Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

She decided not to take the offered pawn, to leave the tension on the board. She liked it like that. She liked the power of the pieces, exerted along files and diagonals. In the middle of the game, when pieces were everywhere, the forces crisscrossing the board thrilled her. She brought out her king’s knight, feeling its power spread.

In twenty moves she had won both his rooks, and he resigned.”

–from Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit

I was quite prepared not to like Searching for Bobby Fisher. I’d been burned once, and didn’t want to see another beautiful game sacrificed on the altar of the Age of MTV. Bad memories. I was wrong about Searching for Bobby Fisher—it’s one of the best watch-it-with-the-family pictures I’ve seen recently. But I want you to know why I was afraid.

It all has to do with respect. Ya gotta respect da game. Don’t write about it, don’t make movies about it, if you don’t love it. Love and contempt are infectious. I suspect that a lot of people who never had much to do with baseball were caught up in the spell of W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe and its film incarnation Field of Dreams (1989). Why else would people still be visiting the Iowa cornfield where the movie was shot? Less well-known, John Sayle’s marvelous film Eight Men Out (1988) vividly recreates the actual historical setting and events that Kinsella’s story only alludes to.

If you love the game, they will come. The movie audience, that is. It’s likely that the best film of 1994 is a three-hour documentary on basketball, called Hoop Dreams. Chronicling five years in the lives of two boys trying to reach the Holy Grail of the NBA, Hoop Dreams has had the kind of critical reception even directors with long-established reputations must envy.

Baseball. Basketball. Chess. Eight-Ball.

As a kid, my parents made the mistake of letting me watch Paul Newman shoot pool with the Fat Man in The Hustler (1961). I’ve never been the same since. Besides being a great story about what it takes to win (and lose), The Hustler instilled in me a sense of the perfection of the game: symmetry & art & tension & anticipation & very hard work.

That’s why I was afraid to watch Bobby Fisher. In 1986 Martin Scorsese, one of America’s greatest directors, shot a sequel to The Hustler. It was called The Color of Money and once again starred Paul Newman. It also starred Torn Cruise. Aye, there’s the rub. Tom Cruise acting like shooting pool is a rock & roll floor show. Treating a cue stick like Pete Townshend treated his electric guitars. Instead of shots of a pool ball rolling precisely, inevitably towards its destined pocket, Scorsese unleashes whirlwinds of cuts that makes the actual game less real than Pac Man. If an experienced director like Martin Scorsese could do that to pool, so my thinking went, heaven only knew what a younger filmmaker might do to chess.

My fears were unfounded. Besides being a great story about what it takes to win (and lose), Searching for Bobby Fisher instilled in me a sense of the perfection of the game: symmetry & art & tension & anticipation & very hard work. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

Except that this time the protagonist is Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), a 7-year-old boy living in New York City. Josh is struggling to find the right balance between living the life of a chess prodigy who everyone hopes will be the “new” Bobby Fisher, and growing up as a decent, baseball-playing, swimming-in-the-lake human being. Usually people tell others to get a life. In Josh’s case, there are too many voices trying to talk him out of it. Having a life messes up your game.

It’s hard to ignore those voices when one belongs to your own father (played by Joe Mantegna), and the other to the temperamental genius (Ben Kingsley) who helps you master the game. Although Josh was first inspired to play by the guys who hustle chess (it really happens, folks!) for money in Washington Square, no one wants him “contaminating” his game with chess strategies picked up from a bunch of “losers” who hang out in a park.

For a while, only one of those losers (Laurence Fishburne), Josh’s mother (Joan Allen), and a schoolteacher (Laura Linney), dare to suggest that maybe there’s still a young boy somewhere in that vast intuitive chess brain that’s getting lost in others’ expectations, competitions, strategy sessions & public displays of brilliance. You know dad’s really losing it when the above-mentioned teacher expresses some concern about “the chess thing,” and he tells her: “He is better at this than anything I have been in my life—Better than you will ever be at anything!” Josh finally rebels, and everyone winds up becoming more human.

The story is true. The screenplay is based on a book written by Josh’s father. Josh’s mentor, Bruce Pandolfini, was a consultant for the film. The chess games themselves are shot in way that makes them fascinating even for the uninitiated—yet without diminishing them.

And why shouldn’t chess be fascinating to watch? It’s a ferocious sport. The object of the game is to kill your opponent’s king (the literal meaning of “checkmate” is “Your King is Dead”) and dismember his/her army. That’s a little more extreme than sinking the nine-ball in the comer pocket. Played at the Speed Chess velocity of 2 minutes thinking time per game, it’s logical blitzkrieg. Inductive Armageddon. Bloodlessly beautiful. The staunch defenders of public morality once banned women and children from pool halls.

