The Book on Bobby Fischer

While perusing books at the library I noticed a book titled, Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, edited by Franklin Foer, editor of the magazine, The New Republic, and Mark Tracy. As I took the book from the shelf I could not help but reflect upon a former friend who gave up chess, Mike “Maddog” Gordon, and his collection of Jewish baseball players he called his, “Hammerin’ Hebes.” I flipped through the book and noticed the essay about the famous first baseman, Hank Greenberg. He had come close to breaking the home run record held by Babe Ruth and many Jewish writers had written that the gentile pitchers colluded against Hank, walking him in lieu of throwing him pitches he could possibly hit out of the park. I recalled reading something about the book when it first appeared in 2012. Hank said that was not true, so I sat down to read the essay. Then I saw a picture of Al Rosen, the third baseman for the Cleveland Indians, and one of the best ballplayers ever until he hurt his back. I read that, too. Upon turning the pages I was astounded to see a striking lithograph of Bobby Fischer which accompanied a piece titled, “The Unnatural.” It was written by Jonathan Safran Foer, brother of Franklin, and an author of some repute, having published “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” in 2005, a book recently made into a movie starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock I thought it strange to include Bobby in a book of Jewish jocks. Although the essay was short, only five pages, I decided to check it out, wondering how Bobby would be written about by one of those he so reviled.
The piece begins, “A Jew wrote The Natural, but has there ever been a natural Jew? Free-spiritedness, joie de vivre, ease in the world-these are not what we do. We do scrappiness, resilience, hard work, self-questioning, self-consciousness, self-destruction, and unflappable will. This applies especially to our athletes, many of whom were not given the best of genetic toolboxes. Most great Jewish athletes have at least this in common: they overcome God’s gifts.
Not a jock, and not a Jew by any definition richer than heredity, Bobby Fischer was the quintessential Jewish Jock. He worked harder than any of his peers. He attempted to conceal his insecurity behind an ego built for twenty, and his self-love behind self-hatred behind self-love. And perhaps more than any human who has ever lived, he kvetched: the board is too reflective, the presence of breathing humans too distracting, the high-frequency sounds-which only he and Pomeranians could detect-made game play utterly impossible. Some loved him for his loony obstinacy. Most didn’t.”
He writes about Bobby the Jew, whether or not Bobby wanted to be considered a Jew. “Like a good Jewish boy, he outworked his peers and brought the A home to Mama. And like a good Jewish boy, he couldn’t stand Mama-her politics, priorities, relationship to money, of religion.” I wonder if this fellow would have written that if he had read the recent books about Bobby, such as Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady, and The Greatest Secret of Bobby Fischer, by Nenad Nesh Stankovic. From these books one learns how much Bobby loved his mother.
There is another book about Bobby I will mention, A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer: Understanding the Genius, mystery, and Psychological Decline of a World Chess Champion, by Joseph G. Ponterotto, Ph.D. This expensive book (I paid $35 and it is now selling on the Gorilla for over $50), an exercise in futility, proves the old axiom of Ph.D. meaning, “Piled Higher and Deeper.” I will only say that upon finishing the book, I felt ripped off. The book by Nesh, in contrast, is much cheaper and would still be “cheap at twice the price.” Nesh was introduced to Bobby before the second match with Boris Spassky (who does come off too well, offering to lose intentionally if enough money was involved) as “…the person who would take care of his most immediate security.” Nesh writes about a dinner during the final days of his job in which the “…working hours extended to all twenty-four…”
“Bobby said to me, “You know, Nesh,” that’s what he called me, “you’re the only person to spend so much time with me.” Then he looked over at Philippine Grandmaster Eugene Torre and Hungarian-American player of the old school, Pal Benko who were keeping us company that evening, and he burst into laughter and added, “I mean, the only one who lasted that long.” He continued by adding the story of his “strange” friend Sam Sloan with whom he cruised Manhattan for six months, covering every inch of the heart of New York. They spent time together every day during that period, but then “poor Sam” disappeared without a trace. I liked the story, but I did not feel like laughing, because I myself was fairly worn out and exhausted after something more than a year with him.” Nesh portrays Bobby as he was during the year plus he spent with him. His book can be considered the “practice” part while the book by the pointy-headed intellectual, who never even met Bobby, can be considered the “theory.” The book by the Ph.D. is cold, distant and dry. The book by Nesh is sometimes warm and tender, while also being brutal and bitter. The book by Nesh is human and the best book on Bobby thus far. The book by the Ph.D. could have been written by a computer program.
Mr. Foer prints some of the diatribes Bobby broadcast from DZSR Sports Radio in Manilla, culminating with, “It’s time to start randomly killing Jews.” Mr. Foer then asks, “With Jews like this, who needs Nazi’s?” This is followed by, “His girlfriend at the time excused his behavior thusly: “He’s like a child. Very, very simple.” Consider that for a moment…The greatest chess player of all-time being thought of by someone who knew him intimately as a simpleton.
Mr. Foer continues, “Or perhaps chess is an inherently paranoid game, and anti-Semitism is the paradigm of paranoids. The most obvious explanation would be that he had experienced some kind of psychic break. Whatever the cause, he had left the fold of mainstream humanity, and despite whatever lingering chess abilities he might have had-his 1992 rematch with Boris Spassky, after twenty years out of public view, was at best uninspired-he was universally reviled.”
Mr. Foer is wrong. According to Frank Brady, a better case can be made that Bobby was afflicted with the same mental illness attributed to his natural father, Paul Nemenyi, which only manifested later in his life, as it did with Bobby, who possibly inherited the genes from his father. Bobby Fisher should therefore be pitied, not reviled.
Mr. Foer’s essay ends a question, “What do we do with the unnatural mind? Praise it when it’s beautiful, excuse it when it’s ugly? Or should we write off the unnatural mind in all cases? Should we put it on a pedestal to observe, in a cage to protect ourselves from it-put it in a book?”