Bobby Fischer Against the World
directed by Liz Garbus
starring Bobby Fischer
Moxie Firecracker Films, HBO Documentary Films, LM Media Production
Guys who play chess usually get beat up by guys who play football, but for a brief moment, nerdiness became a national obsession. In 1972, chess was featured on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, preempting all other programming. Bobby Fischer exploded on the national scene as US champion at 14, and by age 29 he challenged Boris Spassky for the World Championship which the Russians had held since Hiroshima. In those days, the Soviet Union dominated the chess world whether by innate Slavic skill, heavy funding, or outright fraud. Facing the dour Spassky was Fischer — Jewish, good looking, and monomaniacal. He lived chess like Tiger Woods lives golf, but without the entanglements. Alienated from his shattered family, Fischer approached the championship like a prizefighter, training in the Catskills until he could crush Spassky’s hand when they shook after a match. His increasingly bizarre demands waged psychological warfare against Spassky and signaled Fischer’s drift from sanity. He arrived in Iceland hours before deadline, forfeited his first two games and still came back to beat Spassky by four mates. Then he disappeared, joined what I’ll politely call a “nontraditional branch of Christianity,” and became rabidly anti-Semitic. Reappearing at a 1992 rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia, he violated a US embargo and was threatened with arrest and ten years in Club Fed. Ultimately landing in Iceland, he succeeded in pissing off all 300,000 Icelanders. Pretty impressive for a nerdy boy from Brooklyn.
More study in insanity than a tutorial on the Game of Kings, director Garbus assumes you either know the basics of chess, or at least know that it involves staring at a board for long period of time until you capture the opponent’s king or have to pee. Archival film emphasizes the low-res video of the era, and the usual cast of friends and experts fill in the details of Fischer’s career. There’s some nice footage of Iceland and of Fischer roaming the streets of Reykjavik. Young Fischer looks reclusive and fixated, and his interviews show an odd mix of confidence and flutters of mental illness to come. An older Fischer raves and fulminates and it’s hard to believe this man is the same one we met early in the film. That dichotomy fuels Bobby Fischer Against the World making for a taut, well-assembled story. And I’ll bet you can’t name today’s World Chess Champion without a search engine. (Hint: He’s from India.) Such is fame without network support.