Sunday, February 6, 2011

Interview With Dr. Frank Brady, Author of Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall--From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness

In 1965, Dr. Frank Brady wrote Profile of a Prodigy, the definitive biography of Grandmaster Bobby Fischer's early life (a subsequent edition published in 1973 updated Fischer's life story with details about Fischer's triumph in the 1972 World Championship match versus Boris Spassky and the 1989 reprint of that version is still easily available now). Dr. Brady is a full professor at St. John's University (he formerly served as Chairman of St. John's Communications Department), an international chess arbiter and the former editor of Chess Life magazine (the official publication of the U.S. Chess Federation). He has also written biographies of Hugh Hefner, Aristotle Onassis and Barbra Streisand.

Dr. Brady's newest book,
Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall--From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (hardcover, 416 pages), is available in stores now and can also be ordered directly from the publisher. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Brady about Endgame:

Friedman: “You interacted with Bobby Fischer from the 1950s through 1972 and played hundreds of chess games against him—I’m assuming those were mostly blitz games.”

Dr. Brady: “All blitz games. Often it was five minutes against five minutes but after he beat me two or three times doing that he would reduce the time to four minutes on his clock. After he beat me with that he would reduce it to three minutes and then after he beat me with that he would reduce it to two minutes; so he was playing with two minutes and I was playing with five minutes and I would say I won two games out of hundreds that we played. At that time I could not beat him at five-five or five-four or five-three.”

Friedman: “What was your playing strength at that time?”

Dr. Brady: “At that time, my playing strength was about 2000 I think—somewhere in that neighborhood” (Ed. Note: this is Expert level, which is above the 90th percentile of rated tournament players).

Friedman: “When was the first time you played him?”

Dr. Brady: “The first time we played he was already U.S. Champion. He was a Grandmaster and he was probably the strongest player in the country by the time I started playing him” (Fischer became the youngest U.S. chess champion—a record he still holds—in 1958 at the age of 14, an accomplishment that earned him the International Master title; months later as a 15 year old, Fischer qualified for the Candidates round in the World Championship cycle, becoming the youngest Grandmaster ever, a record that stood until 1991).

Friedman: “A lot of people have talked about the phenomenon of 'Fischer fear' and the reaction that he would inspire in his opponents. How would you describe ‘Fischer fear’ both from the perspective of playing blitz games against him and also—I know that you directed the U.S. Championship when he went 11-0 and you were present at other high level events—what are your observations and thoughts about ‘Fischer fear’ pertaining to his games against elite caliber opponents?”

Dr. Brady: “I don’t think that the terminology of ‘Fischer fear’ really could apply to him. I don’t see that people got frightened of him or nervous or excited about playing him. I guess if you were a very weak player and had the opportunity to play him you would be afraid but what it was is you started to play him and very early on—I mean, you’re hardly out of the opening—you begin to realize that your position is deteriorating. Also, you begin to realize that his position is strengthening and because he is the best player in the United States and one of the best players in the world you realize that even if your position is slightly superior—which I hardly ever experienced personally—he is going to find a way to beat you because he is so good. But you continue to play; I never heard anyone say, ‘Boy, I’m really scared to play him.’ When I directed the U.S. Championship when he won 11 straight I didn’t hear any of the players say, ‘Boy, I’m afraid to face Fischer,’ nor did I hear any international players say that in the tournaments that we were at together. But people realized that he was a great player and that they were going to lose, so to that extent I guess there may have been players who did not like to play him.”

Friedman: “I don’t think that the phrase was uttered or expressed by a player but I believe it was a journalist who coined that term with the idea that in some of Fischer’s games—particularly when he made his run to the World Championship and had that streak of 20 straight wins—it seemed like some of his opponents kind of crumbled; as well as Fischer was playing, there also seemed to be a reverse effect with some of his opponents playing below their previous standards. They seemed to be having an adverse reaction to playing him, perhaps because he was playing so well that this put psychological pressure on them just to stay in the game. Maybe the term is not precise or not 100% apt but I remember this passage about how some strong Grandmasters—even former World Champions like Petrosian—seemed to be playing below their standards or they would get to a critical point and just blunder. Even Spassky did this (in the World Championship match).”

Dr.Brady: “Taimanov blundered. Larsen also blundered, but Fischer often said that many of the players he beat said that they were ill or playing below their usual strength and that is the reason that they lost. I like to think—and I’m not trying to trumpet Fischer’s strength—that it was not a fear of Fischer but merely Fischer’s strength that overwhelmed them; at the time that he beat Larsen six straight Larsen was truly one of the great players in the world.”

Friedman: “Much has been written about mastery of a given subject being the result of 10,000 hours of what is called 'effortful study.'

