Bobby Fischer Against the World
It says a lot that a documentary about chess, once the national sport of the Soviet Union but hardly renowned for its fast pace or inherent danger, can be as enthralling as any fiction film. As with the recent Bill Cunningham: New York, it’s not so much the subject matter but the subject himself that captures our interest and imagination.
Bobby Fischer was a young lad from Brooklyn when he became the US Chess Champion at age 15. He had started playing when he was six and like most prodigies he did little else, admitting in a later interview that he didn’t really have any other interests, but “perhaps should have”. Bobby’s intensity clearly paid off, as he pursued his dream of becoming World Chess Champion and keeping it for “twenty years or so”. He was the stuff of legend, and his success and profile gave chess a huge boost in popularity during the 1970s.
The film centres around Fischer’s most famous fight – sorry, match – against the Russian Boris Spassky. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, Fischer finally agrees to play in Reykjavik where we start to see the cracks in his psyche, as he famously turns up late to games and complains about the intrusion from TV cameras as the match is broadcast around the world. Like all good sports documentaries, the outcome of each game is made gripping and our understanding of what is at stake (particularly crucial for the non-chess player) is explained by those who knew Fischer throughout the years.
It’s easy to write off his introversion as mere eccentricity, and to forgive his demanding behaviour as part and parcel of his genius. But the picture grows darker as we learn more about Fischer’s childhood and upbringing, and the ultimate story of his last days cannot help but inspire sympathy. (This film brings to mind last year’s superb Glenn Gould: The Genius Within where it was Bach, not chess, that did our hero in.) It may be a sad indictment when one interviewee says “His genius and his illness are joined at the hip”, but by the end, as gripping as car-crash telly (and for the same wrong reasons), we cannot help but agree.