Chess history: Nineteen Hours with Bobby Fischer – Part 1

2/23/2012 – In 1981 the National Film Board of Canada agreed to finance a feature-length documentary on the game of chess – one of the most ambitious projects of its kind ever undertaken. For the "Great Chess Movie" the producers decided to approach the reclusive world champion Bobby Fischer. Camille Coudari describes the harrowing encounter in this remarkable historical document.

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Chess Squares and Circular Thinking

Camille Coudari on nineteen hours with Bobby Fischer

In Frank Brady's biography of World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer, Endgame, the author writes: "It is known that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation wanted to interview Bobby for a documentary. He demanded $5,000 just to discuss it over the phone, with no promises of anything else. The network refused." (p. 229).

Although it is indeed possible that the CBC tried to contact Fischer, I believe Brady's sources are inaccurate and probably refer to an episode I feel free to discuss publicly, now that Fischer is no longer with us.


Research writer Camille Coudari, director Gilles Carle and producer Hélène Verrier in 1981,
at the time of the production of "The Great Chess Movie" (links at the end of this article)

In late 1980, the National Film Board of Canada, a world-famous documentary studio (as opposed to the CBC which is a television network), agreed to finance and produce a feature-length documentary on the game of chess. The director was Gilles Carle, one of the best-known filmmakers in the country; I was the researcher and writer, although eventually circumstances pushed me into the role of co-director as well. The NFB producer in charge of the project was Hélène Verrier.

Shooting started in spring 1981 and went on until the fall of that year. We filmed in Lone Pine, New York (where we interviewed GM and chess legend Reuben Fine), at Bell Labs in New Jersey (the site of pioneering chess program development), in Iceland, Holland, and finally in Merano for the Karpov vs. Kortchnoi World Championship.


Reuben Fine in the Great Chess Movie

Gilles, who passed away recently, was an enthusiastic chess amateur, and backed me up fully when I suggested we invite Bobby Fischer to participate in the film. Hélène completely approved as well, a crucial factor since, without the unconditional backing of our producer, we stood no chance of getting anywhere.

Did we have high hopes? Perhaps not, but we felt we held two cards in our favor.

Firstly, there was the NFB’s international reputation and its non-commercial status, which we believed might alleviate Fischer’s famous fear of being taken advantage of. The Film Board's very mandate guaranteed that no individual stood any chance of personally benefiting financially from the project. We also hoped – naively, as it turned out – that this consideration might encourage Fischer to go easy on us as far as financial demands were concerned.

The other factor was that our project was by far the most ambitious documentary ever made about the game up to that time, and Fischer might not wish to be left out.

I do not remember exactly when I started tracking down Bobby Fischer, nor how I finally got hold of the phone number of the Mokarows, who were Fischer's spokespersons at the time. I think it must have been in January or February of 1981, and that it was either thanks to Ed Edmondson, a longtime executive officer of the United States Chess Federation, or through the help of Dobrila Suttles, whose husband, Canadian GM Duncan Suttles, was rumored to still have some distant contact with Fischer. At any rate, over the next several months, I had numerous phone conversations with the Mokarows, during which I had to answer many questions about myself, our team, and the purpose of the movie.

My impression of Mr. Mokarow was that of an articulate, intelligent person who held his cards very close to his chest indeed. I also had the distinct feeling that someone was listening in on most of our conversations, as I always had to call at a very precise time and there were too many unnaturally long pauses between Mokarow’s replies.

The location for the first shoot was the famous Lone Pine Open in California, which offered a great opportunity to meet Arthur Mokarow face to face, since he was based in the LA area. I had to request a meeting several times, and he eventually agreed, although only at the last minute.

I met him at an upscale Japanese restaurant and again explained our plans and purposes. As we parted, he told me he would consult with Mr. Fischer and get back to me. This was in April 1981. The following month, I received a letter saying that Fischer refused to participate in the movie. With hindsight, and after reading about other negotiations of this nature in Frank Brady's book, I realize that this was a typical Fischer gambit.

At any rate, I wrote him back saying how disappointed I was and how I felt he was losing a great chance to tell the world his side of the story, particularly his reasons for not defending his title and for staying away from professional chess for almost ten years.

