Hidden Gems: Searching for Bobby Fischer
By Kyle Lee
November 21, 2016
Bobby Fischer was, by most accounts, the greatest chess player in history. He spawned generations of interest in the game, and in 1972 beat the Russians at the height of the Cold War. Then he disappeared from public life.
1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer is a movie of surprising depth and nuance. It’s the story of seven-year-old Josh Waitzkin, whom we follow as he climbs the ranks of the best child chess players in the country. And it’s the story of all the conflicting parental guidance he receives both from his parents, and his two chess teachers. The movie is a wonderful exploration of many varied themes, from the pressures of being a prodigy, parenting, the balance of pushing yourself while still maintaining a love of the game, sportsmanship, the nature of chess, and much more. It is a wonderfully layered movie that also doesn’t require any prior knowledge of chess to understand or enjoy. It is probably one of my most watched movies, and one that would be in my top 10 movies of the 1990s.
Josh (Max Pomeranc), is just your regular seven-year-old kid growing up in New York City. When playing in Washington Square Park on his birthday, he sees groups of men playing all manner of games, and the chess players really grab his attention. He later asks his mom Bonnie (Joan Allen) if they can go watch the men in the park. Bonnie takes Josh and his younger sister and while nervously standing around, Josh watches as Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) plays a game of chess while unleashing a constant stream of trash talk to his opponent, who ends up being a chess grandmaster come to hustle the hustlers in the park. Josh watches the board as the men play, and you can see that he just has an innate understanding of the game. Later, when Bonnie brings Josh back to the park to challenge a man to a game, Vinnie watches studiously as even though Josh loses, he uses his pieces in a very advanced way. Vinnie says he’ll be telling people in the future that he used to watch Josh play chess in the park just like people say they used to watch Bobby Fischer in the park.
Josh’s newfound love and understanding of chess comes as a surprise to his father Fred (a never better Joe Mantegna), a sportswriter. He and Josh bond over baseball, but Josh is now becoming obsessed with chess. So Fred gets him a teacher, Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley). And this is when the movie really takes off. Josh becomes the most feared young chess player around, winning many tournaments around the country. Bruce teaches Josh strategy, history, and to stop taking his queen out so early. Vinnie, on the other hand, tries to teach Josh to play from his instinct instead of his brain. Vinnie says to Josh, of Bruce, “He didn’t teach you how to win, he taught you how not to lose, that’s nothing to be proud of.” Meanwhile, Fred takes so much pride in Josh’s success that he starts pushing him too hard, expecting nothing less than first place every time. Josh starts seeing his dad’s love tied to winning. Bonnie sees her son’s good heart, his fairness and decency, and is intent on protecting Josh from the dark side of sports that teaches you to hate your opponent, and to win at all cost.