Skip navigation

As I recently read the incredible “Bobby Fischer goes to War” (by David Edmonds and John Eidinow), my old love for the Royal Game was revitalised. That book also kind of confirmed that many great achievers in their own domain are dicks (I read it right after reading “Seven Deadly Sins” about Lance Armstrong and just before “The Snowden Files” by Luke Harding…). Appropriately, Bobby Fischer may be Dick Surpreme, standing for a game the complexity of which is mind-boggling, while everybody has the basic ability to play it for fun. I think it is this quality, which also applies to cycling, that would be the reason why both chess in the 1970s and cycling in the early 2000s became such popular phenomenons in the US, where neither discipline had a substantial following before. That makes it easy to create hyperbole for outperformers in either sport, with rationality taking a backseat.

Bobby Fischer by many is still perceived to be something of a national hero and national treasure, despite him being an utterly terrible person, quite the opposite of a role model. What bogged me about this film was that I kept waiting for that problem to come up: how can a kid (and a bunch of weirdos playing chess on Washington Square for drug money) be inspired by that person, with nobody ever questioning the sad fact that the role model is a sociopath at best, if not a straight lunatic?

The film works independently of Fischer, though, as the kid (based on a real character) finds his love and talent for the game, with the Bobby Fischer tag mostly added for commercial viability of the project, I would say (and because it was an aspect on this heyday of US chess. The mumbled “look, there’s a new Bobby Fischer” can be heard frequently). The film is good at showing the ambiguity of the game, allowing for a very satisfactory training of the mind, allowing for a generation of soccer mums (and dads) to become chess mums (and dads), while realising that it is a game that may easily lead a serious player on a downward spiral of solitude and inwardness.

While it is likely that those kids and adults are particularly attracted by chess who feature those characteristics anyway, brooding for hours and days over opening strategies and knight sacrifices certainly promotes some aspects of a developing child’s mind that in retrospect does not benefit the development of a lot of social skills.

That said, the film decides that apart from that mulling and brooding, chess can be directed like boxing, and so the film soon is on a path along the lines of “Rocky”, building up to the showdown between the most talented kids, with only the question to be answered whether the finale will be a “Rocky” (glorious defeat) or a “Rocky 2” (glorious triumph) one. That’s not a bad thing in terms of the films watchability, but it takes away a bit of the gravitas the film could have had.

The casting of Ben Kingsley and Laurence Fishburne, as well as the focus on frantic drama of speed chess, adds to the feeling that the authors were quite desperate to find some cinematic aspects in a game that in truth is about players sitting on a chair and biting their nails for hours at a time.

It worked in that I was entertained enough, but it left the somehow sad feeling that the same story would have worked better with any other sport or discipline rather than chess, as you have to tweak the nature of that game so severely in order to make it fit the screen.

Interesting thing when checking the wikipedia page of Joshua Waitzkin, whose father wrote the book on which the script is based: he escaped the trap of chess, has been and is still doing a lot of other things. The price he paid for remaining a somehow normal person (if it was a choice) is that he never became one of the shining stars of chess, despite all his obvious talent. Maybe chess is too cruel in that it requires players to give up normality in order to perform on the highest level?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: