“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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chess_prodigy
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.