Thursday, April 22, 2021


Searching for Bobby Fischer
Director: Steven Zaillian
Cast: Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishbourne, Joe Mantegna, Max Pomeranc
Released: August 11, 1993

Oscar nominations:
Best Cinematography - lost to Schindler's List 

In case you weren't sure, the title is NOT referring to trying to find the actual Bobby Fischer, but rather the NEXT Bobby Fischer. Good, glad we cleared that up! 

So I should probably preface this by saying I know nothing about chess. I have never played it, I don't know the rules (I probably wouldn't understand the rules!). Much like one Jon Snow, I know nothing (about chess)! That said, I quite enjoyed this movie (even though I had no idea what was going on when chess was being played). You'd think watching people play chess would be one of the most boring things (and I'm sure it is in real life!), but the movie does a good job of keeping it cinematic.

This movie sort of reminded me of The Wizard. You know, that movie was about a young boy who is a video game prodigy and this movie is about a young boy who is a chess prodigy. I will say that this movie is better, but let's be honest, pretty much any movie (within reason!) is better than that one! 

The chess prodigy in question is a seven-year-old boy named Josh Waitzkin (played by Max Pomeranc). I had no clue Josh was a real person and that this movie was based on a book of the same name written by Josh's dad, Fred Waitzkin. But to be fair, I don't follow the chess scene, so I'm not familiar with any big name chess players (and to be honest, I'm not sure how big a name Waitzkin was as he was really a child chess prodigy). Yeah, I've heard of Bobby Fischer, but I feel like he's one of those big names everybody's heard of. I didn't know anything about him except he was really good at chess. We get some small Bobby Fischer history lessons sprinkled into the movie and he seemed kind of like a jerk. I did a quick skim through his Wikipedia page and yikes! He allegedly idolized Hitler and was glad that the 9/11 attacks happened. I'm not sure why you would want to be compared to him! Yes, I realize that they're only comparing Josh's chess skills to Fischer's chess skills and they make it a point to say that personality wise, Josh is nothing like Bobby. At this point in time (1992/93), I'm not sure how much is known about Fischer's truly problematic view of the world. If we really were searching for Bobby Fischer, I don't think I'd want him to be found! We don't need to search for him anymore, though, because he died in 2008. 

Heh, one of my notes I wrote was, "Bobby Fischer seemed like a whiny baby". I can't remember exactly why I wrote that, but it seemed like he was always complaining about something as young Josh tells us in voice over. (BTW, this kid was not the best enunciator of words so it was sometimes difficult to understand what he was saying in voiceover). I swear he told us that he complained about his view of his hotel in Iceland was too nice. WTF? 

So when we meet Josh, he's a kid who's just turned seven and he lives in New York with his parents, Fred and Bonnie (Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen) and his little sister. He enjoys watching Vinnie, a presumed homeless man (played by Laurence Fishbourne) play chess in Washington Square with other men. This movie never states what year it's supposed to be, but the real Josh Waitzkin was born in late 1976, so it would have been 1984 around the time he got into chess. Funnily enough, that was the year his portrayer, Max Pomeranc, was born, so there is only an eight year difference between them. I did wonder if they got a kid who was a chess player to play Waitzskin since they'd probably want to cast somebody who knew what they were doing and sure enough, according to the Wiki, Pomeranc was was one of the country's top 20 chess players in his age group at that time. Like I said, this came from Wiki, so who knows how reliable it is. 

So I haven't read the book (obviously, or otherwise I would have known Josh Waitzkin is a real person), so I'm not exactly sure how Josh learned how to play chess. His parents didn't teach him and he didn't learn at a friend's house. The movie makes it seem like he learned just from watching Vinnie and the other men in the park. Can you just self-teach yourself to play chess? I would think you would need to know the rules. Bonnie notices that her son has been fascinated with the chess players in the park, so she takes Josh to one old man in the park who's supposedly some great chess player from the past. His table has a sign that says you can play a game with him or have your picture taken with him for five dollars. (We will later learn that you don't make a lot if you're a world renowned chess player). Josh plays the man and loses, but Vinnie is watching him play and is impressed with the young boy's chess skills. He tells Josh's mother, "Your boy used pieces in combination to attack." Whatever that means, but it certainly impressed Vinnie. He asks Josh his name and Josh tells him. When he asks him, "Josh what?" his mother tells him not to give out his last name, but of course he does and Vinnie writes it down. 

