Bobby Fischer Against the World, premiering in July

6/21/2011 – More than three years have now passed since Bobby Fischer died, but it is quite clear that the final word has yet to be written on the former world chess champion’s life. Interest in him seems to be as strong as ever and there is no shortage of people keen to retell his story. July 5th is the premiere of a remarkable new movie which was discussed in the latest issue of CHESS Magazine.

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CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by John Saunders. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organised the London Chess Classic.

CHESS has just published its 75th anniversary edition and made a very interesting article on Chess in the War available to ChessBase.com readers. CHESS is one of most popular English language chess publications and one of the very few in A4 colour format.

Fischer vs World

John Saunders previews the forthcoming movie
Bobby Fischer Against the World, premiering in July

More than three years have now passed since Bobby Fischer died (in January 2008) but it is quite clear that the final word has yet to be written on the former world chess champion’s life. Interest in him seems to be as strong as ever and, given that he became well known outside the boundaries of chess, there is no shortage of people keen to retell his story.

Most of us have our own nuanced idea of what Fischer was about, often based on inadequate evidence. For example, those of us Brits who became interested in him before his rise to worldwide fame in 1972 really only ‘knew’ him via a handful of biographical books and articles in chess magazines. As a fan from about 1967, I think the first time I had seen and heard him was when he was interviewed by James Burke for BBC TV not long before the 1972 match. Of course, most of us chess fans had by then read My Sixty Memorable Games and thereby become familiar with Fischer the chess thinker, but the book, though great in every way, was strictly chess-only and didn’t get us any closer to Fischer the man. For such personal insights, we had to rely on biographies by Frank Brady and others, plus articles in magazines until James Burke conducted that revelatory interview.

One of the attractive things about the Fischer story is that his life seems to follow the ‘rise and fall’ narrative of a novel or a movie, with a discernible ‘rise’ until Reykjavik 1972 and then a tragic fall thereafter. Thus everyone, not just the biographers and filmmakers, must feel themselves imperceptibly drawn into comparing him with familiar tragic characters in fiction (e.g. Citizen Kane) as well as real-life people (e.g. George Best or Muhammed Ali) whom are often adjudged not to have fulfilled their initial promise or fallen short in some way. It is a story replete with ‘what ifs’ and ‘whys’, making it a fascinating mystery which we all feel we could solve given a few more clues.

Following hot on the heels of Frank Brady’s Fischer biography Endgame (reviewed in our April issue by Sean Marsh) comes this 92-minute documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World, due for release in the UK on 15 July. The director, Academy Award nominated, Emmy-winning Liz Garbus, tells the story more or less as a chronological narrative, focusing in some detail on the 1972 match as it unfolded before trying to piece together the opaque details of Fischer’s often reclusive life after Reykjavik. There is no voice-over - the film consists of film footage plus snippets of interviews with Fischer and (mainly) modern interviews with people who knew him, came into contact with him, or otherwise might be expected to provide informed commentary on his life and career. The film is more or less a conventional ‘reading’ of the life of Bobby Fischer, taking in his swift rise through the chess ranks and unusual nature of his upbringing through to Reykjavik, which is covered in considerable detail, through to the impenetrable period following 1972 and his withdrawal from the chess world.

Interviewees

One key interviewee is Larry Evans, now sadly deceased, who comes across as the humorous voice of reason. As he talks, you find yourself bitterly regretting that Fischer did not listen enough to Evans when he was young and in need of some practical advice. It is a sentiment that may ultimately have been shared by Fischer himself. There is one telling piece of footage in the film where, near the end of his life, Fischer himself tells an anecdote about trying to write a song when he was young. At the time he told Evans that he sat down and tried to wrack his brains for a song idea but nothing would come. “That’s because you haven’t lived life”, retorted Evans. Fischer laughed ruefully as he told the tale and recognised that Evans had probably been right. This tells us a couple of important things about Fischer that we were perhaps unaware of: one, that Fischer was sufficiently sane and rational to be able to look back at his own life and recognise his own errors - and that he could be self-deprecating. There are also a few examples of bravado and mild boasting - so Fischer was capable of saying, like the character in the Frank Sinatra song “I did it my way” but he was human enough to disagree with the Edif Piaf song that makes the improbable claim “Je ne regrette rien”.