Maybe they picked the wrong game.

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

He’s not weak—he’s decent.” –Bonnie Waitzkin

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since Searching for Bobby Fischer came out in 1993. How murky those waters have been is perhaps best captured in Rene Chun’s 2002 article for The Atlantic Daily, “Bobby Fischer’s Pathetic End Game.” I imagine that lovers of the game of chess must have to deal with Fischer in much the same way that lovers of fantasy deal with H.P. Lovecraft or lovers of poetry deal with Ezra Pound. It’s possible to be a master of your craft and still make people squirm by appalling lapses in personal judgment. Personally, my enjoyment of Lovecraft’s tales is undiminished even as my awareness of his failings has grown; I can’t see that the case would be much different for those who still study Fischer’s games and his writings on chess.

If anything, Fischer’s tragic decline reinforces one of the main themes of Searching for Bobby Fischer: how to stay a decent human being when faced with the all-consuming demands of any highly competitive sport. The film insists that there’s an alternative to winning at any cost. It might seem an obvious lesson, but it’s probably one that’s off the radar of those parents one sees in the news being ejected from hockey and baseball games for threatening referees and other parents and screaming invectives at children on opposing teams. Bobby Fischer’s contempt for his opponents may have gotten him to the world championships, but it wasn’t much of a defence against implosion.

Joshua Waitzkin wasn’t Bobby Fischer. For all his accomplishments, Waitzkin never attained Grandmaster status. He found other interests in his life beyond chess. Among chess aficionados, the online debate goes on as to how strong a player he truly was and whether he could have progressed further with more work or with different coaching. Some people just prefer their heroes to burn out rather than fade away. The only narrative they’re interested in is a Robert Johnson, sell-your-soul-at-the-crossroads-for-genius scenario. Waitzkin’s biography definitely lacks that whiff of Mephistophelean brimstone that trailed behind Fischer.

For a while I was wondering if I was being a hypocrite for dissing the amped-up treatment of pool playing in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money while simultaneously embracing the kick-ass momentum of speed chess in Searching for Bobby Fischer. But I’ve made my peace. As anyone who has watched world champion-level snooker or eight-ball knows, pool is an elegant game, a game of style and finesse. It doesn’t need an MTV treatment any more than ballet does. Chess, on the other hand, is war. The aggressive pace of speed chess actually gives a truer sense of the lightning calculations that are running through a professional player’s mind. It’s the moves that matter, not the speed at which they are made. The chess played in Washington Square just makes the board-as-battleground metaphor a little more obvious.

Searching for Bobby Fischer has a ridiculously talented cast for a relatively small-scale film: Ben Kingsley, Joan Allen, Joe Mantegna, Laurence Fishburne, William H. Macy, Laura Linney. They could have walked over to the studio next door and shot a compelling version of Othello without breaking a sweat.

I found the showdown between Josh’s father and Josh’s public school teacher interesting on a second viewing. It highlights his dad’s increasingly unhealthy tunnel vision about his son’s future, but it also rings false. The teacher seems utterly clueless about chess and about Josh’s gift for the game. Really? Public school teachers don’t cut the mustard when it comes to recognizing budding talent? One has to go to a private school to get recognition and support? Can anyone really picture a competent elementary school teacher dismissing a young student’s virtuoso piano playing, for example, as “that music thing”? Not bloody likely, bucko. Bobby Fischer’s sister Joan, who first taught him to play chess, became a respected public school teacher. I can’t imagine she would have been impressed by this particular scene. Bobby Fischer himself quite school at age 16 to focus exclusively on his game. There was only one curriculum that mattered.

Some final notes. Bobby Fischer’s mother, Regina, seems to have been an extraordinary woman in her own right. Exploring her relationship with her son would be a film in its own right.

Max Pomeranc, at the time when he made his big-screen debut in Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), was himself one of the country’s top 100 chess players in his age group. He graduated from McGill in 2006, and subsequently expressed little interest in continuing with an acting career.

Anyone interested in chess prodigies might want to take a look at the biographies of Etienne Bacrot and Ruslan Ponomariov, who both became grandmasters at the age of 14, and Bu Xiangzhi and Sergey Karjakin, grandmasters at 13 and 12 respectively. Here’s a complete chart of the youngest grandmasters:

Lastly, I think I failed to give enough credit to cinematographer Conrad Hall. A three-time Oscar winner, he managed to bring chess to life in settings as varied as Josh’s bedroom, Washington Square, and cavernous chess clubs. He was nominated for an Oscar for Searching for Bobby Fisher, but lost out to Janusz Kaminsky’s work for Schindler’s List.