Maybe it was a result of my insistence (I wrote several more letters), or maybe reports of our shooting around the world triggered something, but when I contacted the Fischer-Mokarow team again in late 1981, telling them we had filmed the Karpov-Kortchnoi world championship in Merano, Italy, and that we had interviewed both players for our movie, I found the door suddenly swung open. Meeting Fischer for further discussions was now primarily a question of money. The conditions were a cool US $5,000 in cash (worth about CAD $6,000 at the time) just to talk, as well as a written guarantee that nothing about the meeting or the subjects discussed was to be made public.

Although the film's budget was adequate for the general goals we had in mind, $6,000 was a lot of money to spend on something as elusive as Fischer's participation. Most producers would have balked at this, but Hélène was a trooper and actually managed to get the go-ahead from the NFB's top brass.

That is how I came to board a Montreal-LA flight in early 1982 in the company of Hélène and Gilles. Hélène's presence was necessary because we knew that further financial demands would follow and only she had authority over that aspect of the negotiations. As director of the movie, Gilles hoped to win Fischer over with his cinematographic ideas and convince him that his participation in a major documentary that would be shown all over the world was essential.

Hélène was a little nervous having to travel with all that cash, and I do not remember if she eventually met with Mr. Mokarow to hand it over to him, or if she gave it to Fischer personally when we saw him. But in any case, soon after our arrival we were instructed to take a taxi to a designated street corner in Pasadena and pick Fischer up at 8 p.m. He would then direct us to a French restaurant in LA.

Upon our arrival, a tall, lanky figure emerged from the shadows across the street, crossed quickly as if in a panic, jumped into the cab and gave the restaurant's address to the driver. This was truly the stuff of Hollywood, and Hélène, Gilles and I looked at each other: would Fischer agree to appear in our movie? He already seemed to live in one!

Fischer was relatively well dressed, but his suit was far from the flashy, perfectly tailored attire I had seen in photos and newsreels. He was bigger around the waist, and, though I would not go so far as to say he looked haggard, there was certainly something broken about him. He had been reading while waiting for us, and I remember taking a peek at the paperback he was holding in his hand, wondering if it had anything to do with chess. But no, it was a comic book, and in Spanish, which was a surprise, as I was not aware he knew that language.

The introductions were hurried and awkward. “So who is the chess guy?” he asked almost immediately. The way he said it, I knew right away I was going to have to carry most of the conversation. His brusque manner made that seem a less than enthralling prospect. Fischer was not one for small talk, and after a few minutes things came pretty much to a standstill in the restaurant while we waited for our food. Luckily, I remembered a number of positions from his 1972 World Championship games against Spassky, and as soon as I came up with a question about the opening of the fifth game, he whipped out a miniature chess set from his pocket and started looking at my suggestions, most of which he proceeded to demolish!

So there I was, having the thrill of analyzing for a couple of hours with Bobby the Great, watching him maneuver the pieces between the fancy salad and the foie gras, and hoping that my occasional suggestions did not make me look like too much of a patzer!

By 1980, I had basically ended my career as a professional player, but was still very curious to see how Fisher's mind worked. One tends to think of genius as some kind of mysterious power, but Fischer basically proceeded like all masters, except he was much faster in his appraisals, and the proportion of trial and error in his mental process (i.e. playing through a variation over the board and then rejecting it) was much smaller. Still, hypothesis and verification were at the core of his method, just like everyone else's. He was also very open-minded about odd-looking moves – something I had wondered about, considering he belonged (in my view) mainly to the positional, objective school of chess.

We had hardly broached the subject of the film by the time the waiters' discreet coughs signaled that the restaurant was closing. By then Fischer was in a much more relaxed and sociable mood, and graciously accepted our invitation to pursue the conversation at our hotel.

We got to my room (Fischer refused to go to a public place) by midnight, and for the next three hours, Hélène and Gilles explained the project amid a barrage of questions and objections from a smiling but non-committal Fischer.

By 3 a.m., exhausted by the long day's trip and having basically argued their case the best they could several times, Hélène and Gilles said goodnight and each went off to sleep. I would have liked to go to sleep myself, but Fischer was all gung ho and showed no sign of calling it a day. I was afraid that my cutting the meeting short might offend him and jeopardize the negotiations, so I found myself having to talk with him all through the night.

The conversation very quickly turned away from chess and the documentary as Fischer brought up what was clearly his favorite subject: conspiracy theories. It was obvious that he was eager not only to share his views, but also to bring me around to them.

