“You got to risk losin‘. You gotta risk everything! You gotta go to the edge of defeat. That‘s where you wanna be boy, at the edge of defeat…”
I figured myself out a while back. I like movies about geniuses. Not that I’m a genius or anything, but I can relate to people who use skill, talent or whatever that is above what their surroundings would normally produce or understand: Good Will Hunting, Rushmore, A Beautiful Mind… and Searching For Bobby Fischer.
Searching For Bobby Fischer is about real-life chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin (played brilliantly by first-time actor Max Pomeranc), who inadvertently discovers the game while watching street hustlers playing in the park. Unbeknownst to everyone, Josh teaches himself the rules by cobbling together a chess setup made of legos and action figures. Before long- and much to the chagrin of his moms, played by Joan Allen (Face Off)- Josh is playing chess in the park, squaring off against- and serving- cats in their middle age and beyond.
When Josh’s pops, sports writer Fred Waitzkin (Joe Montegna, Nine Lives, Bugsy), learns Josh can play, he prods his son to play him. Josh throws the game of course, unwilling to beat his dad, who is hopelessly outclassed. This is our first glimpse into Josh’s character: for him, winning cannot come before basic humanity. He reluctantly accepts his dad’s insistence that they play again, and crushes him utterly. This opens up the senior Waitzkin’s competitive nature, and before long he has Josh in chess tournaments all over the country.
The movie takes its title from the fact that Josh is - in fact all elite chess players are- chasing the specter of Bobby Fischer, the greatest chess player the world has ever seen, who mysteriously vanished after beating the Russian champion and bringin' the world crown home to Josh’s stomping grounds in Brooklyn, becoming the first American champ in history. Like many brilliant children, Josh is intimidated by the expectations that are imposed on him by others, especially his teacher, the washed up master chess player Bruce, played by Sir Ben Kingsley (Luck Number Slevin, Suspect Zero, House of Sand and Fog).
Bruce sees in Josh the potential to achieve the elite status similar to Fischer, where chess is no longer a game, but an art… as such, he is willing to do anything to turn Josh into his chess messiah. Likewise, Josh’s pops feels he must help Josh overcome what he sees as weakness to reach his true potential.
What makes the movie interesting is that Josh’s strength is not his deftness at chess’s complexity, but his compassion. As Bruce and Fred attempt to coax it out of him, his moms is not havin’ none a that, and threatens to leave her husband, taking Josh with her, if he and Bruce don’t lay off. Larry Fishburne (The Matrix, Boyz N Da Hood) is awesome as the possibly homeless chess master Vinnie (the first to recognize Josh‘s gift), another mentor, who also believes Bruce and Josh’s dad may be barking up the wrong tree.
As the movie progresses, Josh has to figure out how to overcome his mounting fear of defeat, all the while processing the diverse, sometimes mutually exclusive, advise he is receiving to come up with his own version of the truth. He has to decide whether to reject or accept the mantle of the omnipresent Bobby Fischer that everyone seems intent on draping over his shoulders. He also has to decide what it really means to win and lose, and what that means for his relationships with the men who love and mentor him… all at the age of seven. Of course, Josh still loves fishing, baseball, basketball, and pac-man (yeah, this is an old movie!), unlike his young nemesis Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg), who doesn’t do anything but play chess (think of a young Ivan Drago, with a bushy brown mop), and his well-roundedness is yet another strength that seems a weakness.
Josh ultimately overcomes fear and the expectations people place on him. And whether he takes his place as champion, or supplants the ubiquitous Bobby Fischer, there is a ton to be learned from his story. These days, there are all sorts of things about my character, my nature even, that I feel are constantly being challenged, as if my personality is in a battle for legitimacy. Maybe that’s why I find the story of young Josh so compelling. And I remind myself that this is a true story (based on a book written by Josh’s pops, no less), so if this kid can find himself in all the contrary influences and conflicting advice, maybe I can too…
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