When Bonnie reveals to her husband that Josh played chess in the park, her husband replies with, "Josh doesn't know how to play chess." She answers with, "Yes, he does. Don't ask me how, but he does." Yeah...the movie really never explains HOW he learned how to play chess and the parents seem to accept it. I'm sure it's more expanded on in the book. Josh's dad works as a baseball analyst/sports writer (something like that!) and likes to bond with his son over baseball; Josh is even on a Little League team. This has nothing to do with the movie, but the actor who played him sounded so much like Ray Romano, that I kept expecting Doris Roberts to come out and exclaim, "Raymond!" 

After hearing this revelation that his son knows how to play chess, Fred decides to bring out the chessboard to play a game with Josh. The game ends fairly quickly and Fred wins. He confesses to his wife that he should have let Josh win and was even giving him an opportunity to win. Bonnie tells him that Josh wasn't trying to win. Fred decides to play again with Josh and this time he tells him to "really try."

This time they play seriously and it takes so long for Fred to decide how to move his pieces that each time it's his turn, we see Josh playing with his sister during one of his dad's turns, talking on the phone to his friend (who he tells that he'll be right back when his dad calls to him that it's his turn, he runs to the living room, moves his piece, then runs back to the phone), and most humorously, Josh is taking a bath after his dad his finished thinking over a move and when he tells Josh it's his turn, Josh tells him exactly what he wants moved and he ends up winning the game. While it seemingly takes his dad several minutes to make a move, it only takes Josh a few seconds and he knows exactly how to move the pieces to win the game. 

Fred takes Josh to the Metropolitan Chess Club that he knows about from a guy that writes the Chess Column at the same newspaper he also writes for. Um, excuse me, Chess Column?? What? Is this only found in big city papers? I have never heard of a Chess Column in a paper before; granted I've never actively looked for one before. I also don't read the newspaper, I mean, how archaic.  

Anyway, Fred is there to look for a man named Bruce Pandolfini (played by Ben Kingsley). Obviously, he is a real person and I looked up his stats on Wiki:
-He is still alive at the time of this review; he is 73.
-Wiki tells me "he is considered to be America's most experienced chess teacher."
-I thought this little tidbit was interesting; I haven't seen The Queen's Gambit; but now I'm interested to check it out:
In 1983, Pandolfini was the chess consultant to author Walter Tevis for the novel The Queen's Gambit, for which Pandolfini had also suggested the title. Decades later, Pandolfini returned as consultant for the 2020 Netflix miniseries of the same name.

- He looks nothing like Ben Kingsley. Okay, that wasn't in his Wikipedia page, but just thought I would throw it out there. 

Before Bruce accepts tutoring Josh in chess, he invites Fred to an adult chess tournament where all the national chess champs are gathered. This is where we find out that one of the great chess champs, Asa Hoffman (again, somebody I've never heard of), who grew up in a wealthy family and went to prestigious schools, plays 200 games a year and only makes $2,000 from doing it. I suppose if you come from a wealthy family, you can afford to immerse yourself in chess! Fred tells Bruce, "Clearly, you had me come here so I could see all this. But if you really wanted me to say no to letting my son play, you wouldn't have bothered. You want me to think you want me to say no, but you actually want me to say yes." Bruce just replies with, "I want back what Bobby Fischer took with him when he disappeared." I don't know if I was clear when I was talking about Fischer, but supposedly he would just disappear and nobody had any idea where he was. But then he would pop back up to play a game, then disappear again. 

Bruce has agreed to tutor Josh and during their first session they don't even talk about chess, let alone play it. Josh has a large selection of board games in his room and they play Clue. I did notice he had Stratego which is a game my brother also had. We used to play it and he would always beat me because I sucked so bad. That's probably the closest game to chess I've ever played. 

At their next session, Josh is at the Metropolitan Chess Club and Bruce has set up the board for him. He tells his new pupil, "The mate is four moves from the position in front of you." This absolutely means nothing to me! He wants Josh to figure out the moves in his head; Josh tells him he can't do it without moving the pieces. This prompts Bruce to knock the pieces off the board and they clatter onto the floor. A bit overdramatic if you ask me. But after staring at the board for several minutes he gives him the answer, "knight to C8" which pleases Bruce. It pleases him so much that he gives Josh a certificate that he deems is "very rare." It says "Master Chess Certificate awarded to ______ for highest achievement on ______ (date)." Bruce continues to oversell the certificate. He tells him it's only been given out a few times in history and "only to those who achieve a lot of master-class points." This is just a piece of paper; it can't be that significant, but he wants to encourage Josh to earn master class points because it will show that he's learning chess the way Bruce wants him to learn it. 

