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Chess may be the deepest, least exhaustible of pastimes, but it is nothing more. As for a chess genius, he is a human being who focuses vast, little-understood mental gifts and labors on an ultimately trivial human enterprise.
    -George Steiner, Fields of Force
Today, it is hard to imagine the sensation of Mr. Fischer's success when he wrested the world championship away from Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972. In the middle of the Cold War, the Brooklyn-raised iconoclast took the crown from the well-oiled Soviet machine that had dominated the chess world for decades. And this after he barely showed up for the match at all, and then lost the first game and forfeited the second!

Partially due to Mr. Fischer's outrageous behavior leading up to and during the "match of the century," the international media coverage was incredible. The games were shown live around the world. I was nine years old and already a strong club player when the Fischer-Spassky match took place, and I followed the games avidly. Fischer, who had crushed two other Soviet grandmasters on his march to the title match, nonetheless had many fans in the Soviet Union. They respected his chess, of course, but many quietly enjoyed his individuality and independence.

After the match ended in a convincing victory for the American, the world was at his feet. Chess was on the cusp of becoming a commercially successful sport for the first time. Mr. Fischer's play, nationality and natural charisma created a unique opportunity. He was a national hero whose popularity rivaled that of Muhammad Ali. (Would the secretary of state have called Ali before a fight the way Henry Kissinger called Mr. Fischer?) Sales of chess sets and books boomed, and tournament prize funds soared. With Bobby Fischer in the lead, chess was headed for the popularity of golf and tennis. [...]

Opportunities abounded, but Mr. Fischer's was a purely destructive force. He demolished the Soviet chess machine but could build nothing in its place. He was the ideal challenger--but a disastrous champion.

The conventional wisdom says that Bobby Fischer was a guileless and petulant child who just wanted his own way. I believe he was conscious of all his actions and the psychological effect his behavior had on his opponents. The gentlemanly Mr. Spassky was ill-prepared to deal with the belligerent American in Reykjavik. In 1975, Mr. Fischer's challenger was the young Mr. Karpov, whom I would later meet in five consecutive world championship matches.

Unable to even contemplate defeat, Mr. Fischer left chess. Bereft of the only thing he had ever wanted to do in his life, he turned his destructive energies inward, espousing a virulent anti-Semitism--despite his own Jewish heritage.
    -Fischer's Price: Chess may have been the only thing that kept the champion in touch with reality (Garry Kasparov, July 19, 2004 , Opinion Journal)

George Steiner is a critic whose reputation is the subject of considerable controversy, chiefly over the question of whether he knows as much as he leads his readers to believe he does. He is, as well, the author of the cringe-inducing novel, The Portage to San Cristobel of A.H., in which he, one assumes accidentally, makes Adolph Hitler something of a sympathetic character. This book, which he appears to be long out of print, is rather a curiosity, but one that invokes both these controversies at least tangentially. Published as The Sporting Scene: White Knights of Reykjavik in Britain, it collects Mr. Steiner's New Yorker coverage of the notorious Fischer/Spassky World Chess Championship of 1972. The author does manage to give the impression that he knows more about chess than any man who's ever lived, and that Fischer and Spassky would have been hard pressed to beat him. He is also, understandably, fascinated by the horrible behavior, cheap gamesmanship, egomania, and greed of Bobby Fischer. It could not have been known at the time just how disturbed Mr. Fischer really was--or perhaps he was not yet truly insane--but reading about him in retrospect it's clear that everyone, including Mr. Steiner, cut him way too much slack. It is sort of creepy to watch as Mr. Fischer, an exploiter himself, is exploited for his entertainment value even as alarms should have been going off somewhere about how unbalanced his mind was.