Movie Information

Genre: Biography, Sports
Director: Steven Zaillian
Actors: Max Pomeranc, Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne
Year: 1993
Original Review: February 1995


100 Most Iconic Shots of All Time

The 100 Most Iconic Movie Lines of All Time


Grouping their choices by genre & theme, the people at Cinefix deliver on their promises. One could always choose to quibble over certain choices, but I was pretty happy with the picks. Bonus: Alternate versions of the videos that include the titles of the films in case you didn’t recognize something the first time through. Once you’re done here where you can go to the main Cinefix site at YouTube, where you’ll find more movie lists, advice on how to make your own costumes based on TV & movie characters, Things You Didn’t Know About…featured movies & TV shows, Homemade Movies, Book & Movie comparisons, in-depth looks at iconic movie scenes, trailer parodies, and more.

5 Badass New Sci-Fi Movies You Can Watch on Your Lunch Break

Thank you, Robert Brockway, for pulling together 5 memorable short sci-fi films—live action & animation—that clock in from four to 13 minutes. The five titles are The Gift, Vacuity, Ruin, ROSA, and Bad Motherfucker. That last one is a bit of an acquired taste, and would be one of the world’s most annoying karaoke tunes. Hopefully these shorts will motivate you to check out some of the other sci-fi gems appearing in ever-increasing numbers on YouTube.

Films Worth Talking About:

Schindler’s List, El Mariachi, Groundhog Day, Point of No Return, Falling Down, La Scorta (The Escort), Much Ado About Nothing, The Piano, Farewell My Concubine, The Scent of Green Papaya, Jurassic Park, Cliffhanger, Like Water for Chocolate, In the Line of Fire, Sleepless in Seattle, The Joy Luck Club, Short Cuts, Three Colors Blue, The Age of Innocence, Germinal, A Bronx Tale, Demolition Man, The Remains of the Day, Philadelphia, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Tombstone, Kalifornia, Cronos, Cool Runnings, Sonatine, Naked, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Mrs. Doubtfire, Menace II Society, Les Visiteurs, Raining Stones, The Blue Kite, Benny & Joon

The Bigger Picture

Films: Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), The Prince of Chess (2005), Magnus (2016), The Luzhin Defence (2000)


Books: Fred Waitzkin, Searching for Bobby Fischer; Frank Brady, Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall; Bobby Fischer, Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess; Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit; Rene Chun, “Bobby Fischer’s Pathetic End Game”

The Word on the Street

The film’s surface message is that one must achieve a sort of balance, symbolised by Waitzkin’s merging of both Fishburne’s and Kingsley’s tactics during the film’s climactic showdown. After this, Waitzkin’s begins to take up other games (football, baseball, karate etc) and tries not to let chess suffocate his life. Chess thus becomes a kind of spiritual guide, like a medieval craftsman’s way of life, where one does what one loves and humbly does it to perfection, and then moves on to another craft. Waitzkin – still a young man – would then go on to write self-help books, in which he espouses the realisation that victory and mastery ultimately means less than the process of acquiring knowledge within different fields. Conquer yourself and move on. There is no opponent but that within.
But does this work? In real life, a decade after this film was made, Waitzkin would become a master in various other forms (karate, Tai Chi etc), before coming to the same kind of mental breakdown that Bobby Fischer did many years ago. He bounced from one craft to the next, mastering them all, but of course finding no inherent value in this mastery….

Novice director Steven Zaillian is largely unaware of this film’s true implications…He’s making your typical sports movie, looking for the orgasmic pay off of victory (and family reconciliation), whilst Waitzkin’s father (who wrote the story) is telling a far darker tale. This tale has to be in the background, denied, ignored, or always indirectly addressed.


You should not avoid this movie if you know nothing about chess – it touches on many themes of broad interest, such as: being a good parent, dealing with lost dreams, handling success, living with disappointment, being yourself when it conflicts with the desires of others, examining the value of a balanced life, and the nature of art….

Among the many delights in this film, perhaps the greatest is the astoundingly natural performance of Max Pomeranc as Josh. It has to rank as one of the best performances by a child actor. His performance is so sensitive, heart-renderingly touching, joyful, serious, and believable that it must in large part be the achievement of the director. No kid could be that good naturally….

Conrad Hall was justifiably nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography for this film. Who would have imagined that you could generate such interest and excitement by filming chess pieces, chess boards, and chess halls.


Josh Waitzkin became an International Master at age 16. He developed into the highest rated American chess player under age 18, and was national chess champion eight times. Waitzkin authored two books. He moved on into the martial arts field, and won championships. The youngest grandmaster in American history is now Fabiano Luigi Caruana, who was not quite 15 when he won in 2007.