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Against Greatness: Searching for Bobby Fischer at 30





This is going to be one of those film articles where I jump straight into talking about the ending, so consider yourself warned if you haven’t gotten around to seeing Searching for Bobby Fischer at some point in the last 30 years. I’ve long thought of this as my favorite sports movie, even if it is debatable whether chess should actually be classified as a sport. Either way, Searching for Bobby Fischer is unambiguously formatted like a sports movie. We get all the hallmarks of the genre: montages, mentors, winning streaks, losing streaks, rivalries, a crisis of confidence going into the final act, an inspirational pep talk, and finally, a climactic contest between two well-matched opponents. This film, however, because it is specifically about youth chess, has an unexpected relationship towards winning and losing that I find fascinating for the genre. The film walks a fine line between wanting to provide a typical sports movie catharsis displaying some kind of final victory, and trying not to push an agenda on the kids depicted in the film that winning should ever be thought of as the only measure of success.


Most of the early portion of the film is working towards establishing two points: first, that our young protagonist, Josh Waitkin (Max Pomeranc), has a preternatural intuition for the game of chess, and second, that he will have to push himself incredibly hard if he wants to develop that aptitude into something on par with the very best players his age. Towards the end of the film we get increasing emphasis on the idea that chess is a game and, particularly for kids, is supposed to be fun. There’s a clear tension here, and how well the film works for you, particularly its ending, may strongly depend on how well you think it navigates these opposing ideas.



The film’s story builds towards the final match of the 1986 National Primary Championship, where Josh Waitzkin faces off against a kid who has been set up to be something of a nemesis for him: Jonathan Poe. The character of Jonathan is interesting in that he’s younger than Josh and he’s presented like a pint-sized Ivan Drago. He’s been trained to be a very serious-minded chess machine, pulled out of grade school by his father so that he could focus on chess full-time. This sounds like a Hollywood invention, but it isn’t. Jonathan is actually based on Josh’s real-life opponent for this tournament, Jeff Sarwar, who would go on to win the under-10 World Championship that same year. A very important context here though is that, not too long after the events depicted in this film, and in part due to the notoriety that Jeff’s success brought him and his unconventional family, he and his sister would be taken into protective custody by the Children’s Aid Society of Ontario, because of their father’s abusive behavior towards them. There’s an untold cautionary tale here about what it can look like when a parent’s only interest in their child is vicarious glory.


Both Jonathan Poe and Jeff Sarwar are meant to offer a contrast to where Josh is at by the end of the film. While Josh isn’t depicted as being pushed in quite the same way that Jonathan and Jeff are, he does feel pressure from his sportswriter father, Fred (Joe Mantegna), who doesn’t do much to hide that he is happiest with Josh when he wins. From his chess teacher, Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), Josh feels a constant pressure to always be learning the neverending minutia of the game, so he can one day fulfill his highest potential. Part of the crisis that Josh ends up experiencing heading towards the final tournament is because all of this pushing does actually work. Through his hard work and training, Josh has continued to improve as a player, but he’s now gotten to the point where he’s so highly rated that he’s the runaway favorite to win any match he plays against the kids in his age group. There’s no joy in winning for him anymore because it’s what’s expected of him. All that’s left for him is a fear of losing and letting down his dad and Bruce. And, for a time, that fear turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.



Part of how Josh breaks out of his funk comes when his mother (Joan Allen) starts pushing back against what his father and Bruce have been asking of him. She starts pushing them to let Josh go back to playing speed games of chess for fun against the men in the park, like Vinny (Lawrence Fishburn), even if it might mean risking picking up some bad chess habits. And, maybe most importantly for Josh’s well-being, the family decides to go on a chess-free vacation right before the tournament to give Josh a chance to relax and just be a kid for a while.


This works, too. Taking this kind of step back is just what Josh needs, and he does ultimately win the tournament. That’s not the film’s ending, though. The story continues after Josh’s win, watching him comforting a friend who was also playing in the tournament but lost a key match earlier on. The film never loses sight of it still being a children’s chess tournament, and that for Josh to have his happy ending, every other kid competing has to have their heart broken. It is heartwarming to see Josh be able to empathize with his friend, but, the more you look at it, the clearer it becomes that this isn’t the kind of unambiguous happy ending you expect to get from most sports films.