Dr. Brady: “Malcolm Gladwell.”

Friedman: “Yes, right. How much of Fischer’s success do you attribute to innate talent, to a gift that he had, and how much do you attribute to the legendary work ethic he had?”

Dr. Brady: “It’s hard to put a percentage on it but he had all of these things. He was probably the foremost student of the game and I don’t know if there is anyone even now who is close to him. He studied six, seven, eight hours a day. He played over many games, studied endings. I could not confirm this story but someone said that one time when Fischer was trying to figure out a particular Rook ending that he had trouble understanding he took a hotel room—I think in Manhattan--so that he would be away from everybody and nobody would know where he was and he spent an entire weekend just going over this Rook ending so that he could master it. A great deal of what Bobby Fischer was resulted from his study. He also was brilliant and had an astronomical IQ. He had a tremendous competitive spirit. He was always competing, not only in chess—though chess may have perhaps made him even more competitive—but also in conversations and in other sports: when he swam he always wanted to win the race, when he went up to Grossinger’s to play tennis only the tennis pro could beat him—he beat everybody else. Even in social situations, he often got into arguments and he wanted to win the argument; it didn’t matter what would happen to the relationship, he always wanted to win. I quote him in the book—and I think that this is a telling quote—that Bobby once said, ‘I am always on the attack.’ He wasn’t just talking about the chessboard. So he had a competitive spirit, great study habits and a passion for the game. All of those factors made him great.”

Friedman: “In excerpts of the book that I have seen and in previous interviews in which you discussed the book, you took a very measured tone. You didn’t sensationalize different aspects of Fischer’s life or try to make speculations about anything if you didn’t have hard facts to support any conclusions. I know that you have been involved in journalism as both a writer and as an educator for several decades. Do you think that journalistic standards have declined recently, that there is a tendency for people to just make speculations and say reckless things without any support? If you agree that this is the case, why do you think this has happened and what could be done to improve the situation?”

Dr. Brady: “Wow. That is more of an educational question than a chess question but certainly I think that standards have reduced in terms of sensationalizing content. It comes down to money: that’s what sells. Standard kinds of books that do not expose dirty linen don’t sell. So you see movies with gratuitous sex and violence scenes that don’t really need to be there—and I am not a prude by any means; I am not talking about a moral point of view but scenes that don’t need to be there from a narrative point of view. People are drawn into it. Natalie Portman, who has been nominated for Best Actress, was quoted as saying that no one—no young males—would have come to see Black Swan if there had not been a lesbian scene in the film. People are attracted to sensationalized content. I don’t know what to do about it but I can tell you that publishers and film directors and everybody else want that kind of content in their work.”

Friedman: “The commercial element has always been present but do you think that recently it has gotten worse?”

Dr. Brady: “Everybody is trying to make a buck and indeed it is very difficult to stay afloat in publishing; Barnes and Nobles bookstores are closing all over Manhattan. I guess that people aren’t reading, so the books that are going to emerge are the books that are sensationalized. I try not to do that, as you pointed out—and thank you for observing that. It would be easy to do it, but not morally or ethically correct.”

Friedman: “I have so much respect for what you have done. When the second edition of Profile of a Prodigy came out you had new information that contradicted some of the things you had previously written but you did not cover it up or say that you had it right the first time; you were trying to find the truth, not trying to present yourself as flawless and not trying to write something that would be scandalous just to sell more copies. One of the things that struck me from your recent Chess Life interview is that you mentioned that a lot of people—and you included yourself—got the relationship between Fischer and his mother wrong, that the relationship was actually more complex or deeper than had been previously reported. Why do you think that some of the earlier accounts were incorrect and how did you obtain a deeper understanding of what Fischer’s relationship with his mother had really been like?”

Dr. Brady: “I knew Regina Fischer. I spent time with both of them alone. She was sort of a slightly pushy woman but only for Bobby’s good. She would say ‘Bobby, I want you to do this now.’ It’s called being a stage mother. ‘Why don’t you do this or do that for your career?’ She was directing him in ways that mothers might do with kids in their early teens: ‘Why don’t you say hello to that person?’ But I didn’t spend all that much time with her, so I didn’t know the true nature of their relationship. What happened was a certain number of stories appeared—especially that Harper’s magazine story, I don’t know if you ever read it.”

Friedman: “Right, the one by Ralph Ginzburg.”

