Bobby Fischer was arguably the greatest chess player of all time. As a boy, he faced and defeated the greatest players of his time. In 1972, after a prelude of countless controversies, he won the world chess championship away from the Russians for the first time in years. Then he essentially disappeared into a netherworld of rented rooms, phantom sightings, paranoid outbursts and allegiance to a religious cult. He reappeared not long ago to win a lucrative chess match in Yugoslavia, for which he was willing to lose his citizenship. His games are models of elegance and artistry. His life does not inspire envy.
“Searching for Bobby Fischer,” is a film of remarkable sensitivity and insight, a delicate and touching drama that takes us deep inside the eccentric competitive mystique of grandmaster chess. It tells a story based on fact, about a “new” Bobby Fischer – is inspired by the life of a chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin (as written by his father Fred Waitzkin) a young boy named Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) who was born with a gift for chess, which he nurtured in the rough-and-tumble world of of chess hustlers in New York’s Washington Square Park. One of them, a strapping hipster named Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne), keeps up a rapid-fire patter during his game. As he and Josh play, alternating moves every few seconds and capping each move with a triumphant smack of the time clock.
Josh (Max Pomeranc) is a “regular kid” who begins evincing signs of being a genius at chess at the tender age of seven. His father (Joe Mantegna) encourages this, hoping that it won’t fundamentally change his son’s healthy outlook on life. Josh is taken under the wing of cold-blooded chess instructor Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), who indoctrinates the boy in the “Bobby Fischer” strategy. He agrees to take Josh on only because he thinks the boy may be another Bobby Fischer — that is, another player who combines mathematical virtuosity and creative fire in a way that renders chess not merely a science or a game but an alchemic fusion of the two. The spirit of Fischer (seen here in documentary clips) hovers over the movie. He’s the player everyone dreams of being, yet his mystique is based, in part, on the fact that he disappeared — literally, after winning the world title from Boris Spassky in 1972, and emotionally, into the abyss of his own mind.
Josh has two mentors — the street-smart Vinnie, who teaches him to play the opponent, not the board; and Bruce Pandolfini, a man who has suffered an unspecified loss in an unnamed competition, but knows the game inside out. Each has a different perspective to offer, and Josh learns from them both. One lesson, however, he is unable to take to heart — he cannot hate his opponents, no matter how much they despise him. We never learn exactly what demons haunt Pandolfini, and it’s a credit to this film that it doesn’t make them explicit. There are enough clues that they can be guessed at, and Searching for Bobby Fischer relies upon the intelligence of its audience to put the pieces together.
The two key relationships explored by this film are those of Josh and his father and Josh and his teacher. While Frank never stops loving his son, he becomes obsessed by the need to win. Like Frank, Pandolfini loses sight of his young charge’s innocence and age, and tries to mold him into a chess- playing machine.
Ben Kingsley and Joe Mantegna do excellent jobs bringing their characters to life.
When casting Searching for Bobby Fischer, the production team decided that instead of choosing a young “name” actor who might know little or nothing about chess, they would choose someone who was a chess player first and an actor second. Realism was important to the film makers — they wanted chess-playing viewers to be spared the indignity of watching someone faking playing the game. In Max Pomeranc, an excellent choice was made. Not only is he an experienced chess player, but he acquits himself admirably in the role of Josh. He’s not the best child actor to grace the screen, but he avoids the awkward obviousness of many.
Some famous chess players have brief cameos in the film: Anjelina Belakovskaia, Joel Benjamin, Roman Dzindzichashvili, Kamran Shirazi, along with the real Joshua Waitzkin, Bruce Pandolfini, and Vincent Livermore. Chess master Asa Hoffmann is played by Austin Pendleton; the real Hoffmann did not like the way he was portrayed. Chess expert Poe McClinton, still a park regular, is seen throughout the film. Pal Benko was supposed to be in the film but his part was cut out. Waitzkin’s real mother and sister also have cameos.
The Russian player in the park, played by Vasek Simek, who holds up the sign “For $5 a photo or a game with the man who beat Tal”, was based on the real life of Israel Zilber. Zilber, Latvian chess champion in 1958, defeated the teenage Tal in 1952, and during most of the 1980s was homeless and regarded as one of the top players in Washington Square Park.
At the end of the film, Josh is seen playing a tough opponent named Jonathan Poe in the final tournament. The character Jonathan Poe was not the actual name of Josh’s opponent; his real name was Jeff Sarwer (a boy younger than Josh). Near the end of the game, where Josh offers Poe a draw, Poe rejects the offer and play continues. Sarwer rejected the draw offer in the real-world game as well. Josh played Sarwer to a draw (the two kings were the only remaining pieces on the board), and they were declared co-champions.
Searching for Bobby Fischer is an intensely fascinating movie capable of involving those who are ignorant about chess as well as those who love it. The focus of the film is less on the actual game than it is on the people, emotions, and pressures surrounding Josh. It is a tale of human trials and triumph, not a sports movie that panders to a certain segment of the population. Chess may not be the most exciting activity to watch, but Searching for Bobby Fischer makes for engaging entertainment.
Cast: Max Pomeranc, Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne
Director: Steven Zaillian
Producers: Scott Rudin and William Horberg
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian based on the book by Fred Waitzkin
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall
Music: James Horner