Reviews | July 05, 2011 22:22

Review: Bobby Fischer Against The World

Tonight is the UK premiere of the new documentary Bobby Fischer Against The World. You might remember that GM Gawain Jones went to the official press screening on April 14th in Soho, London for us (and bumped into Magnus Carlsen there). Here's Gawain's review of the film!

The documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World (IMDB title here) traces the 11th World Champion from child prodigy to Cold War hero to controversial recluse. Cutting interviews with Bobby and the people who knew him with footage and news reports, Bobby Fischer Against the World is a mesmerising portrait of the rise and bizarre fall of one of the great American icons. It's directed by Liz Garbus and was first released at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. You can watch interviews with the director here and here. Tonight is the London première of the film at London's Rich Mix Arts centre. To celebrate the release, distributor Dogwoof is holding a launch event where GM Nigel Short plays a 20-board simul (including 6 time World Snooker Champion Steve Davis) followed by a screening and a Q&A with Dominic Lawson. Bobby Fischer Against the World in UK - London Premiere on July 5th We asked GM Gawain Jones, who lives in London, to go and watch the press preview on April 14th and write a review about the film. There, he met with Magnus Carlsen, who went to the press screening together with his manager Espen Agdestein. Obvsiously Gawain took the opportunity to ask Magnus what he thought about the film. Gawain Jones and Magnus Carlsen at the Bobby Fischer Against the World UK Press ScreeningGM Gawain Jones: Your thoughts on the film? GM Magnus Carlsen: Well there wasn't much that i didn't really know before but I haven't seen any pictures of him before so that was new. GJ: So that shows a more human side of him. MC: Yeah, it was sad... GJ: Yes, and a very moving film. Do you see any similarities between you and him? MC: I started thinking and although i thought that there was a little too much emphasis that chess players go "points to his head" insane which I think these days just doesn't happen - that much but I mean it made me think and also realise even more chess was a different game back then. GJ: But chess probably kept him sane for longer... MC: It was really sad to hear him say what he was saying after the match and everything. It was even a bit funny to hear him say he was going to play more chess. GJ: And the last thing he said and he didn't play for another 20 years! MC: Yeah. Here's Gawain's review.

Review by GM Gawain Jones

I got into chess watching the Short-Kasparov match in London 1993. This match definitely wouldn’t have received the publicity it did, and perhaps never have existed at all, were it not for the American World Champion Bobby Fischer. To the average Joe on the street he is definitely the most famous chess player and it is thanks to his efforts that chess received such a popularity boom in the West. It was therefore interesting to see how such an important figure for the chess world would be portrayed. This is the first documentary featuring the life of Robert James Fischer the 11th World Champion. Liz Garbus is the director and the title - Bobby Fischer Against the World – neatly sums up the angle she’s taken: chess, war and the isolation of the young Fischer who struggled to grow up. The film starts off with Bobby’s humble beginnings, moving from Chicago to Brooklyn, New York and the early signs are that his relationship with his mother, Regina Fischer, is already strained. The man named on his birth certificate is Hans-Gerhardt Fischer but we are shown compelling evidence that his true father was Dr. Paul Nemenyi, who Bobby was very close to but apparently was only told by his mother the man’s true identity after Nemenyi’s death when Bobby was age 9. We see Bobby’s love affair with chess start to take root. Regina becomes concerned at the amount of time Bobby is spending playing chess against himself. At the age of 13 after winning the US Championship, Bobby was thrust into the limelight- fame he never seemed to ever want. At this point in time we see a young boy who is very media shy. A boy who is obsessed with chess, constantly flicking through books, apparently taking in pages of variations at just a glance (though this may feels to be an exaggeration). We already see someone who is on the edge of sanity and it could be argued that chess kept him sane longer rather than driving him crazy. Angry at his mother and the world, he moved into seclusion and further isolated himself. Throughout the film, we see the lack of intimacy between Bobby and Regina, whose communist leanings had attracted the American state’s interest and we are told she had some 900 pages on the FBI files. Occasionally we see her in the film, fighting for one of her many causes but we are given the impression that she felt she had more important things to do than be Bobby’s mother and mother and son didn’t speak for decades. The core interest of this to chess players, who will know almost all the details already, is the clever use of primary source material to give us a fresh perspective on Bobby’s life. The editors link photographs and video excepts of the former World Champion alongside interviews with many people with first hand experience. Of course this list includes many chess players, among them can be noted the late Larry Evans, Gary Kasparov and Susan Polgar. However the most interesting interviewee is undoubtedly Harry Benson. Benson is a Scottish photographer who I hadn’t heard of before but who seemed to have become very close to Fischer and perhaps his closest confidant. Certainly he travelled a good deal with Fischer and from the photos taken appears to have won his trust – something which was very difficult to achieve with Bobby. It is his opinion, and his photos, which really make the film for me. We are shown photos of Bobby preparing for the match, in the gym and even naked in the shower in one picture, while Benson reminisces about someone he was close to with interesting tales. Magnus Carlsen told me afterwards he viewed the new photos the most interesting part of the production. The film moves onto the Match of the Century in Reykjavik, which I’m sure you all know in depth. The chess is hardly touched but the film charts the off-the-board shenanigans and the difficulties in Bobby arriving in the first place. We see him issuing ever greater demands – larger prize money, playing in the back room away from the buzz of the cameras etc. The match is shown within its importance place in history - at the height of the Cold War a showdown between the lone American and the Russian with all his support. This was simply more than any chess match, this was a way for the Americans to gain one up on the Russians in a sport that they had dominated in recent history. Of course there’s a slight hint of propaganda here, which the director buys into but that’s a debate for other times.