At any rate, the book succeeds as sports reportage, capturing the manic nature of the confrontation, the Cold War atmospherics surrounding it, and something of the tortured personality of Bobby Fischer. It's richly illustrated with game positions, but an appendix with notations of the actual games would have been useful. David Edmonds and John Eidinow wrote Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time just a couple years ago and it has probably supplanted this book's place as regards the topic, but this one still seems worth reading if for no other reason that Mr. Steiner was there to experience the tumultuous match personally.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Sports (General)
George Steiner Links:

    -OBIT: George Steiner, influential culture critic, dies aged 90: The multilingual scholar was renowned for broadening English readers’ horizons and for his passionate moral engagement (Alison Flood, 4 Feb 2020, The Guardian)
    -CONTEMPORARY WRITERS: George Steiner (British Council on the Arts)
    -George Steiner (Wikipedia)
    -George Steiner (NNDB)
    -The Papers of George Steiner (Janus)
    -EXCERPT: George Steiner: In Bluebeard's Castle. Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of Errata: An Examined Life by George Steiner
    -ESSAY: The Unfinished: Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (George Steiner, April 17, 1995, The New Yorker)
    -LECTURE: George Steiner Lecture - Part One (University of Edinburgh)
    -LECTURE: F.E.L. Priestley Lectures: George Steiner (on IDEAS, 24, 31 May and 7 June 1996)
    -ESSAY: THE SCANDAL OF THE NOBEL PRIZE (George Steiner, 9/30/84, NY Times)
    -EXCHANGE: What Shall the Responsible Intellectual Do? (Noam Chomsky debates with George Steiner, March 23, 1967, The New York Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Philosophical Investigations by Richard Wall (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Vermeer and the Delft School by Walter Liedtke and Vermeer and Painting in Delft by Axel Ruger (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, trans. Richard Zenith (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Hegel: A Biography by Terry Pinkard (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind by Noam Chomsky (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Identity by Milan Kundera translated by Linda Asher (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany by Jonathan Petropoulos (George Steiner, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of THE ORDER OF THINGS: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. By Michel Foucault (George Stiner, NY Times Book Review)
    -ARCHIVES: George Steiner (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: "george steiner" (Find Articles)
    -ARTICLE: George Steiner named Norton Professor (Harvard Gazette, 3/15/01)
    -AWARD: Literary Critic George Steiner wins Truman Capote Award (Stanford Online)
    -PROFILE: George Steiner (Jeet Heer, September 16, 2004, National Post)
    -PROFILE: George and his dragons: Once spurned by the academic establishment, this controversial critic is dismissed by some as a pretentious namedropper. To others he is a polymath champion of European high culture. (Maya Jaggi, March 17, 2001, The Guardian)
-ESSAY: The Critic’s Critic: George Steiner and the art of hopeful failure (Richard Hughes Gibson, 12/19/21, Hedehog Review)
    -ESSAY: The End of Endings (Richard John Neuhaus, August/September 2001, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of The Sporting Scene (MetaChess, 16. Oktober 2002)
    -REVIEW: of The Portage to San Cristobel of A.H. (Morris Dickstein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Portage to San Cristobel of A.H. (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Errata by George Steiner (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Errata: An Examined Life by George Steiner (Anthony Gottlieb, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Errata (Rex Murphy, The Globe & Mail)
    -REVIEW: of Errata (Scott McLemee, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Grammars of Creation by George Steiner (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Grammars of Creation By George Steiner (Roger Kimball, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Grammars of Creation (F.H. Buckley, Crisis)
