the brilliance of their chess has been better described elsewhere. But the authors' actual focus here is on the psychological warfare surrounding the games" - Heller McAlpin, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Note to Hollywood: It's Miracle meets A Beautiful Mind. Get on it." - Gregory Kirschling, Entertainment Weekly

  • "(T)he overall effect of Bobby Fischer Goes to War is that of reading a highly detailed account of the peripheral business of a great drama -- the expertly researched, forensically reconstructed story of the movements of stagehands and propmasters behind the scenes, while the great struggle being played out on the stage itself is but a muffled, indistinct roar." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "The result is an intriguing book on two levels. First, there are the personalities of the players. (...) Apart from putting that drama, for the first time, into its true perspective, Edmonds and Eidinow have filled in many of the most perplexing gaps in the story." - William Hartston, The Independent

  • "But the details of the square-off remain compelling. And the book underscores the extent to which each player became the uneasy flag-bearer for his government." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "The authors have certainly done their homework; this is a well-researched book that brings to light many hitherto unknown facts (.....) But there are glaring weaknessess, too." - Gabriel Schoenfeld, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Since Edmonds and Eidinow essentially finesse the games themselves, avoiding technical analyses and relying mostly on the characterizations of various experts, there is not much left to the story but tears and rage." - Louis Menand, The New Yorker

  • "Edmonds and Eidinow do a good job of imposing order on Fischer's disorderly rise to fame. They manage to make his lousy behaviour and the continuous demands he made to the organisers of international tournaments (...) read like chess moves; part of some psychological end game that would weaken his opponents before they even got to the board. Ironically, the book only suffers when the action moves to Reykjavik and the start of the World Championship itself, for there is one fundamental thing missing here: a chapter explaining chess." - Jay Rayner, The Observer

  • "Without sacrificing intellectual acuity, they debunk as much as they celebrate that championship meeting, stubbornly resisting the temptation to inflate events. Ideal guides through the history and psychology of chess, they render matches and characters vividly. (...) There are minor problems with the book -- laundry lists of major events occasionally get shoveled in without illuminating anything, and the authors save a bombshell about Fischer's ancestry from his FBI file for the closing pages -- but on the whole it accomplishes its task wonderfully." - Jesse Berrett, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This is a book about the personalities, the Soviet chess bureaucracy, and the wider cold war politics, a trampoline on which the authors perform some original acrobatics. E and E have clearly interviewed far and wide but, despite the book’s title, it was Spassky, not the reclusive Fischer, who granted an interview; we learn more about the formidable Soviet chess establishment than the fragile American one which Fischer spurned." - David Caute,. The Spectator

  • "Their research is thorough and brings to light much that is new, especially on the Soviet side. Their prose is brisk and readable and they have a good grasp both of the chess context and of the historical background. This is an excellent book, and you do not need to play chess to enjoy it." - Daniel Johnson, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Bobby Fischer Goes to War is a fascinating story, admirably told, but the appendices might usefully have included the games themselves, as moves such as "B-Q6 ck !" are frustratingly meaningless without context." - Lewis Jones, The Telegraph

  • "Bobby Fischer Goes to War tells the story in fine, brisk style, interpreting the red-hot chess-fu action -- the Ruy Lopez opening ! The Nimzo-Indian defense ! -- for us nongeniuses and conveying the richness of the world beyond the chessboard through details plucked from FBI and KGB records." - Lev Grossman, Time

  • "Edmonds and Eidinow catalogue the American's eccentricities, which were far from endearing, and show, in wearying detail, how his rudeness, brinkmanship and unreasonable demands came close to ensuring the match did not take place. The aggression and self-belief that made Fischer such a disagreeable human being also brought him victory." - Ian Brunskill, The Times

  • "(O)ne emerges reeling from this account with a sense that the story it tells so well is -- to use an old cliché -- truly stranger than fiction." - David Ekserdjian, Times Literary Supplement

  • "What is thankfully missing from Bobby Fischer Goes to War is the deathly move-by-move analysis that would only interest hardcore chess players. Drawing on new interviews and a voluminous FBI file on Fischer's mother, Regina, thought at one time to be a Soviet spy, the authors have penned a good old-fashioned psychological thriller replete with dramatic political overtones." - Stephen J. Lyons, USA Today

