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"Chess and me, it's hard to take them apart."

By Seth Freilich | Film | January 22, 2011 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | January 22, 2011 |

Bobby Fischer is thought by many to be the greatest chess player of all time. Starting to play at age 6, he was already a Grandmaster by 16 (the youngest at the time), and he absolutely slaughtered the competition in the early 1970’s. That lead to him earning the World Championship in 1972 against the USSR’s Boris Spassky, in what was a widely publicized and watched Cold War us versus them. As most folks know, he became wildly reclusive after that, basically vanishing until the early 90’s. When he resurfaced, it was clear that the chess master, who had always been antisocial and wildly eccentric, was on the verge of a complete mental break. Full of antisemitic and anti-American conspiratorial paranoa, he would live out the rest of his days as a fugitive of the United States as a result of playing a rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia, in flagrant opposition to a UN embargo. Fischer’s story is a fascinating one, and it’s a little surprising that Bobby Fischer Against the World is the first documentary to turn the camera on his life (although another documentary focusing on Fischer’s last years in Iceland, Me & Bobby Fischer premiered last year, and has footage used in this film).

If you’ve read any articles about Bobby Fischer — hell, if you’ve read his Wikipedia page — there is not much that you will learn about Fischer’s life, per se, from this documentary. However, filmmaker Liz Garbus compiled an excellent amount of footage of the notoriously reclusive and camera shy Grandmaster, including old archival pieces as well as clips from the 2000’s showing just how shitballs insane Fischer went — even if you know Fischer’s story, it’s quite another thing to see it firsthand. Garbus also seemingly interviewed almost anyone capable of offering insight on Fischer’s life. These interviews include, among others, Fischer’s closest living family member (a brother-in-law), his friends and contemporaries in the chess world, his former body guard and personal trainer, modern chess masters, the folks who ran the ‘72 match, and even Henry Kissinger (who personally called Fischer in connection with the ‘72 match). Curiously absent, however, are interview clips with Spassky himself, although a Russian author of a book about Spassky provides a few talking heads (I originally assumed this was because Spassky was no longer alive, although Wikipedia tells me he is actually the oldest living former world champion).

While the doc does a good job at painting a picture of both Fischer’s upbringing and his mental collapse, that more or less bookends the highlight of the film, which is where it focuses on the 1972 Spassky match. Fischer almost didn’t show up to the match, which was actually delayed because of his absence (as opposed to being declared a forfeit). And once he did arrive, the ensuing three months — the match encompassed 21 individual games played from July to September — played host to a variety of Fischer acts that can be perceived as either psychological warfare or his paranoid delusions taking root (Fischer himself poo-poos that it was psychological gamesmanship, famously noting “I don’t believe in psychology, I believe in good moves”). There is compelling footage of some of this, as the match was nationally televised due to a never-before and never-again amount of public interest. When Garbus couldn’t use actual match footage (because Fischer had issues with the cameras, forcing some of the games to be played in a virtual lockbox of a room), she found other footage to help tell the story (like a news piece interviewing the artist who rendered one of the game which, to the amusment of the viewing audience, features one of the best cinematic mustaches ever).

Of course, there’s a fine line one is faced with in putting together a documentary about chess — you want to try to sell folks on the beauty of the game and the genius of the players, but you don’t want to lose your viewers in a sea of queen’s gambits, en passants and Bb5 a6’s. And in this middle section, Garbus and her talking heads toe the line well, giving the viewer a sense of the game’s beauty and complexity, while throwing in just enough bits of actual chess wonk to give things context without losing those who don’t know a lick about chess. While the portions of the documentary focusing more on Fischer’s life before and after the match are interesting enough, primarly because of the actual footage of Fischer, this middle portion of the documentary is really the heart of the film. It’s excellent, and I would actually love to see an expanded version focusing on more of the individual games, on and off the board, that were played over those three months. But Garbus’ goal was bigger with Bobby Fischer Against the World, as she hoped to explore and explain the curious Grandmaster. And she largely achieves this goal, as much as is probably possible with a recluse like Fischer. Towards the end of the film, one of the talking heads notes that “a good chess player is paranoid on the board,” and the films shows how this paranoia gets the better of some of the true chess geniuses. And at least as to this point, it seems that Fischer was truly no better than some of those who came before him.

Bobby Fischer Against the World premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and, having been produced by HBO Films, is expected to air on the It’s-Not-TV network later this year.

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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