Part of what woke me up to the more bittersweet notes of this ending was learning more about the rest of the lives of the people in this story. The film, and the book it was based on, is called Searching for Bobby Fischer for at least two reasons. First, and most obviously, because of how chess parents and chess teachers obsess over whether their kids might follow in Fischer’s footsteps to become the next great American chess player. But, second, it also refers to people quite literally searching for the reclusive Fisher. As we learn in the opening narration from Josh, Bobby Fischer went into seclusion after winning the 1972 World Chess Championship against Boris Spassky. Josh describes how erratic Fischer’s behavior was leading up to the tournament. Fischer complained about just about every single arrangement related to the match. He insulted what he saw as the backwardness of Iceland, where the tournament was taking place. And he frequently spoke unkindly about the people of Iceland. Most dramatically, Bobby was also constantly threatening to blow off the match altogether.



When Fred Waitzkin wrote the book this film is based on, Fischer had been living in seclusion for well over a decade. In what must have seemed like a bit of happy synergy for the film, in 1992, around the time the film was in production, Fischer emerged from hiding to play Spassky in a 20th-anniversary rematch of their 1972 contest. The match caused a bit of a sensation only for Fischer to mostly disappear from view again after handily winning the rematch. Perhaps a less happy revelation for the legacy of the film, though, is learning about Fischer’s pathological paranoia and virulent antisemitism. While Fischer had once seemed to just be the colorful enfant terrible of the chess world, the more we learn about him, the more unstable he appears to have been. Shortly before he died in Iceland in 2008, he was recognizable out in the street by his rotten teeth, after having had all of his fillings removed to avoid radio signals being sent to his brain by the Russians and Americans. He ultimately died of kidney failure caused by a bladder infection he didn’t trust any doctor to treat. The film is called Searching for Bobby Fischer, but aside from Bobby’s chess prowess, he wasn’t remotely someone any parent should want their child to emulate.


In fact, looking beyond Bobby to all of the other characters involved, it’s not entirely clear that any parent should really want their child to pursue something like competitive chess. What’s more clear in the book is that Fred Waitzkin pursued competitive chess when he was younger, having caught chess fever along with the rest of America around the time of that Fischer-Spassky World Championship. Fred bought chess books and memorized openings, only to discover how far behind his nascent ability was compared to people who had already been playing their entire lives. He abandoned playing himself, but he’s honest in the book that part of him pushing Josh was to see his own dream fulfilled by his son.



Something hinted at in the movie is Bruce Pandolfini’s aversion to tournament play, but what’s made much more clear in the book is that the reason he doesn’t play in competitions anymore is because of what he feared publicly losing might cost his reputation professionally as a chess teacher, writer, and commentator. His fear was very much the same one that Josh would have to overcome heading into the finals.


Vinny, who is based on a real person, but also stands in for all the men who played with and mentored Josh in Washington Square Park, is still an active competitive player when we meet him, but what’s abundantly clear in the book is that his isn’t meant to be any kind of life for Josh to want to mimic. It’s never said straight out whether or not Vinny is homeless, but it is strongly implied, which is true for a lot of the players in the park. In the book, we meet master-level players that have been ruined for anything else in life by their obsession with chess, and now spend their nights sleeping in the park under their chess tables all year round.



Funnily enough, you know who else doesn’t play competitive chess anymore? Josh Waitzkin. At the time this film was made, the real Josh was about 16 years old. You can see him playing chess at the table next to the film’s Josh toward the end of the movie when he returns to play speed chess with Vinny. By this point, real-life Josh was an international chess master who had won the National Junior High Championship, the High School Championship, and the U.S. Junior Championship. At the point when we see him in his blink-and-you-’ll-miss-it cameo, Josh Waitzkin was someone for whom you could make a credible argument that he was well along the path to becoming the next Fischer. However, just a few years later, he completely gave up playing chess competitively, shortly after he started college. Josh just couldn’t maintain his affection for the game, or for what the game asks of people for them to keep developing as a player.


This is the thing I’ve now come to find to be the most fascinating about Searching for Bobby Fischer. At the end of the film, we got the sports movie happy ending of Josh winning the final match, but the impact of that win, his agreeing not to push himself so hard, and his decision to be more ok with just being a kid, looks like the seed of him eventually leaving the game altogether. The film celebrates Josh’s win, but in the final shot of him comforting his friend that lost, we also get something of the idea that maybe we shouldn’t be doing this to kids. So, I’ve come to learn that this is my hot take about Searching for Bobby Fischer: It is a great youth sports movie, but one that also manages to suggest that maybe we would be better off just letting kids be kids. For Josh Waitzkin, his happy ending doesn’t really come from winning that final match, but rather, from when he starts to let go of the idea that he has to win all of the time, and when he stops trying to be the next Bobby Fischer.





 


Damian Masterson

Staff Writer

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.


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