  • "This is the definitive history of Fischer vs. Spassky. Edmonds and Eidinow carefully relate the complex turns of the championship while detailing the unseen prodding of the powers behind the Cold War curtains (namely, KGB minders and Henry Kissinger), without allowing the match's twin plots -- the moves on the chessboard and in the political arena -- to eclipse each other." - Andrew Meier, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Bobby Fischer Goes to War is an account of the world championship showdown between chess players Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the summer of 1972. The authors quote one of those involved who called it a: "world-shatteringly silly event"; that's exactly what it was -- but it still makes for one hell of a story.
       Chess is generally not considered among the world's most exciting spectator contests. Cerebral rather than physical, often tortuously slow-paced (and then occasionally zipping along so fast that it's practically impossible to follow), with subtle progress on the board rarely obvious to those unfamiliar with the finer points of the game, it seems an unlikely activity to capture the attention of the world. But that's what happened in 1972. A match-up between the chess-dominating Soviet Union and the United States, between the traditionalist Boris Spassky and the iconoclastic (or, to put it more bluntly, generally obnoxious free spirit) Bobby Fischer, meeting on a remote island where the sun practically never sets (at least in summertime), this was a clash for the ages.
       Chess championships have enthralled the world before, but this was the match of the century. Edmonds and Eidinow's book documents it all, and what a fun story it is.
       It is largely a fun story because of Bobby Fischer. More savage savant than idiot savant, he was an immensely talented chess player (as his stunning string of victories en route to the match-up with Spassky demonstrated) but socially stuck at an age of perhaps four or five. He could be charming (and astonishingly many people seem to like him), but more often than not he was boorish, and he threw sensational tantrums. Unfortunately, because of his great gift, he was indulged by one and all, making at least a near-farce out of the 1972 world championship.
       Fischer claimed to be moved largely by greed, and getting him to play somewhere often involved paying him off. The financial negotiations complicated matters greatly in the preparations for the world championship (right up to the last second -- and beyond), but that was nothing compared to his fussing over details, from everything from the size of the chess board (and the colour of the tiles, requiring the board to be replaced several times) to the constant and particularly acrimonious debate over the presence of TV cameras. Unfortunately, Spassky was generally equanimous and didn't give as good as he got (though he eventually did get the same fancy chair that Bobby had).
       The book is called Bobby Fischer Goes to War, and it isn't so much war against Spassky or even the Soviet Union, but against absolutely everyone and thing. And for, a brief shining moment, -- supported by some inspired chess play -- Fischer won. (As the authors note, however, that was pretty much the end of that: ever since Fischer has been more raving loon than leading chess player.)
       Edmonds and Eidinow present the material very nicely. They offer brief biographical introductions to the players and good profiles of many of the bit players (which includes many very colourful characters). They're particularly good on the entourages, the Soviet machine (with all the bizarre political infighting and conflicts) as well as Fischer's odd hangers-on. The authors also explain the chess aspects well: the contests leading up to this match-up, the rise of Spassky and Fischer to the world's elite, and the like.
       The actual chess games are also fairly well presented. It's difficult to do: readers ignorant of standard chess moves (or unfamiliar with standard chess notation) would quickly be put off by detailed explanation, but Edmonds and Eidinow manage to convey the essence of most of the games (and the tension -- or lack thereof). (Knowledgeable chess players -- or those looking for more detail -- might be somewhat disappointed, but there are other sources for them to turn to; the authors made the right choice in keeping it fairly simple and easily understood.)
       The behind-the-scenes activity -- will Fischer come to Iceland ? will he stay ? will the matches be filmed ? what will Fischer object to next ? how long Spassky put up with the buffoon's antics ? -- and even the general background-detail (the players' day-to-day lives in preparation, and then in Iceland, for example) is nicely related and often very entertaining. The authors also convey how the match captured the world, and the resulting chess-mania. It's a bizarrely fascinating story, and they do a very good job of relating it.
       Despite this being a familiar story, the outcome well-known, Bobby Fischer Goes to War is a riveting read. So rich in detail (and such wonderfully bizarre detail, both on the Soviet and on Fischer's side), the book is an absolute page-turner, never flagging. And the authors do provide some new material to go with the old: interviews with Soviet and Icelandic officials add to the larger picture, and there's also some new information about Fischer's parents.
       This is far more popular documentary than scholarly account, and so details are missing (the games, for one, which they might have wanted to reprint for quick reference in an appendix) and some things are less clearly presented than one might like (especially the description of chess-mania (especially in the US), much of which seems simply culled from old newspaper headlines). But this book provides all the information most readers could want, and does so in a highly entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable way. Certainly recommended.

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Bobby Fischer Goes to War: Reviews: Bobby Fischer: Other books by David Edmonds and John Eidinow under review: Other books by David Edmonds under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       David Edmonds and John Eidinow are journalists for the BBC.

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© 2004-2011 the complete review

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