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  • Searching for Bobby Fischer dir. by Steven Zaillian
  • Todd A. McFall
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993). Dir. Steven Zaillian. Paramount Pictures. 110 min.

The pivotal scene in the often-remarkable film Searching for Bobby Fischer, an autobiographical tale about a chess-playing genius boy named Josh Waitzkin, does not take place around a chess board. Instead, it takes place in the Waitzkin's kitchen, where Josh's father and mother, Fred and Bonnie, have an honest and difficult conversation about how they will handle (or perhaps mishandle) their boy's gift. The conversation ends with Mrs. Waitzkin (played expertly by Joan Allen) telling her husband the boy is decent and "if you or Bruce [Josh's chess teacher] or anyone else ties to beat that out of him, I swear to god I'll take him away."

Josh's father (played by Joe Mantegna) is a sportswriter, so he has notions about and experience with talent and getting to the big stage. When Josh's immense gifts are revealed to us in an early scene in the film, his father sees glory, trophies, and triumph. Unfortunately, he does not grasp how his young son, who is seven years old, will react to the new expectations foisted on him by his father. Fred forms one of the sides of the triangle that quickly surrounds Josh (played by Max Pomeranc), the side that expects Josh to win.

While father and son work on their relationship during Josh's rise through the junior chess circuit, the film teaches us many lessons about the nature of genius. For instance, we are asked to consider what might be called the Tiger Woods questions. What does it take to foster supreme gifts like Josh's chess genius, where is the line in which fostering genius turns into madness, and what might happen to people once the obsession with the gifts overtakes other parts of their lives? It is a good time for students to ponder these questions, which are central in that other chess show The Queen's Gambit and discussed more frequently in the sports world. Prominent athletes such as Michael Phelps, Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, and Mary Cain all have told of their struggles with depression and been largely embraced by what is frequently a reactionary establishment. To this end, the film offers short interludes in which Josh or his formal teacher Bruce Pandolfini talk about Fischer's brief but magnificent career, which included the shocking victory over the Russian Boris Spassky in 1972, which gave Fischer the world championship. These interludes are valuable, for we see how genius eventually damaged Fischer in profound ways, so much so that he had trouble maintaining relationships and was forced to forfeit his title in 1975 when he refused to defend it. The remainder of Fischer's life was spent wandering in and out of the chess spotlight, unable to maintain a grip on his obsession with the game or a place in the world.

Speaking of Bruce Pandolfini, shortly after Josh humiliates his unwitting father at chess, thereby revealing his genius to dear ol' dad, Fred approaches the teacher to help Josh learn the game in a formal sense. Bruce (played by Ben Kingsley) is a contemporary of Fischer and a well-known chess scholar. He wants to see Josh begin to approach the game as the former world champion did. He wants Josh to attempt to elevate his game "to an art form," [End Page 69] which is code for Josh becoming obsessed by the game. To this end, he becomes another side of Josh's chess triangle.

The third side is Vinnie, the man who spots Josh's gifts in Washington Square, where Vinnie deals drugs, runs scams, and talks trash to the potzers he ensnares in his chess trickery. Vinnie (played by Laurence Fishburne) is the third side of Josh's chess triangle, the one the boy perhaps enjoys the most because he lets Josh see the fun in the game. Of course, Bruce and Vinnie clash as Josh advances, and we get to watch Josh and his family reconcile the tension between Josh's formal and casual pursuits of the...


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pp. 69-70
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