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Searching For Bobby Fischer



(This blog was previously published, but due to a site re-organization is being published again).

“Why are you standing so far away from me?” the sitting, shivering seven year old boy asks his pacing father, both wet as the rain comes down on them. The question interrupts the father’s stern lecture as he attempted to find out why the boy, a chess prodigy, had, for the first time, lost a competitive match, a match that the father suspects the boy threw.

The father hears the question and starts to shake his head. His lips move as if to give an explanation, but the words don’t come out. The father stops, looks closer at the boy and their surroundings. His face softens and he looks again at the boy. “Come here,” he says softly. The boy stands up and walks to his father, who hugs him close. “It’s okay,” says the father, as he holds the boy’s head against him.

“Sorry,” the boy says.

The above scene is from the 1993 film Searching For Bobby Fischer, written and directed by Steven Zaillian, the screenwriter for Schindler’s List and Gangs of New York. The film was adapted from a book by Fred Waitzkin, who told the true story of his son, Josh Waitkin, who was discovered to have incredible talent on the chess tables of Washington Square Park in New York City. Josh was so talented that his chess teachers and other players compared him to Bobby Fischer, the eponymous chess prodigy who also started in Washington Square Park, became the youngest grandmaster ever and later a world champion, and then disappeared in 1972.

I first saw this movie in the middle of the 1990’s when I was attending law school across the street from Washington Square Park. I loved the story, which was well written and full of genuine emotion and sentiment. The film also featured great acting by Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen as Josh’s parents Fred and Bonnie, Ben Kingsley and Laurence Fishburne as Bruce and Vinnie, Josh’s chess mentors, and Max Pomeranc, himself a talented chess player ,in his debut role as Josh. Perhaps the best thing about the movie is that it made chess compelling even for those that don’t know the difference between a rook and a pawn.

When I saw the movie that first time, I saw it as a movie about balance and heart. The movie portrays Josh as a normal kid. His room is a mess; toys and other objects are strewn over the floor and under the bed. He loves doing a lot of things, including playing baseball, Pac-Man, and, of course, chess. Most importantly, he has a generous heart and hates to see others suffer and/or lose.  When he considers that Vinnie, with whom he plays speed chess in Washington Square Park, may be homeless, he tells his mom that he’ll share his bunk bed with him.

When Josh starts competing, and winning, at chess, things do not change at first. He is kind to his opponents as he beats them, telling them each time “good game.” He continues to play in other sports and activities.  He even plays catch with Bruce during chess practices. Things change, however, when his Rival, another chess prodigy, shows up in Washington Square Park. The Rival, a boy by the name of Jonathan Poe, does not have a kind heart, instead he laughs at his opponents and teases them upon defeat with the taunt “Trick or Treat.” Poe is also single-mindedly dedicated to chess, His parents gave custody of him to his teacher who proudly states that the boy only plays chess, doesn’t go to school and has no other interests. Essentially, he is the Terminator and every member of the Cobra Kai wrapped up in a eight year old boy.

Josh is scared of his Rival. For the first time, he has met someone who is better than him. It’s that fear that led to the scene decribed above. Following this loss, his father Fred and Bruce make changes to Josh’s chess training. He is moved to a private school where he can concentrate more on chess. He is no longer allowed to play speed chess with Vinnie in the park because it encourages high risk play. His chess practices are limited solely to chess and Bruce instructs him that, in order to win, he must have contempt for his opponents. In short, he must be like his Rival in order to beat him.

When Josh’s mother Bonnie witnesses Bruce’s attempts to toughen up Josh, she throws him out of their house and, in a fight with Fred, threatens to take Josh away if he and Bruce try to “beat the [decency] out of him.” After the fight, Fred goes to Josh’s room. It’s clean and spartan. There are no toys on the floor; everything is organized. Josh is sitting at his desk and studying chess. Fred attempts to tell Josh that he doesn’t have to win and can quit chess if he wants. Josh says that he has to win and it’s clear from Fred’s face that he is scared by the changes in his son.

I won’t spoil the rest of the film, other than to say that Fred restores balance to Josh’s life and, as a result, Josh starts to like to play chess again. Chess is again something he wants to do. In the movie’s climax, Josh faces the Rival at the National Championships in a rousing confrontation.

Earlier this summer, I re-watched the movie for the first time in twenty years, this time with my three kids, including my youngest child, my son Ben, who is the same age as Josh is in the movie. Re-watching the movie was a joy, like a long overdue reunion with a close friend. When I saw the scene above though, I was shocked to find that my friend was somewhat different than I remembered.  It was like I was seeing the scene for the first time. In some some ways, I was. Art changes as we change and in twenty years, I have changed a lot.

When I first saw this scene, I did not truly understand Fred’s position in the scene. This time though, I knew vividly what it was like to lecture and, yes, even yell at my kids and then, in some measure of shame, suddenly wonder, “what am I doing?” From that scene on, the movie was different for me. It was still about balance and heart, but I noticed other nuances and meanings. I understood why Fred and Bruce thought they had to toughen up Josh. They both cared for him deeply and wanted to protect him from the pain of losing to the Rival. I also noticed that, when Bruce warns Fred that Josh will get killed at Nationals and afterwards “there won’t be much left of him,” it was clear that he was trying to protect Josh from the very fate that befell him at some point in the past.

While it was easier this time to empathize with Fred and Bruce and their concerns, that empathy made the revelation that they were wrong so much deeper. I understood better why Fred and Bruce were too busy talking to Josh about what he wanted and need, rather talking with him. In fact, It’s only when Fred actually asks Josh “why” he needs to play and win that Fred finally understands what Josh really needed.

This summer, I’ve made it a goal to watch a number of movies from my youth with my kids so that they could experience great movies that were new to them. I didn’t realize that I would have new experiences with these movies as well. Searching for Bobby Fischer is a great movie. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized just how good a movie it actually was.


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