Searching for Bobby Fischer ★★½

One of the reasons I'm watching so many movies is to try and arrest my slide into the Sarlacc-pit of nocturnal online blitz chess. I typically begin with a couple of Caesars inside me (for courage and inspiration), and quickly win a few games by taking advantage of a comic blunder by my opponent, or simply by playing faster in a drawn or lost position. Then, as I sink deeper into my cups, my already laughable chess skills rapidly desert me. But like a chronic gambler, I can't quit while I'm ahead, nor can I quit while I'm behind. Concomitant with its deleterious effect on my chess, the booze stokes a righteous indignation that won't allow me to admit the futility of the endeavor. Well into the small hours I make suicidal moves, lashing out as much at myself as at my opponent, until I'm too far gone to focus on the screen. I don't think I'm generally a compulsive person, but since I succumbed to this addiction, sometime in the middle of 2018, I've obliterated more hours than I'd care to estimate and learned the square root of bugger all.

Substituting the TV screen for the computer seems to be working, although not without the odd relapse. I like the way movies don't (usually — looking at you, My Dinner with Andre) turn me into a seething, thigh-pounding avatar of impotent rage. Searching for Bobby Fischer didn't do that, but it did leave me slightly cheesed off. Despite its toxic properties, I genuinely like the game of chess, and I'm also a sucker for a sports movie, so this true-life tale of 90's chess whiz Josh Waitzkin ought to be right up my alley. Co-written based on his own 1988 book by Josh's father Fred, a sportswriter played here by Joe Mantegna, it's about the relationship between Fred, his genius son, and the game, and the lengths to which Josh will go, or Fred will push him, to turn that genius into the crushing dominance of the titular Fischer. We follow Josh from an early encounter with the Washington Park hustlers, led by Laurence Fishburne — with whom he'll come to hang out regularly, bashing his clock in frantic 2-minute games — to his introduction to the world of serious chess via hard-bitten coach Ben Kingsley. The plot takes a Karate Kid/Rocky IV turn as arch-rival Poe starts showing up to tournaments, backed by an arrogant trainer of his own. In the end Josh rejects the brutal, win-at-all-costs discipline imposed by his handler, and represented by Poe, and relies on his Wash Park instincts and innate sense of human decency to- well, you can probably guess.

On the face of it this is a schmaltzy but not unwelcome take on the game, complete with "my son has a gift" line from Dad to prospective trainer, kings being flicked over in resignation, a preparation montage, light marital tension — what else would you expect from a film written by the kid's pa while his (the kid's) career was still on track? We're informed by an end credit that Josh continues to win and is "currently the highest ranked under-18 in the USA". Just a few years later it was all over, as like so many child prodigies Josh failed to crack the highest level. But something about this film's existence doesn't sit right with me. The whole idea of writing a book, and then a film about your own son while he's still growing up and making his way in the psychologically fraught world of chess seems exploitative, and dressing it up in all these Hollywood tropes does nothing to ameliorate that impression.

Still, I found my new Letterboxd bio in Josh's line, "maybe it's better not to be the best. Then you can lose, and it's OK."

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