Speaking of which, Bruce tells Josh's parents that Josh shouldn't be playing chess with Vinnie and the other men in Washington Park. He tells them, "What I'm trying to teach him and what he's learning there are two very different things. Park hustlers play tactics, not position. They rely on wild, unpredictable moves meant to intimidate their opponents. ...It'll cost Josh dearly in real games." Fred was willing to agree to Bruce's terms, but Bonnie refuses because she knows how much it means to Josh and how much he loves playing chess there. Bruce tells her it will make his job harder and she just replies, "So your job's harder." This is the first hint we get where the mother has the kid's interest at heart while the father is more about honing the kid on his skill. 

Fred takes Josh to his first chess tournament (I missed where it was held) and while Josh was swimming at the hotel pool with the other kids who were also there for the tournament, another father asks Fred what his kid's rating is. I guess Fred has no idea what this means (I certainly have no idea what it means!) because he sees a sign that has the number 15 on it and tells him "fifteen" which the other father is amazed by the 1500 rating and tells him he doubts their sons will play against each other because his son, Morgan, isn't even rated 1000 yet. I looked up what a chess player with a rating of 1500 would look like. They would be an intermediate player with 5-6 years of playing the game under their belt. It said a bunch of things that didn't mean anything to me and added that they "will probably need a chess coach to improve further." I'd be curious to know what the rating he really was at that time; he certainly could have been close to 1500! I would definitely be rated a 0! 

At the actual competition, which takes place at a high school gym, the director of the tournament seems to be more concerned about the parents than the kids. He tells the parents they can watch, but he doesn't want any funny business - no throat noises, no comments, no eye contact, nothing where they might be giving a hint or a sign to their child on what to do.  

There's a funny moment where Fred is standing behind Josh, watching him play. Josh's opponent's dad is behind him and he's this big burly guy with his arms crossed, just glaring at Fred. I guess he's trying to intimidate him? Elsewhere, a fight breaks out when a father is accuses of pulling his ear and giving his kid a hint. The man claims he was just scratching it, but like the tournament director told them all, "Nobody cares if you're guilty or not" so all the parents are kicked out of the room and sent downstairs to the locker room (and locked in until the end of the tournament!) All the kids start clapping once the adults are gone and they can finally concentrate. I'm surprised they let the parents stay in the room in the first place. 

This movie is full of big name actors: Joan Allen, Laurence Fishbourne, Ben Kingsley....and we get another one when William H. Macy shows up as the father of the kid who is playing Josh in the final game. (A young Laura Linney will also show up later as Josh's teacher). A random kid keeps running back and forth to tell the parents what's going on in the game. When he finally comes to tell them the game is over, he just walks away and doesn't say who won (um, that's what they're waiting to hear, kid!) It is revealed that Josh won (of course) when he and Fred are on the train traveling back home and a sleeping Josh is clutching a trophy. This leads us to a montage where we see Josh collecting a bunch of trophies as he wins game after game. Their mantle is getting quite full! We also see him building a tower with all the chess pieces which seems kind of impossible. 

Trouble comes in the form of a new kid named Jonathan Poe who is deemed the new Bobby Fischer. Josh sees him playing the old man in the park and it appears that he's an even better player than Josh. I would hope he would be because he's been trained by his chess master, a stuffy elderly man with a beard, since he was four. It seems his parents just gave their son to this chess master (WTF?!) and he does nothing but play chess; he doesn't even go to school. (Again, WTF?!) Good Lord, I can't imagine anything more tedious than having to play chess all the time. All. The. Time! This kid is a chess robot; at least Josh is a normal kid who goes to school and as other interests like baseball and astronomy and building things out of Legos. Poe seems to have a uniform AND a catchphrase. In the three scenes or so we see him (all on different days, mind you) he's always wearing a white polo. He also says "Trick or treat" after he wins a game. I mean, he can't come up with a better or more relevant catchphrase? There's already one built in the game with "Check mate"! 

