I finished Brad Darrach’s essay on Bobby Fischer and the complete debacle that was getting him to Iceland for his famous match against Boris Spassky. It’s definitely an interesting read. Part of Darrach’s success as a sports writer must have come from his sheer storytelling abilities. His tale reads like an action movie, complete with chase scenes, fights, espionage, long arguments, deception and intrigue. Despite it being a long essay, it flew by. But it left me with a very interesting question: why did Bobby Fischer talk to Brad Darrach in the first place?
It’s a question that, as a sports writer-wannabe, is certainly worth discovering the answer to. In my career I am prepared to be tossed into a pit filled with other lions, all of them clawing at the same one or two gladiators that I am trying. We’re all trying to get the same stories, the same quotes, the same understanding of the same players. And just like in a gladiatorial arena, the athletes are going to fight back. They might not have spears, but they will treat us with disdain, hostility, frustration, and anger. On occasion they may even react violently. So how does one break through?
Bobby Fischer hated the press, and he was stone-terrified of them. Darrach regales us with the thrilling chase scenes between Bobby and the press through the streets of New York and through to Kennedy Airport, with some of his entourage effectively sacrificing themselves to allow Bobby extra moments for escape. It would seem Bobby was as anti-press as any professional athlete. And yet when Darrach calls him, Bobby responds kindly, asking him about the weather, the state of his competition, and just generally shooting the breeze with him. Somehow Brad Darrach figured out a way to break through Bobby Fischer’s defenses and get him to open up. And as a chess player, you’ve got to figure Bobby Fischer had some pretty strong defenses.
The key factor that seemed to help Darrach was the distance between him and Fischer. He is not one of the hounds dogging Fischer’s every step, but rather maintains his distance throughout his encounters with Fischer (at least during the time this article covers). They speak primarily over the phone, and Darrach goes to great lengths just talking to the many members of Fischer’s entourage so as to minimize the need to talk to Fischer himself. Perhaps this suggests that the key to getting through to athletes, to getting them to open up, is to not press any particular issue. I’ve noticed this in many of the articles I’ve read so far. Gay Tallese and Richard Ben Cramer, in their exposes on Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, respectively, never have any luck when they try to get their subjects to discuss something specific. They only succeeded when they just let the subjects ramble on. The same thing happens to Darrach when he tries to focus Bobby on his competition, although Bobby cuts off the call primarily because he discovers he is being eavesdropped upon. So keeping distance is certainly key.
Another key factor may be in recognizing that some of a professional athlete’s paranoia is based in reality (like Bobby Fischer’s). Athletes ARE hounded, and the press is constantly after them for one thing or another. So as a journalist, the key to breaking through to athletes is to create a comfortable environment for them, one where they feel their guardedness and paranoia is unnecessary. Darrach knew this, and he was able to break through to one of the most fascinating gamesmen of our time.