Black & White: The Rise and Fall of Bob­by Fischer

  • Review
By – June 16, 2023

Like a black-and-white chess­board, the life of grand­mas­ter Bob­by Fis­ch­er (1943 – 2008) was full of con­trast. In their graph­ic biog­ra­phy of a trou­bled genius, Julian Voloj and Wag­n­er Willian con­dense the incred­i­ble accom­plish­ments and alarm­ing choic­es of this man and the myths sur­round­ing him. 

As a young Jew­ish boy raised in Brook­lyn by a strong sin­gle moth­er, Fis­ch­er is drawn to the intel­lec­tu­al cal­cu­la­tions of a game that seems to offer him a mea­sure of con­trol. Yet his acute sen­si­tiv­i­ties and social prob­lems still man­i­fest them­selves, and are met by inad­e­quate respons­es from adults. When he is in ele­men­tary school, Bob­by is invit­ed to join the pres­ti­gious Brook­lyn Chess Club, whose oth­er mem­bers are adults. 

Voloj imag­ines Bobby’s fas­ci­na­tion with the pawn, which has the unique abil­i­ty to trans­form itself into a dif­fer­ent piece, even a queen. In a series of images, Willian jux­ta­pos­es the ratio­nal out­line of poten­tial chess moves with Bobby’s out­burst of tears when he los­es a game. Each sen­tence of the text is rel­a­tive­ly terse, but advances a com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of Fischer’s tumul­tuous life. As he grows old­er, the stakes for win­ning, both pro­fes­sion­al­ly and emo­tion­al­ly, become more intense.

Giv­en the chaos of his lat­er life, the book’s pre­sen­ta­tion of how adults fail Fis­ch­er as a child is espe­cial­ly poignant. His men­tors in the world of chess are focused exclu­sive­ly on see­ing him win cham­pi­onships. When his moth­er brings her legit­i­mate con­cerns about Bob­by to a psy­chi­a­trist at the Brook­lyn Jew­ish Hos­pi­tal, this sup­posed pro­fes­sion­al is quite patron­iz­ing, reas­sur­ing her that it’s not unusu­al that kids get obsessed with a game,” and advis­ing her to encour­age Bob­by to do his home­work. The over­whelm­ing­ly male world of chess is not the nur­tur­ing envi­ron­ment his belea­guered moth­er tries to provide.

Men­tal ill­ness will even­tu­al­ly dom­i­nate his life. At first, he per­ceives events as brief, hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry images uncon­nect­ed to one anoth­er: the Rosen­berg tri­al, com­mu­nism, Israel. While the book’s min­i­mal­ist approach some­times address­es these con­tro­ver­sies with­out suf­fi­cient con­text, the author includes brief foot­notes to com­pen­sate. There are a few inac­cu­ra­cies. For exam­ple, the Viet­nam War, as it involved the US, occurred lat­er than the Rosen­berg tri­al; and, by 1972, Idlewild Air­port had already been renamed for Pres­i­dent Kennedy. But these minor flaws are off­set by a fast-mov­ing descrip­tion of Fischer’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in match­es and his errat­ic demands for con­trol. Using black, white, and gray sequences of squares, the author and illus­tra­tor doc­u­ment Fischer’s for­fei­ture of titles when con­di­tions do not suit him, as well as his dan­ger­ous provo­ca­tions when deal­ing with the Sovi­et Union.

The spe­cif­ic nature of Fischer’s psy­chi­atric diag­no­sis remains unclear, but the facts about this Jew­ish man’s embrace of anti­se­mit­ic beliefs and bizarre con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries are clear. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, some­one who seemed like­ly to become a Jew­ish hero trans­forms him­self into an emblem of shame. Willian departs from his pre­vi­ous style as he chron­i­cles Fischer’s descent into hatred. Car­toon­ish fig­ures drawn from both Nazi pro­pa­gan­da and mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry ani­ma­tion cov­er the pages, before they are replaced by a sad denoue­ment: on the phone, Bobby’s moth­er promis­es him that she will always love him.

The tragedy of Bob­by Fis­ch­er emerges in Black & White, with­out sim­plis­tic expla­na­tions or apolo­gies. This book is a vivid acknowl­edge­ment that aspects of his frag­ment­ed life can nev­er be ful­ly understood.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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