Seeing that he's not the best anymore and not wanting to disappoint his dad, Josh tells Fred he doesn't want to go to the State Finals. He reasons that if he wins, everyone will be expecting it since he's a top ranked player. And if he loses, he's afraid of what other people will think, especially his dad. (Though he doesn't tell his dad that part). He tells Fred, "Maybe it's better not to be the best. Then you can lose and it's okay." I totally get what he's saying. Being ranked the best at something has to put a lot of pressure on that person. But if nobody is expecting you to win, if you lose, nobody will care and if you DO happen to win, people will probably make a bigger deal because they weren't expecting it! If you're already the best at something, does anybody really care THAT much? Thank God I'm so mediocre so I don't have to worry about this! Josh does go to the State Finals but ends up losing in seven moves; he clearly lost on purpose. 

Bruce sets some new rules for Josh including no more speed chess or games in the park. He knows Josh likes it, but it isn't good for him. He tells Josh they're teaching him all the wrong things. He also asks Josh if he knows what "contempt" means and tells him, "You have to have contempt for your opponents". Josh says he doesn't even when Bruce insists that his opponents hate him, which I seriously doubt since there are seven/eight-year-olds. Josh has the best response when Bruce says, "Bobby Fischer held the world in contempt." (What a shock). He simply replies, "I'm not him." This is pretty much the thesis of the movie: This kid is NOT Bobby Fischer.

At another lesson (this one at Josh's home; I'm confused, sometimes they had lessons at the Waitzkin household and sometimes they had the at the Chess Club; they seemed to be wherever was more convenient for the scene), Josh wants to know how close he is to getting his so-called "very rare" certificate. A frustrated Bruce pulls one out of his briefcase and tells him it doesn't mean anything and starts pulling out many more copies he has and asks him if he wants those too. Geeze, what an a**! Bonnie thinks so too because she tells Bruce to get out of her house. On his way out, he tells her, "To put a child in a position to care about winning and not to prepare him is wrong."

Later that night, Bonnie and Fred get into a fight. Fred agrees with the chess coach and says Josh is in a slump and is afraid of losing. Bonnie retaliates with, "He's not afraid of losing; he's afraid of losing your love." Fred finally sees the light and tells Josh it's okay if he wants to stop playing chess, but Josh tells him he wants to play at the National Finals in Chicago, where, to become the champion, a player must win all seven games.

Even though Bruce was a total jerk to Josh, Fred still invites him to go to Chicago with them. He says he can't go so they end up taking Vinnie instead. It's kind of amusing they take a presumed homeless man with them. But it is kind of sweet and Vinnie was a much better coach to Josh than Bruce ever was. Bruce does end up coming to Chicago and he patches everything up between him and Josh when he gives Josh a framed certificate saying that he "obtained the rank of Grand Master in the eyes of his teacher". He tells Josh he's proud of him and is honored to be his teacher. Aww. 

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that Josh makes it to the seventh and final game and his opponent is Jonathan "Trick or Treat" Poe. Josh's parents, Vinnie, Bruce, and Poe's chess master are all watching the game on a monitor. Right away, Vinnie and Bruce have a disagreement when Bruce doesn't want Josh to bring out his Queen, but Vinnie thinks he should. As usually, I have no idea what's going on. Josh ends up getting Poe's Queen and tells him, "Trick or Treat." I'm sure Poe loved that! 

On the monitor, Bruce sees that Josh can win in 12 steps. (How?!?!  I mean, I guess it is possible to see your moves in advance). We see Josh concentrating on the chess board as we're hearing voiceover from Ben Kingsley telling us the moves he should make as though Josh is hearing what his teacher is telling him the moves he needs to make. Even before he makes a move, Bruce can tell that "he's got it". Being the nice and decent kid he is, Josh offers Poe a draw so they can share the championship. Poe just scoffs at this and Josh tells him, "You've lost; you just don't know it." Poe still doesn't believe him and tells him to look at the board and Josh replies, "I have." He insists on them sharing the title, but Poe still refuse to take his deal and tells him to move. He does and he wins. Yay. 

The movie ends and a few title cards show up, telling us that Josh "still" plays chess and he is "currently" the highest-ranked player in the U.S. under 18. Remember, this movie came out in 1993 so those key words are no longer relevant! And since Bobby Fischer's name is in the title, we get a title card with an "update" on him: "In September 1992, Fischer emerged from secession to challenge his old rival Boris Spassky. After winning, he promptly disappeared again." I guess Bobby Fischer was not a fan of this movie. What a shock.

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