Saturday, August 15, 2015

Bobby Fischer Against the World

Year 7, Day 227 - 8/15/15 - Movie #2,121

BEFORE: It turns out I'll watch just about any narrative film, but I seem to be a lot pickier when it comes to documentary - the subject has to interest me, which is why I'll watch this film about a famous chess player, and not "Back on Board", a documentary about Greg Louganis getting back into the world of diving.  I like chess, I've played chess, but diving and swimming don't interest me at all.  Plus, Louganis seems like a relatively nice and together guy, and he doesn't fit with my theme this week of egotistical jerks.  But Bobby Fischer?  I can work with his story.  

I caught on a bit too late to TCM's "Summer Under the Stars" programming - where they're highlighting a different star in a 24-hour block each day this month.  I did manage to add pick up two Ann-Margret films that should help with February's romance chain, and I did finally get copies of the two Marx Brothers films I watched online (plus I added two more, "The Cocoanuts" and "The Big Store") but I missed out on early August's featured stars, like Fred Astaire.  I know I should watch those classic Astaire/Rogers films, but honestly dancing interests me about as much as diving.  I'll catch them next time around - because there are about a dozen films from 2013 and 2014 running that I want to add to the watchlist, and I can't let the list get any bigger.

THE PLOT: A documentary exploring the tragic and bizarre life of the late chess master Bobby Fischer.

AFTER: So I find myself today, back at the intersection of genius and madness - (see also, Vincent Van Gogh and, umm, Steve Jobs?).  There's so much I don't know about Bobby Fischer, really all I knew going into this was that he was once world chess champion, and then there was some controversy where he proved himself to be a difficult person to get along with.  Did he fit the technical definition of insanity, or was it all a ploy to win games?  Does chess drive people a little cuckoo, or do only offbeat people devote their lives to moving pieces around on a board?  

I'm sure people can get obsessive about any mental game or activity - the documentaries "Wordplay", "Spellbound" and "Word Wars" all show that it's possible to take crossword puzzles, spelling bees and Scrabble way too seriously.  But chess is a serious game to begin with - nobody really plays it for fun any more, it's war on a game board, and during the Cold War, Russia had the best players and Bobby Fischer seemed like the only American who had a chance against them.  (I'm guessing China's got the best players now, but I don't really know for sure.)  

Fischer was home-schooled - scratch that, he was left alone by his mother for most of his teen years, so he was self-home-schooled.  Thousands of hours spent studying chess, leading him to Grandmaster status by the age of 15, and the U.S. Championship by age 20.  The footage of him on a game show ("I've Got a Secret"?) depicts him as rather normal, although he was already front-page news at the time, and agreed to appear on the show in exchange for tickets to Russia so he could compete against the Moscow Chess Club.   

Everything seemed to be going well - a Mike Wallace profile even showed him training like a real athlete, since physical endurance was required for matches that could last for 12 hours or longer.  This guy was the original cross-trainer (but how was he at chess boxing?) and even wanted to do special exercises to enhance his grip, just to have a stronger handshake to intimidate his Soviet opponents.  

The documentary failed to mention that Bobby protested the World Chess Championship in 1963, accusing the Russians of drawing their matches with each other, so they'd have more energy for their other opponents, especially him.  Something similar happened with badminton in the last Olympics, if I remember correctly - and athletes should never be encouraged to lose or draw in order to advance.  He must have been right, because the format was changed to a single-elimination knockout after that.  Perhaps this is where Fischer started to feel that he was bigger than the rules, or smarter than the people putting tournaments together, and from there it's a short leap to believing that the rules didn't apply to him.  

Some time after that, he sat out a U.S. Championship, because he didn't believe the prize money was big enough.  And then, after becoming world champion by beating Boris Spassky, he refused to defend his title for similar reasons - he had three demands related to the format, two of which were unacceptable to the organizers.  This would be like a boxer refusing to defend his title unless he got to determine the number of rounds, the purse amount and the hiring of his friends as the judges.  Karpov became the new chess champion by default due to Fischer's demands.  

So the man who many say was the world's greatest chess player was champion for just three years, lost by not showing up, and then became a recluse.  No one heard much from him publicly until the World Trade Center attack in 2001, which he used as an excuse to slam the U.S. government and make anti-Semitic remarks.  Some say that he felt abandoned by his mother, who was both Jewish and a Communist, thus explaining his hatred of Soviets and Jews, and he was still mad at the U.S. for having him arrested after he played Spassky in a rematch, violating a trade embargo against Yugoslavia.  

I can't help but see similarities here to Tim Treadwell's rant against the U.S. Parks Service - both openly defied the rules, and when you do that, you have to live with the consequences.  Fischer was forced to live as a fugitive, was detained in Japan, and eventually granted asylum in Iceland.  Hey, I guess if sitting inside studying chess and ranting about Jews is your thing, you can do that just about anywhere. Not much is known about Fischer's personal life or time spent out of the public eye, and the film fails to mention his relationships with women in Japan and the Philippines, even the young woman who lured him out of retirement doesn't get much screen time.  So it seems like a bit of an incomplete portrait, choosing to focus more on his chess matches - admittedly the most interesting aspect of his life, though.

As a former student of the game, I would have also liked to have seen more about the technical moves, but I understand that not everyone knows what a knight fork or a skewer are.  People still study his moves from the 1972 Championship against Spassky, especially Game 6 with its bold, innovative play that seemed to come out of nowhere - but even then, with his assertions of excessive noise from the TV cameras, or the Russians use of radiation to throw him off his game, you could see that the wheels were starting to come off of his wagon. 

Starring Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, Boris Spassky, Susan Polgar, Gudmundir Thorarinsson, Larry Evans, with cameos from Henry Kissinger, Dick Cavett, Tony Randall.  

RATING: 6 out of 10 sacrificed pawns

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