Thanks to all of the hype surrounding the match, chess was now in the world’s media spotlight with prime time news focusing on the match – a scenario we could only dream of currently. A new found fame for the young wonder kid –a fame that he didn’t want or ask for, but was pushed upon him due to this World Championship Match with screaming fans meeting him at the Airport in Iceland. We see his unease and him immediately jumping into his waiting car to be driven away. He had achieved Superstar status with scenes reminiscent of Beatlemania or today’s Biebermania (See Justin Bieber). We all know that he didn’t play another game of chess for two decades. During this break there is a girl, (isn’t there always a girl?) – to save the day – to save the hero from self destruction and here in this documentary we find it in a young Hungarian girl Rita, who puts him back into the spotlight with the 1992 rematch in Belgrade, against Spassky. He professes marriage to her in letters but she refuses him only to be called “bitch” and never spoken to again, showing Fischer’s hatred of anyone or anything that he feels has betrayed him. Bobby’s sorry saga after the match continues with his conversion to the Worldwide Church of God and subsequent fall out. He comes back into the spotlight with rants on the Filipino radio station. Videos show him to never stop talking about various conspiracies – be it the Americans, the Russians the Jews or all of the above. The Americans are now after Bobby for violating UN imposed sanctions with his match in Yugoslavia and his passport is revoked. At this point in time, Iceland steps up to give him citizenship and he lives there until he dies. In this documentary we see Fischer as a loner, pushing everyone away. He obviously lacked trust and often felt betrayed by those close to him, which caused him either to lash out with his irrational beliefs or by ignoring and refusing to speak to them. When in Iceland, A friend of his says, “Bobby, it’s not a monologue” when trying to reply to a tirade. He was living in his own world and very much against the world. The photos and videos see him more at peace with animals rather than humans and we see him in Iceland petting some horses out in a field. We are left at least with some hope that in Iceland Fischer may have found peace although even towards the end we are treated to Bobby meeting the son of a journalist whom he fell out with. It was cringe worthy to see his pleasant manner quickly melt away and Fischer turned into a vicious anti-Semite. The director has done a very good job combing for sources and the use of old photo and video evidence is very interesting. However I came away from the film with sadness. In the end the real story is not about a genius who defeated all to become World Champion but a tale of a young awkward boy who hoped that becoming World Champion might fill a void in his life. We very rarely see Fischer happy or at peace, always awkward, always on guard, ready at any moment to push anyone and everyone away. His decline after the match is particularly marked. Chess fans may be disappointed that there was not more of a focus on the chess. We see very little and at one point a diagram from one game is shown out of sync but nevertheless I feel this is well made and makes interesting viewing. All in all this film is a poignant story and one that stays with you, in which you cannot help but feel for the protagonist in what was his rise and eventual fall. I left the cinema wondering if, at the end of it all, Fischer was satisfied with his life, or had his regrets; how this genius didn’t manage the most from his potential and remained sad and alone. Bobby Fischer Against The World will be out in UK cinemas 15 July.