Whilst on the subject of Evans, we should not overlook - as films and books not produced by people from the chess world tend to - that Evans played a huge role in getting the wonderful book My Sixty Memorable Games published. Those who tell the Fischer story from a non-chess perspective often fail to do justice to this remarkable book, which represents almost as great an achievement as the winning of the world title and largely refutes the notion that Fischer did not fulfil his talent. In the same breath we must of course acknowledge that he also short-changed us on at least ten years of great chess which might have transformed the status of the game out of all recognition.

Another impressive interviewee is American IM Anthony Saidy. In the period immediately before Fischer was due to travel to Reykjavik, Fischer took refuge from the growing media clamour at Saidy’s home (where the IM lived with his father), and Saidy found himself acting as Fischer’s spokeperson on the doorstep. Saidy’s burden was made exponential as Saidy’s own father was suffering from a terminal illness at the time. The film has Saidy speaking in both 1972 and the present and his testimony is both eloquent and balanced.

For me, the most interesting interviewee was Scottish photographer Harry Benson, who was able to provide some insights into Fischer which add to our knowledge of the man. The level of access given to him by Fischer was remarkable and must in part have been testimony to Benson’s ability to gain the trust and confidence of his subject (this is of course a key skill for a portrait photographer). Benson took photos of Fischer’s physical preparation for the coming fray in Reykjavik, with the muscular GM pumping iron in the gym and swimming up and down a pool. Benson even gets a tasteful shot of Fischer’s naked bottom in the shower! He also accompanied Fischer to the big match and took photos of Fischer on his post-game rambles across the scenic Icelandic outback. It is well known that Fischer was an inveterate walker but Benson adds to our knowledge when he comments on his liking for the open countryside and the animals he came across. This side of Fischer’s nature perhaps comes as surprising news, considering his city-dwelling background, and makes one wonder whether he ever sought to commune with nature in later life. One also has to contrast Fischer’s easy tolerance of Benson’s still camera on his days off compared with his absolute intolerance of the movie cameras that were pointed at him and which led to all manner of difficulties over the playing of the third game.


The documentary makers have unearthed some rare footage and old photos including this gem showing Fischer getting back to nature on a rest day during the 1972 match in Rejkyavik

Despite his aloofness with journalists in general, it seems Fischer was proud of his sporting prowess and his physique, which is also commented on favourably by Dick Cavett on his famous TV chat show, when Fischer made a pre- Reykjavik appearance. Asked by Cavett what he would have done with his life had he not been a world-class chess player, Fischer thinks for a moment and suggests that he might have been a sports man of some unspecified kind. One senses this comes as a surprise to the host and also the audience, who were perhaps expecting a less physically impressive person to be their country’s top chess representative. Fischer has been called a lot of names in his life (and after it) but ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ have rarely been amongst them. However, the audience (though not Cavett) guffaw at Fischer’s claim that the physical training was necessary for the lengthy chess match that was ahead of him. Fischer does not react to this, knowing (as we do) that it was a perfectly valid point, but the audience reaction only serves to underline the lack of chess culture of the general American public.

Cavett is interviewed for the film and provides a shrewd and balanced assessment of his former interviewee. Though his close encounter with Fischer was relatively fleeting, Cavett’s vast experience of fronting the legendary Tonight Show gave him a keen ability to gauge human nature (particularly that of the myriad celebrities and significant achievers who had sat opposite him over the years) and this add considerable weight to his observations. One comes away with the impression that Cavett liked Fischer without being entirely able to figure him out.

