Review: Bobby Fischer against the World

A while ago, Gawain and I went to see a preview of the new Bobby Fischer documentary “Bobby Fishcer against the World” in which we met fellow chess player GM Carlsen who Gawain had a quick fire interview with. Here below is Gawain’s review on the documentary which is having it’s London Premiere as we speak which included a GM Nigel Short simul. It is due to be released on July 15th – Please go and see it!

By 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.