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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Fischer’s Endgame

The late Bobby Fischer (1943-2008) made news last year but not the way he would have liked.

The Brooklyn native and one-time world chess champion’s remains were exhumed from his grave in Iceland as part of a dispute over the disbursement of his estate. The media went into overdrive because of the circumstances. Fischer, who left no will, was alleged to have sired a girl who was 8 years old at the time of his death, and her mother sought what she deemed to be her daughter’s rightful inheritance. A DNA test determined Fischer was not the girl’s biological father.

Frank Brady’s just-published Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall—From America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (Crown Publishers) is winning rave reviews and offers a more nuanced portrait of a man who appeared to be a tormented genius. Brady, a St. John’s University professor who was until recently the chairman of the school’s communications department, had the added advantage of having known Fischer personally. Professor Brady, the former executive director of the U.S. Chess Federation, will be talking about his book on Wednesday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble, 176-60 Union Turnpike, Fresh Meadows.

This might sound odd but Fischer’s career arc was comparable to that of a successful boxer, with a meteoric rise followed by a stunning, slow-motion fall. Fischer was extraordinarily talented at an early age, wanted to take on all comers, and was a bit of a diva. And he was truly dedicated to being the best chess player in the world, immersing himself in the board game to the point where his mother agreed to let him drop out of Erasmus High School in Brooklyn. An aside: one of his classmates was Barbra Streisand. Despite what appeared to be limited career prospects as a high school dropout, Fischer reached his ultimate goal: winning acclaim as the world’s greatest chess player.

Brady recounts in dramatic fashion the 29-year-old Fischer’s 1972 victory over Russian Boris Spassky, the defending world champion at the time, and how it generated widespread interest in chess in the match’s immediate aftermath. It also made Fischer a household name, with his picture appearing on the cover of Time magazine.

But another 20 years passed before Fischer would play a chess match in public again, as Fischer relinquished his title in 1975 and resisted entreaties to capitalize on his fame. His opponent in 1992, as in 1972, was Spassky, and Fischer won again, although this time the locale was Montenegro. The U.S. government had established sanctions against Yugoslavia and warned Fischer that if he played in Montenegro he’d potentially face thousands of dollars in fines, and 10 years in prison.

Fischer played and was awarded $3.5 million because of his 1992 win. Brady estimates that figure had dwindled down to about $2 million by the time he died as Fischer lived the life of an exile in places such as Hungary and Japan before settling in Iceland, site of his greatest triumph, for the final years of his life.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net