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A chronicle of Bobby Fischer's battles - beyond the chessboard

Bobby Fischer (right) playing against Boris Spassky

Courtesy Mongrel Media

3 out of 4 stars


Beyond the knights and rooks, Bobby Fischer Against the World tells the story of a Jewish kid raised in Brooklyn who spent his final years in exile as a fulminating anti-Semite and a raving anti-American. In truth, then, the real battle pitted Bobby Fischer against Bobby Fischer, and this documentary is a revealing account of the many skirmishes in that enduring civil war. If at times it suffers from a repetitive insistence on the chess-whiz-as-mad-genius cliché, well, so did Fischer himself - all along, apparently, he was a doomed pawn in his own endgame.

The film, like its subject, is most compelling in the early stages, when director Liz Garbus digs up some intriguing archival footage of the child phenom. There he is in 1949, designated a "chess master" as a six-year old stripling. And again at 13, taking down a nationally ranked competitor twice his age. Two years later, already the U.S. champion, he's a black-and-white guest on TV's I've Got a Secret. Even then, of course, the press saddled him with the "eccentric boy genius" label, and, in these old interviews, you can see the teenager - fresh-faced, teetering between arrogance and shyness - struggling with the dawning knowledge that his private obsession has made him a public oddity.

It was a struggle he faced with scant help. Fischer barely knew his father, who died when his son was quite young. As for his mother Regina, an enthusiastic communist and not exactly a paragon of maternal stability, she made a curious decision when the prodigy was only 16. Mom moved out of their Brooklyn apartment, leaving him alone with his chess board and his growing fame. And alone he stayed - thereafter, they seldom communicated.

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From that point, the doc makes a lengthy and detailed plunge into the behind-the-scenes machinations of the celebrated 1972 match in Reykjavik, the Cold War encounter with Boris Spassky the Soviet champ. Eyewitnesses recall Fischer's increasingly strange behaviour leading up to the contest. Granted close access at the time, photojournalist Harry Benson describes his arduous physical regimen, training like a boxer and, judging from a nude shot in the shower, looking like one too. But, as the big date approached, he became ever more erratic, engaging in stalling tactics and full disappearing acts. Claims an observer: "I don't think any of this was directed against Spassky. It was his inner demons he was fighting."

Only the intervention of Henry Kissinger himself got Fischer on the plane to Iceland, and by then, courtesy of an "ABC Sports Special," the whole world was watching. There, the American complained about the camera placements, insisted on adjourning the proceedings to a sealed room, and forfeited once by failing to show up. In retrospect, it's the Russian who seems to offer an object lesson in grace and civility, not least at the conclusion of the crucial sixth game. Chess purists, in awestruck tones, describe that monumental game as a "symphony of placid beauty," and its immediate aftermath speaks volumes about the legacies of the two opponents: The victor may have engineered the beauty but, at the end, the vanquished stood up to applaud it.

Having won the world crown, Fischer would never defend it. Instead, he embarked on his life-long descent into reclusiveness, punctuated by the occasional public outburst of paranoid bile and, in 1992, by a rather forlorn rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia. There the pair played "old man's chess" and Fischer earned an indictment from the U.S. State Department for violating a political embargo on the host country.

So started the denouement, his period of exile hopping from Hungary to the Philippines to Japan, eventually settling in the one country that would accept him as a resident - yes, Iceland. Footage shows his arrival in 2005. Wild hair, scraggly beard, wholly unkempt, he looks homeless indeed and, at a press conference marking the occasion, plays the cliché to sad perfection, no longer the genius but decidedly mad. Death, like his talent, came prematurely - a mere three years later at 64. Ostensibly, Bobby Fischer died of renal failure, but, for a tortured man elevated and diminished by such internal vicissitudes, that official cause pales beside the full diagnosis.

Bobby Fischer Against the World

  • Directed by Liz Garbus
  • Classification: PG

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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