Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Bill Long 10/1/08
A Multi-Level Success
The year 1993 was a banner year for the American movie industry. The best dramatic film was Schindler's List; Philadelphia probed issues of AIDS and the law; Robin Williams' wonderful performance in Mrs. Doubtfire won him the best actor; Jurassic Park netted more than $350,000,000. This was the year that John Grisham "hit the screen" with well-received presentations of The Pelican Brief and The Firm. Among all these "tall timber" productions, the "smaller tree" of Searching for Bobby Fischer went unnoticed by many. However, far from being a "cult classic" for those pocket-protector-wearing chess nerds, this movie (which I saw last night) aims to reach a broad audience by skillfully probing themes of ambition, personal style, hero-worship, and "family-values" in a family where one child is a chess prodigy. The movie is based on the 1988 book of the same name, written by the prodigy's father, Fred Waitzkin, when the son Josh was only 11 years-old.
The Bobby Fischer Phenomenon
When I began my tentative first steps learning chess in the late 1950s, I did so because my father had been following the meteoric rise of 16 year-old NY chess sensation Bobby Fischer. Fischer, born in 1943, had done the unthinkable--winning the US championship while only 14--and now had set his sights on the international field. While some parents in those days cultivated dreams for their child's athletic prowess, my dad wanted me to be a chess prodigy, like Fischer. So, I played each day after school, dutifully becoming the best player in my elementary school, even though the lure of sports finally drowned out the call of chess. Yet I remember the books I checked out, the games I studied, the defenses I learned, the "classic" games that led to Fischer's wins.
The "Fischer craze" intensified in the 1960s and 1970s, fueled by two things: (1) Fischer's defeat of Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in the world championship in 1972 and (2) his unpredictable, and offensive, behavior which included his "disappearance" after the 1972 win. He would occasionally surface in the ensuing years, but with each new "sighting" there would be evidence of a more attenuated grip on reality and more virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism in his words. Bobby Fischer became a sort of tragic hero to some and was despised by others.
Yet, the Bobby Fischer "myth" was born. It consisted of stories of his incredible work ethic, unbelievable memory, total dedication to the game, and utter contempt for other players, judges, the chess establishment and others outside the establishment (i.e., everyone else). He acted as if his chess bona fides gave him a sort of license to do whatever he pleased. Thus, he became the a symbol of so many things--of American skill against the "commies" during the Cold War, of the importance of complete dedication to your task, of the personal choice to despise the world, of the hope of probing new levels of understanding (presented in the film as going from seeing chess as "science" or "technique" to chess as "art") in your specialty.
Moving to The Movie
Thus, when young Josh Waitzkin develops a hankering for chess at age 7 (1984), there is already a network of people "out there," all of whom have been bitten by the "Bobby Fischer bug" and all of whom are looking for the "next Bobby Fischer." But being a prodigy, whether in music or chess, is a doubled-edged gift. It draws people to you who want to "help," but it also unleashes all kinds of forces, within and without the family, that potentially can undo a person. Director Steven Zaillian carefully lays out these pitfalls. For example, one of them has to do with chess-playing style. Will Josh be strictly obedient to the will of his iron-fisted teacher, Bruce Pandolfini (played by Ben Kingsley), or will he also be able to learn from the "street players" in Washington Park (led by Vinnie, played by Laurence Fisburne)? Each has a different style and appeal. Then, once he has committed himself to the tutelage of Pandolfini, will he also adopt the "persona" of Bobby Fischer? Pandolfini believes you must work constantly at chess and despise the rest of the world. After all, it worked for Fischer. But Josh isn't "made" that way. His mother Bonnie (Joan Allen) believes that the best part of Josh is his "heart," and thus bristles at Pandolfini's approach, throwing him out of the house on one occasion.
Then there is the issue of parental expectation. Many dads get caught up in the achievement of their "star" sons, and feel let down when the son performs less than optimally. How will the Waitzkin family negotiate this mine field--when love seems to rest on performance for one parent, while the other parent wants to cultivate the "heart?" How is the child to figure out what he wants and, indeed, whether what he wants will be honored by the adult players in his life? The film probes this issue sympathetically, especially when the family is faced by Josh's unexpected losing streak. At one point he blew an opening-round game in a tough competition to a boy in seven moves.
Because there are so many human-interest issues in the film, one doesn't have to be a chess aficionado to love it. But if you love chess, you have even more reason to be ensorcelled by it. Little bits of chess trivia are dropped throughout the movie; Pandolfini's memorable line ("Just think 12 moves ahead and you have him") captures the intellectual spirit of the game; the chess "names" from that era are familiar.
By the end of the movie we see Josh's winning the US junior championship as not simply a chess victory but also a personal victory. He will win by hard work, but he will win with a heart. He will win by following the discipline taught him by Pandolfini, but he will also win because he isn't afraid to use his "street" approach. He has become a chess "artist."
Josh Waitzkin Today
Josh is only 31 years old now. In his new book (2007) entitled The Art of Learning (an excerpt of which is here), he tells the story of how he gradually lost interest in chess--principally because he was becoming the story rather than only a part of the story of chess competition. So, he took up tai chi and has excelled at it. At the heart of both are lessons for the other discipline, and Josh generously shares those in his book. The reviews of his work are generally very positive, and I would look forward to seeing what he has to say, but I think that one really cannot write the Art of Learning until one has been put through a lot of circumstances in life which one hasn't particularly chosen. You really learn "life" not just when you have mastered something, but after you also have been shown how little you really know of the world and how insignificant you are in the scope of things. Once you come to grips with these limitations, you may not only be able to "inspire" people but actually to teach them.
The final word, however, belongs to Josh and the director and producer of this film. They brought loads of memories flooding back to me, and made me taste once again the strange but delicious meal of excelling in chess--and its relation to success in life. For that, I am grateful.