Dr. Brady: “That story really made Bobby look terrible and it also negatively portrayed his relationship with his Mom. Bobby was perhaps guilty of braggadocio; even if he really said ‘I had to get rid of my Mom’ I don’t believe that this was the case. His mother indeed left to pursue other things—she went on this peace march and then she went back to medical school. In any event, I was under the impression that they had had many more contretemps than they actually did. As I pointed out in Chess Life, people do indeed argue with their parents—most of us did during our teen years—but that doesn’t mean we don’t love each other. Almost anything that Bobby said was going to be publicized and it could be distorted. People were always trying to make Bobby look unusual or crazy.

How did I find out the truth? It was through examination of his letters to his Mom covering a large period of years. She was a speed typist and she kept carbon copies of many of the letters that she sent to Bobby. You could just tell by the quality of the letters, the birthday cards, the Mother’s Day cards, the gifts that Bobby sent, the way that he wanted her to come back to the United States after she got her medical degree. He wanted a photograph of her when he was on his deathbed. Everything led up to the fact that they had a long term, loving relationship as mother and son—in fact, probably closer than almost anyone I know. So, I had to reinterpret that; I had to restate that.”

Friedman: “You mentioned in the Chess Life interview that for a period of time when he was destitute or did not have other forms of income he was surviving in part because she sent him her Social Security check.”

Dr. Brady: “That is another point. He knew that she loved him enough to do that. If they had a bad relationship then she wouldn’t have done it and he wouldn’t have asked for it. He did live on that for a number of years.”

Friedman: “Some accounts about Fischer’s personality and attitudes contend that he changed or got worse after he left chess in 1972 but I also remember a statement from GM Hartston who said—I am paraphrasing—that chess did not make Bobby Fischer crazy but rather it kept him sane. In other words, some people felt that chess provided balance for Fischer while other people felt that it contributed to whatever mental health problems he had. With all the research that you did and the new information that you found, do you think that Fischer showed some signs of mental disturbance when he was young or did something change when he got older? How do you think that aspect of his psychology evolved over the years?”

Dr. Brady: “Quite honestly, I never saw any aberration or even any deep neurosis when he was younger. He always marched to his own drummer. He could be obnoxious sometimes or aberrant in some ways but nothing that I would call in any way, shape or form mentally unbalanced. Then he won the World Championship in 1972 and from that point in time until his death he started reading and reading and reading. Yeah, he gave up chess but he was never really away from it. He continued studying. I don’t know if you knew that.”

Friedman: “I do.”

Dr. Brady: “In fact, thinking about his relationship with his Mom, when she was studying for her medical degree in Germany she could get Russian chess books for a very small amount of money so she was constantly sending him all of the Russian chess books.”

Friedman: “This was after 1972?”

Dr. Brady: “Yeah. In fact, he was getting so many of these packages of chess books and magazines that he finally had to write to her and say don’t send any more because it won’t fit in my apartment. So he never really gave up chess. That’s not what made him get more neurotic, I don’t think. He wanted to be alone. He was a J.D. Salinger/Greta Garbo kind of character and he enjoyed his own company more than that of others.”

Friedman: “Is it correct that when he was in his teens some of the other players—maybe even Reuben Fine (a strong Grandmaster who became a psychoanalyst)—suggested either to him or to chess organizers or to his mother that perhaps he should receive counseling or some kind of psychiatric treatment? Or is that a misnomer? I read that and I am wondering if you know if this is correct.”

Dr. Brady: “Alan Kaufman, who is a master level player and was a member of the Board of Governors at the Marshall Chess Club, may know the answer to that because he was a member of the Board of Governors for at least 40 years. I am going to see him at a book signing that I am doing in Queens on the 16th of February so I will ask him if he ever heard that because that supposedly happened at the Marshall. I don’t know; it’s an apocryphal story right now as far as I am concerned.”

Friedman: “I know that in between the 1972 and 1992 matches with Spassky, Fischer played three games against the Greenblatt chess computer. He had been in seclusion for several years and then all of a sudden he played these games that eventually surfaced in the press. Did your research shed any light on how this match came about?”

Dr. Brady: “I can’t suggest anything. Wasn’t Greenblatt from MIT?”

Friedman: “Yes, I believe so.”

Dr. Brady: “I went up to IBM in Westchester and snooped around and talked to P.R. people and so forth but I got nothing. Nobody remembered anything or knew anything about it, so the answer is I have no idea. I just could never find out about it.”

Friedman: “My last question is the one issue with Fischer that makes a lot of people squeamish, it’s kind of uncomfortable, but I am interested in the insight that you can provide. Why did Fischer direct so much public antipathy toward Jews? There seemed to be a contradiction, because he had cordial relations later in his life with the Polgar sisters, at one stage with Larry Evans and with other players and people who were Jewish or of Jewish ancestry. Yet he made all of these statements that I don’t even want to repeat. He seemed to have some strange obsession with this issue; apparently you could have a normal conversation with him on any kind of subject but I think one of the Polgar sisters once said that as soon as that issue came up he would just rant and rant and rant and you could not direct him back to any other topic—and he would say these things even to the Polgars, who are Jewish. They would say, ‘Bobby, we’re Jewish’ and he would say, ‘You’re the exception.’”

