Director Liz Garbus’ documentary, Bobby Fischer Against the World, debuted this week on HBO, after garnering critical acclaim at The Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
The film ostensibly sets out to depict the life of the chess prodigy from from his earliest days as a club player in New York City, to his victory in the 1972 FIDE World Championship match against Boris Spassky that established Fischer as a household name, to his degeneration into mental illness and paranoid delusions in later life that brought him to a tragic, and untimely, end.
It is a riveting film, it is an engrossing film, and it is a compelling film. It is also a very one-sided portrayal of a troubled genius that chooses to focus, almost exclusively, on the eccentricities in Bobby Fischer’s character, and the mental illness that, going unchecked, came to dominate his life in his later years after winning the World Championship. It is a film that diminishes what Bobby Fischer achieved, both in terms of his own accomplishments and how he served as an inspiration to a generation of chess players that lead to a renaissance in American chess, paving the way for a national movement in scholastic chess programs that exists today.
While Garbus interviews a number of chess notables from Fischer’s peers, and other experts, the film’s narrative point of view steers away from the more positive side of Fischer’s nature and accomplishments.
There is no debating that Fischer, in his final years, was an extremely disturbed individual. The opinions he was allowed to express on Philippine radio where heinous, and clearly the product of a mind that had long been in need of psychiatric care. A mind fueled by paranoid delusions, raging anti-semitism, and bitterness towards the American Government for pursuing him as a fugitive. (That fugitive status coming after Fischer chose to ignore State Department demand that he not travel to Yugoslavia to play in a re-match against Boris Spassky in 1992.) At the same time it is rather sad to see such an otherwise remarkable life characterized solely in terms of the negative aspects of his later years.
There is so much that could be said/written/filmed about the whole Fischer phenomenon of the early ’70s, that it could easily provide enough material for a feature-length film. Garbus makes little attempt to reconcile the two sides of Fischer’s life in her documentary, choosing instead to focus almost exclusively on the darker, and more provocative side.
While it is said that, in the long run, there is no such thing as bad publicity there is still a lot more that could be written, said, and filmed, about Bobby Fischer’s life than was presented in “Bobby Fischer Against the World“.
At the top of this post is a short video with Chess Master and noted chess teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, who has been a fixture on the New York City chess scene since the ’60s. As as a member of the Marshall Chess Club, Bruce had occasion to know Bobby very well. Pandolfini paints another picture of Bobby Fischer, one whose love for the game drove him to greatness, and inspired countless others to follow in his path.
Another interesting look at Bobby Fischer can been seen in the YouTube video, A Very Different Bobby Bobby Fischer. The Fischer seen here, in an interview with Dick Cavett, is far from the completely under-socialized nebbish portrayed in the film.
All of that aside, “Bobby Fischer Against the World” is well worth watching, especially for those who only have a vague idea of what chess is all about, or may not have experienced those turbulent times of the Cold War and the ’70s.
Photo: Tal (USSR) against Fischer (USA), 1960 Chess Olympiad, Leipzig, Germany – by Karpouzi, Licensed under Creative Commons.