    -REVIEW: of Grammars of Creation (Roy Porter, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Grammars of Creation (Adam Phillips, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995 By George Steiner (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of No Passion Spent (Kenneth Baker, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Proofs And Three Parables By George Steiner (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Real Presences By George Steiner (Eva Hoffman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Lessons of the Masters: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 2001-2002 by George Steiner (Stephen Romer, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Lessons of the Masters (Salley Vickers, The Observer )
    -REVIEW: of Lessons of the Masters (Joseph Epstein, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW: of Lessons of the Masters (Edward Skidelsky, New Statesman)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ARTICLE: From the Archives: The 1972 World Chess Championship in Iceland (Erik Pomrenke, July 12, 2022, Iceland Review)
    -ESSAY: Bobby & Boris, Timman & Sir Tim: 50 years since Fischer v Spassky (Raymond Keene, August 2022, The Article) BOBBY FISCHER:
    -ARCHIVES: "bobby fischer" (Brothers Judd Blog)
    -Match of the Century (Wikipedia)
    -Bobby Fischer (Wikipedia)
    -Boris Spassky (Wikipedia)
    -World Chess Championship 1972 Fischer - Spassky Title Match Highlights (Mark Weeks)
    -fischer-spassky (Compiled by kevin86,
    -Fischer-Spassky: The 1972 World Chess Championship (Jon Edwards)
    -Fischer vs. Spassky match, 1972: World Championship Match (Chess Club)
    -ESSAY: The chess match of the century (Dave Edmonds, 8/09/02, BBC)
    -ESSAY: Fischer's Price: Chess may have been the only thing that kept the champion in touch with reality. (GARRY KASPAROV, July 19, 2004 , Opinion Journal)
    -ESSAY: The 30th anniversary of the 1972 World Championship match in Reykjavik between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky (Ian Rogers, May 26, 2002, Canberra Times)
    -ESSAY: A study of Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, the 1972 FIDE Chess Title Match, and their correlation (
    -ESSAY: Cold war chess: The rise and fall of chess in the 20th century was intimately linked with the cold war and the Soviet Union's giant investment in the game. But deprived of the atmosphere of menace that characterised that era, chess has dissipated much of the capital it built up over more than a century (Daniel Johnson, June 2005, Prospect uk)
    -ARTICLE: Spassky asks Bush to go easy on Fischer (The Associated Press, Aug. 12, 2004)
    -ESSAY: Searching for Bobby Fischer's Platonic Form (Kenneth Silber, 04/06/2004, Tech Central Station)
    -ESSAY: The man who saved Fischer-Spassky (Chess Base, 13.05.2003)
    -ESSAY: BOBBY FISCHER AND THE BOLSHEVIK UNDERSTANDING OF LAW (Srdja Trifkovic, December 18, 2004, Chronicles)
    -Cultural Revolutions (Srdja Trifkovic, September 2004, Chronicles)
    -ESSAY: Bobby Fischer: Demise of a chess legend (Robert Plummer, 3/24/05, BBC News)
    -ESSAY: Bobby Fischer's strangest endgame: Arguably the greatest chess player of all time (and one of the weirdest human beings) is detained in Japan, wanted by the U.S. Will he escape an ignominious fool's mate? (Rene Chun, July 24, 2004, Salon)
    -ESSAY: The Hounding of a Chess Legend (Richard Wall, Lew Rockwell)
    -INTERVIEW: with David Edmonds and John Eidinow: authors of Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time (Harper Collins)
    -INTERVIEW: with David Edmonds and John Eidinow (Amanda Smith, 8/05/04, Book Talk)
    -REVIEW: of Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (Heller McAlpin, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Bobby Fischer Goes to War (GABRIEL SCHOENFELD, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Bobby Fischer Goes to War (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Bobby Fischer Goes to War (Tim Wall, Moscow Times)
    -REVIEW: of Bobby Fischger Goes to War (Paul Gleason, Yale Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Bobby Fischer Goes to War< /a> (Mark Weeks,
-REVIEW: Of Bobby Fischer Goes to War (David Surratt, Chessville)
    -REVIEW: of Bobby Fischer Goes to War (Seamus Sweeney, Nth Position)
    -REVIEW: of Bobby Fischer Goes to War (JAMES NEAL WEBB, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of NO REGRETS: FISCHER-SPASSKY 1992 MATCH By Yasser Seirawan and George Stefanovic (Jeremy Silman)
    -REVIEW: of OBBY FISCHER: THE WANDERING KING by Hans Bohm and Kees Jongkind (Randy Bauer)
    -REVIEW: of Searching for Bobby Fischer The World of Chess, Observed by the Father of a Child Prodigy By Fred Waitzkin (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)

    -World Chess Federation