Dr. Brady: “He used the word Jewish, by the way, as a pejorative for any bad person, even if that person was not Jewish.”

Friedman: “Right. How did that come about?”

Dr. Brady: “I can only speculate. He personally told me many years ago that when his Mom would have people over for dinner or just to visit for the evening in many cases they were Jewish intellectuals. He was a just a little kid and they would talk about philosophy and about Palestine and about educational issues and about politics. He hated that conversation, probably because he couldn’t contribute to it. So there was that kind of feeling that Jewish intellectuals have this kind of conversation and I can’t participate in it. He did say—not to me, but to someone else—‘I reserve the right to generalize.’ As we know, generalizations are wrong sometimes. So there is that aspect to it. The second aspect is almost all of the members of the Board of the American Chess Foundation were Jewish; they were backing (Fischer’s rival Sammy) Reshevsky, paying him $200 a month as a salary. When he (Reshevsky) was a young man, Julius Rosenwald paid for him to go to college; he was given plum exhibitions and entrance fees and appearance fees to play in tournaments. Bobby wasn’t getting any of that. So there is that aspect to it, too. It’s hard to say why he turned. I read a wonderful book by David Mamet called The Wicked Son. It is about self-hating Jews and why they become self-hating Jews and why they repudiate Judaism. Mamet says that it is because there are some people who cannot bear--for psychological, emotional and political reasons—to be in the minority as Jews are, especially in this country. So they want to identify with another group because they can’t be in the minority. If you’re Black there is nothing you can do, because you are Black. I hope that is not misinterpreted as a politically incorrect statement. So Bobby used the fact that he was not circumcised as ‘proof’ that he was not Jewish but it’s a shame. I hate it. I could not tolerate—people would ask what my relationship was with Bobby and I would say that I had not spoken with him in years but if I did speak with him the first question I would ask is, ‘Bobby, are you really and truly an anti-Semite? Are you really saying these things? Or is this some kind of an act?’ If indeed he would have said, ‘No, I hate Jews’ then I would have just walked away and never talked to him again.”

Friedman: “It seems like such a contradiction when you describe these intellectuals who used to visit his mother and you say that he could not follow or participate in the conversation; it almost sounds like you are describing an inferiority complex and yet we know that he had an extraordinarily high IQ and a fantastic memory so if he had some interest in the conversation then there is no reason—even though he was young—that he could not have picked up on it and followed it.”

Dr. Brady: “The problem was that almost up until the time he won the World Championship he was uneducated to some extent. He read some literature in high school and he could talk about certain things but generally he could not talk on a high level (about subjects other than chess) until later in his life; so, the intelligence had nothing to do with his education.”

Friedman: “Of course, those are two different things. It also seemed like, at least from some accounts I have read about when he stayed with the Polgar family, that the Polgars could play blitz with him or have pleasant conversations but if anything came up pertaining to Jews it was like his whole demeanor would change and you could not get him off of that subject. With some of his public statements going all the way back to the Ginzburg interview and the way that you said some people tried to make him look bad—which is not to excuse anything Fischer actually said—it seemed like some people would find the right buttons to push with Fischer, whether it was the mother issue or his later interviews on Philippine radio with those guys laughing in the background and egging Fischer on to say more things. It was almost like they would get him going and then he would rant and could not control himself--but I am not excusing anything he said.”

Dr. Brady: “That is a good interpretation and that’s a very astute observation. I also say in the book that it’s almost like—I’m not really serious about this statement—he had Tourette’s Syndrome and could not control himself from saying that anything having to do with Judaism must be bad but once that was over he could talk normally.”

Further Reading:

Bobby Fischer's Mixed Legacy

Wilt and Bobby: Not a Random Encounter (short story about Wilt Chamberlain, Bobby Fischer and Dick Schaap)

Patent awarded to Bobby Fischer in 1989 for digital chess clock with incremental function (the kind of timing device that has become standard fare in chess tournaments around the world).

A Brief History of the Development of Fischer Random Chess

1 comment:

Taylor said...

Anyone who likes Endgame might be interested in an upcoming screening of "Bobby Fischer Against the World" at the Museum of the Moving Image. The film screening will be followed by a discussion with Frank Brady and blogger Dylan McClain and Brady will also have a book signing before the event.

If you are in the NYC area, don't miss this event on June 22nd! For more info on the screening, visit