Searching for Bobby Fischer (1994) — Chess prodigy plays with heart

“Take the draw.”

Justin’s rating: Grrr… OK! I LIKED IT ALREADY!

Justin’s review: A movie about chess? Cough. Kill me now. String me up by my thumbs, force me to watch the entire lifespan of a fly and then trace his 28,000 descendents through day two… it might be a better thing. Don’t get me wrong, I like to play chess, but a MOVIE about CHESS? Let’s consider how you might make that interesting.

My vision for Chess: The Movie goes like this. First, it’d have to be live-action. Make all the helpless pawns the most irritating Hollywood actors and actresses you can think of. Pauly Shore, Carrot Top, David Arquette, Fran Dreschner, Poochie the Dog, the Wayans Brothers, Jar-Jar Binks, and just for the heck of it, Julia Roberts. Then give the rooks long-range nuclear capacity. Then have the horsies be Mr. Ed and Babe. Make Samuel L. Jackson be one of the kings, and Mel Gibson be the other one. Have the bishops perform “Crouching Tiger” martial arts (running up the side of the board, skipping over the tops of the other pieces). Both queens should be ex-girlfriends with hot flashes. Then have the entire movie consist of long fight sequences, with derogatory remarks made about other, “lesser” board games.

Knight: Go back to playing Scrabble, you Q-U-I-T-T-E-R!

King (Samuel L. Jackson): Castle THIS, [bad word]!

Bishop: I’ve seen better strategy in Stratego, pawny-boy!

Searching For Bobby Fischer didn’t take my suggestions, but they went another way that works just as well. Chess is the conversation piece around which a young boy gravitates, learning important world lessons while bonding closer with his father. Josh Waitzkin discovers chess one day — and also discovers that he’s a natural prodigy. Amazing the players at Central Park and his father, he is enrolled under the tutelage of Bruce (Ben Kingsley).

Bruce has many things to teach the young Jedi apprentice, but does not see eye-to-eye on the moral issues. What moral issues could there be, playing CHESS, you might wonder? I suppose that chess is Josh’s first real foray into the land of adults, and his trusting, affable nature is put to the test when he is pressured to win at all costs, hate his opponents, and smash them into the ground.

On top of all this is the central story of Josh’s relationship with his sports column-writing dad. Josh’s dad’s love for the boy is strong, but in the quest for fame and fortune through this new talent, he influences Josh wrongly, and their relationship suffers. Josh loves his dad and loves chess… but can’t seem to figure out how to make them both work right in his life.

The best moments of the movie totally belong to this little street urchin. He’s quiet, he’s way too sweet and nice to be anything real outside of a Hallmark card… but jee-willikins, ya can’t help liking his style. Like how on his first game of chess in the park, his opponent is all condescending and abrupt… until Josh says “Check” quietly for the first time. Or how, when playing his father, Josh goes so far out of his way to let his dad win, that he keeps flickering his eyes to point out to his dad what move to make during the first game. Only in the second game, when Josh is told that it’s “okay to beat your dad” does he knock the phone books he was sitting on to the floor (to get eye-level with the pieces like a powerful general) and brings on the schooling.

Okay, so it’s CHESS. But I have a tremendous soft spot in my heart for this flick (which Kym originally made me watch), not only because the chess can be exciting, but also because there’s so much powerful stuff happening in Josh’s life that it makes for a great drama. As the movie shows us, the intense pressure placed on these kids (and the title character) tends to destroy their worlds. The real game, the real challenge is for Josh to keep his innocence and his moral values. Plus, this kid just rocks. He’s no Sixth Sense powerhouse, but he’s cute and cheeky, and if I ever had a kid like him, he’d be impossible not to love.

Kyle’s rating: Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m not that good at chess.

Kyle’s review: For me, I’ve never ever thought chess was a boring game. I was even in an elementary school chess club for a year, which was pretty fun. I don’t mention that anymore, but I will mention that Searching for Bobby Fischer is a great film.

We never feel inferior to the chess-playing young genius Bobby; instead we realize that his involvement in the game is robbing him of a normal life. How he loses his way and finds redemption and glory with the help of Ben Kingsley and Laurence Fishburne as mentors is part of the fun, but the salvation of Bobby’s relationship with his father is the crucial link that holds it all together. Winning truly isn’t everything, though it is nice to win, but it doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t enjoy a real life with the ones you love.

On a personal note, I think the scene where Kingsley is trying to get Bobby to think about his chess moves and slams all the chess pieces off the table so Bobby can contemplate the empty board is one of the coolest scenes I’ve ever seen. It is a pivotal scene, seen again at the end, and every time I can’t seem to get a good hold on something in my head I hear Ben Kingsley say “Here, let me show you” and then the clatter of chess pieces on the tiles. Wow!

Didja notice?

  • Real-life chess expert Bruce Pandolfini has an uncredited cameo. He is watching Josh play chess in the park and comments that he’s the next Bobby Fischer.
  • Josh Waitzkin’s first oponent in the National Championships (“ranked 82nd”) is played by the Josh’s real-life sister, Katya Waitzkin.
  • Mousetrap, the board game!
  • In Josh’s room, you can see a number of board games on his shelf, including Sorry, Stratego, and Clue
  • All great chess players can apparently construct a balancing tower out of their pieces
  • I (Justin) made a bunkbed-tent like Josh’s when I was in college… they’re cool!

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