Fischer, for his part, seemed reasonably relaxed in the Tonight Show hot seat and did his best to answer questions plainly and directly, though the right words did not always come easily. In this and the James Burke interview, those of us seeing Fischer speaking for the first time saw an openness and shy friendliness to the interviewer that did not equate with the difficult and cantankerous personality we had previously read about in his dealings with officialdom and his intimates. Fischer came across as top sportsmen often do in these circumstances: not great with words, confident when questioned on their own subject, and just a little bashful on more general matters.

Garry Kasparov was also interviewed for the film. Of course, he was an important person to talk to as someone who had climbed the same mountain as Fischer and firmly planted his flag there. As such, Kasparov was able to shed light on the enormity of the task of the man - indeed, any man - who strikes out for the summit of the chess Everest. Again, this is an area where the competition chessplayer sees things differently from the non-player. Even those of us who have only slogged up to ‘Everest base camp’ and have only seen the chess summit through binoculars can probably imagine how damnably hard the final few metres must be. Kasparov provides valuable testimony on this point. However, he was born into a very different, and vastly superior, chess culture than the rest of us and probably has less insight than the humblest chess plebeians when it comes to empathising with the huge obstacles strewn in Fischer’s path when he took his first few steps in chess. This point still leaves some room for people to argue that ‘Fischer was the greatest’, of course - he started much further down the mountain. But let’s not get distracted: Kasparov himself doesn’t get involved in such a debate in the film. Thankfully, it is not something that the film concerns itself with, either - the theme is Fischer the man.

Other interviewees include Susan Polgar (though she says little about Fischer’s visits and informal chess encounters with her family whilst domiciled in Budapest); chess journalist Sam Sloan (who recounts how Fischer could read a whole page of chess annotations, seemingly at a single glance); writers David Edmonds; MalcolmGladwell, sharing their considerable researches on Fischer; Fischer’s personal attorney Paul Marshall; and Fischer’s
brother-in-law Russell Targ.

Fischer after Reykjavik

The musical accompaniment to the film (there is no narration) reflects contemporary pop tastes of the times and is relatively unobtrusive but there is a shift to something slightly less tuneful and mysterious to represent the post-1972 phase of his life. Suddenly the ‘rise’ is over and we are into the ‘fall’. Looking at it from the point of view of the world of celebrity, Fischer had converted himself into a hugely marketable brand and, had he wanted to, could have named his price for all manner of commercial endorsements. All he had to do was get a manager, an agent and a few of those suits he always said he would buy when he hit the big time - then sit back and count the dollars. But, after a few chat shows and a mayoral presentation - he did nothing.

The film lets the interviewees and the footage tell the story and it is a cogent account, which doesn’t lead the audience by the nose, so there are no glib answers. It provides the evidence, intelligently edited, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. By the end of the film, we are back at square one, but perhaps less wedded to our own version of the Fischer story. We are better informed generally and can step back to having a more open mind about him.

In the same way Fischer too was back at square one after Reykjavik. In one of his own early interviews he tells of his own first games of chess, played against himself, and thereafter he was to spend most of the rest of his life playing chess with himself. This is a small clue that he didn’t change (or ‘go mad’) after Reykjavik so much as stay the same. That was the problem because the world around him had changed out of all recognition. He had become public property, a celebrity, and simply wasn’t any good at the new role thrust upon him. One argument is that, being obstinate and untrusting and generally unused to dealing with worldly problems, he didn’t do the thing that a celebrity simply has to do to survive - outsource the problem to a professional agent. The alternative theory is that he was, if anything, too trusting - falling under the spell of a religious sect, which became his replacement family, he was poorly advised and failed to put his celebrity on a proper business footing.

As well as the perplexing problem of dealing with his new, unwanted celebrity status, Fischer had to refocus his chess ambitions. Like a political party that is more comfortable with the campaign trail than being in office, Fischer suddenly faced an entirely new set of problems and priorities, psychological or otherwise. It is evident from his contemporary utterances that he thought he knew what he was going to - “I think I’m going to play more chess” - but it turned out to be quite the reverse. On the chat shows his talk had been of “getting the title” but he sounded less sure when the canny Cavett pushed him to speculate further. Somehow he couldn’t change the script. As chessplayers, we have further specialist evidence of this: his static chess opening repertoire provides us with further evidence that he was someone who was pathologically averse to change.