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Editors's picture
Author: Editors
Chess.com

Comments

freakclub's picture

For me, this was just a so-so film, meaning ordinary, not revelatory. We've all known about the crazy character of Fischer before, this isn't news. Perhaps some new video clips of him which are presented here can make up for the lackluster ordinariness of the film.

Tony Blades, WallaseyChessClub UK.'s picture

Are you a strong player?

realitycheck's picture

@ excalibur

"No man is an island, entire of it selfe; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans' death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for the."

John Donne

realitycheck's picture

@ excalibur

"No man is an island, entire of it selfe; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans' death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

John Donne

R.Mutt's picture

I'm an island. I'm Jamaica.

columbo's picture

yeap, so you are also a record :)

excalibur's picture

Its dissapointing that the movie has only a bit of chess in it. Anyway, why don't they leave the late great chess champion alone? Let's remember him for his unrivalled greatness on the board. Even in death.....

Estragon's picture

It wasn't bad at all, and did show some pictures and clips I hadn't see in many years. A balanced presentation overall.

It downplayed the extraordinary behind the scenes work by Col. Edmondsen and USCF to make the match - and in fact Bobby's reentry into the cycle - happen. Nearly all of the organization's funds, including reserves, were spent on the effort. If Bobby had dropped out early, USCF might have been bankrupted.

At the very end, the attempt to draw a parallel between Fischer and Morphy is very strained. Yes, they were both American chess geniuses who walked away from the game at the height of their powers and suffered mental illnesses. But Morphy always saw chess as a diversion: he only was convinced to play in the American Congress and then to tour Europe because having passed the Louisiana Bar at 18, he had to wait three years to be permitted to practice law in the state.

To the extent that chess had any role in Morphy's breakdown, it might be the frustrations he felt at not being taken seriously as an attorney and prominent citizen due to being world famous as a chess player. In the aristocratic class he was born to, such public spectacles were considered unseemly - which is why he was fanatical about pointing out he never accepted any money for playing, and became quite irritated when referred to as "professional chess player" or even "chess champion."

But that stretch is only a couple of minutes, and doesn't affect the overall quality of the documentary. Naturally, a film for general audiences cannot get too far into the details of games, and this doesn't. The only position analyzed at all is the famous first game of the Spassky match where Bobby snatches the Rook pawn and gets his Bishop trapped.

Worth seeing to understand the man and the times better, take a non-chessplaying friend, but don't expect any chess instruction.

Max's picture

I read "my 60 memorable games" as a kid. It was a birthday present I think. I read it probably over a 100 times or so. Hard to believe whoever wrote that book could degenerate mentally. But some people say Evans wrote a chunk of it.

Tony Blades, WallaseyChessClub UK.'s picture

I can! I have a psychology background. On the topic of chess analysis, Bobby was always 100% rational. His irrationality (paranoia) only began beyond the 64 squares. Bill Hartston (also a psychologist) points out that chess is a game in which paranoia helps one to play well.

Dr. Wolfgang Berghorn's picture

@ChessVibes: Do you know if and when a DVD will be available?

Peter Doggers's picture

No, but I forwarded your question to the distributor.

Dr. Wolfgang Berghorn's picture

Thank you very much for your efforts! Hopefully an answer will come these days!