Fortunately for me, I had already met a number of people like him (not all of them chess players!) and had long been familiar with a number of his so-called sources, such as the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion". So the specious erudition he brandished hardly impressed me. I had also read some of the theories on which Herbert W. Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God – the sect Fischer was known to have had a long involvement with – based most of its articles of faith.

Fischer, to illustrate one of his many outlandish views, was persuaded that thirty-two or so Jewish families controlled the planet. He was sure that the Cold War was just a hoax, that these families ruled both the USA and the Soviet Union, and that they were using their fake planetary rivalry to deceive the world and extend their own power.

At first, Fischer would not listen when I told him that most of the Protocols was lifted from a satirical book published in France under Napoleon III. He refused to accept the fact that I had seen, in several libraries, copies dating back unequivocally to the 1860s. "How do you know," he said, "that they are not fakes and were not planted later on all over the world in order to mislead people like you?"

This was a typical paranoid mind operating: I knew from experience that there was no realistic hope of achieving anything through rational discussion. But since I was stuck in this strange conversation, I decided to give it my best shot. After all, Fischer was a chess player and logic was a central part of his psychological make-up.

There were a couple of moments during the long hours in which we locked horns when I could see a slight look of doubt cloud his eyes. I tried to make him realize that his way of reasoning was a hopelessly closed loop. “Any fact in my favor is in my favor; any fact against me is only a clever lie and just proves my point!” This put him in a state of mental zugzwang from which not even the strongest argument could deliver him.

For instance, when I asked him the obvious question as to why, if the Jews controlled the world, they would have allowed the Holocaust to take place, he first answered that it had probably never taken place, but that if it really had, it must have been to more cunningly cover up their domination! When I pointed out that this circular reasoning was precisely what I was talking about, he looked shaken for a while... but sadly not for very long!

One thing I was grateful for, though, was that Fischer showed absolutely no sign of the mind-numbing Biblical references that evangelists of all stripes seem duty-bound to inflict on their neighbors. There were no prayers before meals, no outpouring of "Praise the Lord", quotes from "Genesis 1:3", or other trimmings one observes with evangelist proselytizers. As a matter of fact, for someone whose career was marked by so many conflicts with tournament organizers because of his Seventh-day Sabbatarianism, religion was remarkably absent from Fischer's persona.

I could not help but compare him with another player who experienced similar issues all through his long career, GM Samuel Reshevsky, Fischer's old rival, whom I had just seen in Lone Pine.

I had approached the former prodigy and US Champion for an interview for the documentary, and met him on several occasions; he kept changing his mind as to his possible participation (in the end, he refused, although he never made his reasons clear). Every time I went to Reshevsky's little motel suite, he was either washing dishes or cooking his next meal: one did not exactly trip over kosher food in a one-saloon town like Lone Pine. I am sure he would have preferred to rest or study between rounds, but he seemed cheerful enough performing these chores, and there could be no doubt that this was a genuinely devout man whose religion permeated every aspect of life.

The impression one got from Fischer was very different.

Although his attitude towards religion clearly evolved with age (as Brady shows in the book), I am convinced that at the time of our meeting (and probably for a long time before) sentiment had little part in Fischer's interest in religion. I believe Fischer was someone who was looking for explanations, and religion attracted him mainly as something that could give him a key to understanding. And not just any kind of understanding.

Being from his very childhood an outsider and a loner, as well as a "genius", it was probably inevitable that Fischer should be drawn to views that isolated him and exacerbated his difference from the mainstream, and at the same time nourished his sense of superiority and predestination.

– Part two to follow soon –


About the author

Camille Coudari is a retired chess player, author and organizer, active from the mid-sixties to the early eighties. He represented Canada on the Bronze medal winning team at World Students' Team Championship 1971, represented Canada at the 1978 Olympiad, and became an IM in 1979.

Camille participated in the organization of the Man and his World Tournament in 1979, which featured one of the strongest fields up to that time. His book on openings for amateurs, L'Ouverture aux échecs, was published in 1972 and sold over 100,000 copies. He lives in Montreal, Canada.


The Great Chess Movie on YouTube – if some music organisations are blocking a
segment below you can watch it by using an anonymzing service like Hidemyass.com

Copyright Coudari/ChessBase


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