This new book, subtitled “How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time,” caught my attention when it was reviewed in Monday’s New York Times. I liked the title a lot, but then it went onto my “order this today from amazon” list once I saw the authors were David Edmonds and John Eidinow.
These two guys wrote “Wittgenstein’s Poker,” an absolutely unique, original, funny-as-hell book. It started with a central event (Ludwig Wittgenstein waving a fireplace tool at another philosopher, Karl Popper), and then built outward from that center, establishing a kind of ripple effect.
Edmonds and Eidinow created an ever-inflating social, psychological, and historical context for the confrontation of Wittgenstein and Popper until the dispute legitimately assumed epic proportions.
Now they take the legendary 1972 Fischer-Spassky chess match in Iceland as their core event, first exploring the nature of these two wildly differing personalities. They then delve in the histories of American and Soviet chess, and finally analyze the enormous political pressures brought to bear on each of these men as their cold war era confrontation loomed.
Fischer grew up in Brooklyn so chess-obsessed that his mother took him to a doctor, who told her, “There are worse preoccupations.”
Spassky endured the siege of Leningrad, and used his chess winnings to buy his first winter coat.
FunFact: in 1923 there were only 1,000 registered Russian chess players; once the game became a state-sanctioned socialist pastime, the ranks rose to three million by the 1960s.
That the match was held in Iceland is hugely ironical, considering Fischer’s mercurial, abrasive nature. The authors of the book say that Iceland is a place where a dog that barks at a stranger is evidence of the bad manners of its owner. Fischer’s comment on the place was, “I’m going to teach these Icelandic creeps a lesson.”
The authors in their characteristic droll style write, “The chess mentality offers rich pastures in which psychoanalysts may safely graze.”