Dr. Wolfgang Berghorn's picture

Today I found a message on the German ChessBase website, that on August 4th, 2011 at 10.00 p.m. CEST, the TV channel ARTE will show the documentary movie about Fischer!

calu's picture

If you are assigned to "destroy" a pyramid and make it collapse you got to take away the so called "corner stone" of the structure to make it happen.
In our case the so called biographers tried just that, for once more, like flies with no other power than this...not to mention that flies cant fly that high to reach the top of the pyramid...so all they had to do was to fly above the rejected parts of a masterpiece, like those broken marbles Michelangelo "stroke away" from the original rock of his Pieta only to reveal his masterpiece....not so original though, insects are known "visitors" of crap from ancient times...that's what they are good in...there is an ancient Greek saying about all this: When the oak is down every body can chop a piece of it!!!

unknown's picture

Just downloaded and watched it...

And it made me sad...

The Devil's picture

I appreciate Liz Garbus's effort in finding additional stock footage. I wish the full length stock footage used in production could be posted on youtube or something for all to view. That was the best part of the movie, especially the very beginning when he's playing over a game and giving his thoughts.

Tony's picture

The comments on Fischer's mother are interesting. I've just been reading Frank Brady's book, and his views of the relationship are different.

I'm convinced that Fischer had Asperger's Syndrome (= mild form of autism). A lot of his behaviour is consistent with this condition. Maybe if this had been understood at the time, he could have developed better ways of dealing with life.

Simaginfan's picture

Disagree totally. People can be obsessive and have limited social skills without suffering from aspergers, which is very often a the modern day blanket diagnosis. Many aspects of fischers behaviour refute the diagnosis, but this isn't really the place for an extended debate on a.s. disorders. Wason's first principle - always try to disprove the hypothesis, not to prove it.

Brian Wall's picture

I am in the closing credits playing backgammon in Washington Square Park, NY, NY in a purple shirt.

Nico's picture

Can't help feeling this film will be bleak and exploitative of his memory and pull for the older generation. After all, his glory was relatively brief, and there will be little to say but that "He was a world champion, but ever so strange. What a waste."
Of course if you find anything more edifying in it, please let us know.

bruceb's picture

The reviewer writes with dismay: "However I came away from the film with sadness". But this was exactly what the movie meant to portray, utter sadness at a guy who was at the top of the world, and let it slip away. It's the tragedy that's been told a million times.

Fischer cheated the world out of some great chess after 1972. He cheated himself. It really is sad.

Raj's picture

There is a spiritual thirst in every human being that can only be satiated by God - no amount of success, fame, winning championships is going to last, just what have we done with this life on earth whether it was as per the Master's perfect plan for our life oin earth because one day "the bell tolls; it tolls for thee" and if we aren't prepared to meet our Maker, then all is in vain.

Frank van Tellingen's picture

I am still waiting on the Hollywoodflick starring Nicolas Cage playing RJF...

Tony Blades, WallaseyChessClub UK.'s picture

I look forward to watching this chess-themed film, after suffering the fairly rubbish
"Luzhin Defence". I would like to see "CAPABLANCA" starring Johnny Depp as the womanising Cuban genius!!

Tony Blades, WallaseyChessClub UK.'s picture

It would be fascinating to see a graphologists full analysis of Fischer's handwriting. While being a massive & appreciative student of his chess games (I'm a Club player & chess Coach), I view him as immature as a person -- an individual who never allowed people to get emotionally close to him. He never achieved a long-lasting relationship with a woman. Chess meets our needs for ritualised & defused aggression... Bobby was angry at life because of his upbringing. He saw injustice everywhere (i.e. Soviets supporting juniors, USA ignoring them) and of course in chess we see justice done. A complex and unhappy person.

john's picture

This is one of the best documentaries I have seen of Fischer. There are some really rare photos and videos shown, it is a must see for any Fischer fan.

Dr. Wolfgang Berghorn's picture

You are absolutely right! The Benson foto book e.g. shows pictures I´ve never seen before and so does the documentary film!

stevefraser's picture

I agree....I well remember the match in Iceland and all the excitement.

Matt's picture

I'd kill for a couple carriage returns in that review.

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