I finished reading Frank Brady’s Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall-From America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness last week. It’s a very readable biography of the American world chess champion who captured the nation’s attention in the early 1970s with his victory over Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. Many chess experts believe that Fischer and Paul Morphy, about whom I wrote earlier, were two of the greatest chess talents ever to live.
In reading Brady’s account of Fischer’s life, I was struck by similarities between the chess genius and Andrew Jackson. Both displayed the proverbial indomitable will that helped them achieve success, often through fits of anger that I think were calculated to bring about their desired result. Both men also exhibited paranoid thinking.
Jackson grew up in a violent area of the southern frontier and lost his immediate family by his early teen years. No doubt, this environment and these losses had an effect on his attitude toward people. He seems to have held a genuine animosity toward those who attacked his and his wife’s reputation, as well as toward individuals and institutions who threatened his financial security. These, and his political enemies, were the most frequently mentioned conspirators mentioned in his correspondence.
Fischer, on the other hand, grew up in a household with a supportive single mother and sister. He initially exhibited paranoid behavior because of what he perceived as collusion among Soviet players to keep him from succeeding in tournaments. Fischer had good reason to fear a Soviet conspiracy–it was real. Yet, that doesn’t explain why he latched on to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, especially given his own Jewish heritage. Nor does it explain his increasingly erratic behavior that alienated almost everyone in his life.
Lacking a battery of psychological tests to consult, it’s unclear what were the sources of the two men’s anger and paranoia. I’m no Michael Paul Rogin, but my guess is that Jackson was deeply affected by the losses of his childhood and sought security (familial, financial, etc.) as he grew older. Threats to that security brought his wrath. Fischer, I think, suffered from a mental illness. Brady doesn’t go that far in his analysis, but the narcissism, paranoia, obsessive-compulsive behavior, lack of hygiene (in his thirties, nonetheless, not to mention later), and other irrational behaviors also suggest that Fischer was a sick man for a long, long time.
I’m frequently asked why I like Andrew Jackson. My response is that I’m not sure I would have liked Jackson if I knew him, but he, like Fischer, was a fascinating individual. Their complicated personalities make for interesting study.