We come to the knotty problem of why Fischer didn’t play any more chess (except for the Spassky rematch). The no-change theory stands up here too to some extent. Though Fischer only withdrew from two events after the start (the 1967 Sousse Interzonal and the match with Reshevsky), he had long been playing hard-to-get before agreeing to take part in events, in particular during the period leading up to 1970, so his avoidance of play as champion was quite consistent with earlier behaviour.

But there is almost certainly more to it than that, and here we get into the realms of pet theories and conjecture. One such is that Fischer saw Karpov coming and got cold feet. It is true that he would have been better placed than anybody on the planet to appraise the young Soviet star’s play and then draw a conclusion as to the likely outcome of a match with him. We can be fairly sure that he would have undertaken this sort of appraisal process but there can be no knowing what his conclusions were, or whether his negotiations for the 1975 ‘match that never was’ were a deliberate smokescreen to avoid playing Karpov. My personal feelings are that this is not the case - much more likely that his demands were genuine, despite appearing extravagant to all bar him, and that the failure to come to terms was down to another of his missing life skills - his inability to compromise.

A further reason for Fischer not emerging to play again might have been that he didn’t really like playing chess. This might sound bizarre but it is not the same thing as saying ‘he didn’t like chess’. On the contrary, he must have loved the game dearly to have spent so much of his young life devouring every word written on the subject, and honing and refining his own ideas and technique. But what he fell in love with may have been the holy perfection of chess which is a very different thing from the messy reality of practical chess. The tournament room and its manifold distractions, with people coughing and shuffling their feet, opponents’ blowing cigarette smoke in your face (still legal in that era), and above all the ticking of the clock, detracts markedly from the sepulchral silence and seclusion of a chess laboratory. He must have known that his every appearance at a chessboard from 1972 onwards would have been surrounded by hullabaloo and clicking and whirring cameras. Of course, there are plenty of players we can think of who would be quite the opposite and almost addicted to the adrenalin and attention of the tournament hall – Viktor Korchnoi certainly and perhaps Nigel Short are examples - but I don’t think it is so unusual for a player to find themselves temperamentally unsuited to the actual playing of the game and choose instead to watch from the sidelines.

Stubborn and unbending he may have been about the conditions under which he was willing to play a chess match, but Fischer wasn’t entirely intransigent. His ability to see himself as others saw him wasn’t perhaps as developed as it might have been but it definitely existed. An example comes right at the end of the film, with a clip from a short outdoor interview of Fischer in the run up to the big match. The unseen interviewer gently suggests to him that he might have overly concentrated on chess as a child and hence not had a balanced upbringing. Fischer reflects on this for a moment, weighs the pros and cons as he would a chess move, and then more or less admits that it was probably right. This clip struck me as a master stroke of an ending for the movie. Fischer was being himself in front of the camera, giving an honest, direct, albeit not very exciting answer, to a question. No guile, no evasion, no well-rehearsed sound-bite honed to perfection by a PR assistant, all those familiar phrases we have come to expect from celebrities whom we like to think we know (but probably don’t know at all). Was Fischer a storybook ‘man of mystery’ at all? Was he actually more truly ‘knowable’ than other celebrities? Or was the film’s director hinting that Fischer was a blank canvas on which we all choose to paint our own pictures? Ultimately there are only questions about Fischer and it is to the film-maker’s credit that she recognised this, avoided pat answers and still produced an absorbing hour and a half’s film.

One famous line from the film The Third Man always makes me think of Fischer. The anti-hero Harry Lime’s old school friend, is talking to Lime’s ex-girlfriend and remembering his prodigal talent: “When he was fourteen, he taught me the three-card trick. That was growing up fast.” But the ex-girlfriend replies: “He never grew up. The world grew up round him, that’s all - and buried him.”

View or download the PDF of this review in CHESS Magazine

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The official Bobby Fischer Against the World Trailer

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