If you grew up in the 70s and 80s as I did, the name Bobby Fischer once had a glamour impossible to describe. He was the master and popularizer of a game few could play well, he was for a brief time a media darling and cold war hero, and he walked away from all of it. He left chess undefeated and on his own terms. He was a genius.
He was also, by all appearances, batshit crazy.
Whether he was always, to put in politely, sanity-challenged but to a lesser degree or whether the pressures he placed on himself and his fame imposed on him drove him over the edge is probably something we'll never know. Aside from being a chess genius, there is no record of Bobby Fischer doing anything laudable, admirable or even halfway decent. In addition to being BSC, it seems Bobby was a jerk. Not just weird like another famous savant, Glenn Gould, but a complete jerk. Topped with the increasing paranoia that looked like mere Cold War savvy in Iceland circa 1972 and an anti-semitism that even a Nazi would think a bit much, it transformed him from national hero to national embarrassment to fugitive. It was hard even to feel sorry for this obviously troubled man.
What made him brilliant, whether he truly was a genius or just a case of Cold War hype, and what made him so important to his times was either shrouded in myth or forgotten altogether until David Edmonds and John Eidinow wrote Bobby Fischer Goes to War. Part biography, part history of chess, part journalistic account of the 1972 World Chess Championship, this book will make you think you understand chess and Bobby Fischer. Easily the best nonfiction book of 2004, Bobby Fischer Goes to War is compulsively readable whether you care about chess or the Cold War or Fischer.
My mind went back to this book when I read about his death Friday morning. I'll probably reread it in the coming months wondering all the while what really happened to Bobby Fischer.