Bobby Fischer at the Sundance Film Festival!

Bobby Fischer at the Sundance Film Festival!

| 46 | Endgames

Recently, I had the chance of a lifetime to celebrate chess at the Sundance Festival with the World Chess Hall of Fame and Museum. The museum and Hall of Fame are relocating to St. Louis – a young but already well known chess center in the US. I want to take a minute to thank the museum and all the organizers for making the chess festival happen during Sundance and for inviting me as a part of the chess team there.

The chess highlight of the festival - the premiere of the HBO Documentary Film “Bobby Fischer Against the World” was on Friday, January 21st. As we waited for the tickets I wondered to what degree the audience would be comprised of chessplayers or people who got a ticket package and do not have a choice of what movie to see. I also worried how a chess movie would be presented to a non-chess-playing audience. Somehow, in movies there tend to be a lot of misconceptions about chess: many set up the position the wrong way (the right way: a black corner in the bottom left), many have these unnatural actors who play chess players – they have no experience in moving chess pieces, thus their play looks rather fake.

However, “Bobby Fischer Against the World” had an impression of being a top-notch both documentary and chess movie. First of all, it was directed by Academy Award – nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus. Secondly, it had some footage and photographs of Fischer never seen by the world before. I really had no idea what to expect from the story itself; what part of Fischer’s life would be the focus of the movie?


With these thoughts running through my head I felt that history was being made at this small theater in Park City, Utah. As the lights went down in the theater the opening chess position appeared symbolizing the beginning of Fischer’s life. Through the movie every stage of his life was marked by a chess position indicating how interwoven were his life and his chess life. The narrative was led by the people who knew him (Saidy, Hoffmann, S. Polgar, H.Benson, Kasparov and many more). Their interviews are combined in the story of Fischer’s life. Fischer’s numerous interviews, 1972 World Championship Match footage, and H. Benson’s photographs made up the bulk of the movie. The chess part of the movie included Fischer’s video analysis, the coverage of some of the games from the match. Particular attention in the movie was given to the 6th game of the match. Honestly, I didn’t know the game but both GM Joel Benjamin and GM Alex Shabalov were about 80% sure that they could recreate the whole game – the game was Fischer's purest creation during the '72 match. The critical moves of the first game endgame were replayed in the movie and an excellent chess explanation was given.


This is the position from the first match. The narrator in the movie said that the position is dead equal and in most the games that would be played in this position the draw would be agreed soon. But Fischer went to take a pawn on h2- an unthinkable solution. He trapped the bishop behind the g3 pawn and most amateurs know of this trick. How is it possible that the World Championship contender made such a mistake? After this rather clear explanation of the situation I expected that the analysis would end here and the narrator would go on to the subject of the devastating loss of the first match game and how Fischer coped with it. To my surprise, the analysis did not just end here. The narrator explained that the position is not as simple as it looks and a chess board appeared on the screen-- 2D like the ones you are used to on your computer. He explained that Fischer calculated a chess line for 5 moves but Spassky saw one move more and this move was Bd2! – a quiet move that traps the black bishop. Here, I replay this piece of the endgame.


DSC00984.JPGMy favorite story about Fischer in the movie came from his physical trainer. Bobby was very serious about his physical preparation – and by serious I mean almost the approach of a professional athlete. He had a trainer who came to work with Fischer after training NY football players. Fischer was interested in the methods the footballs players used to get ready for their games. He wanted to use the very same methods to prepare for the chess match. There is footage in the movie of Fischer watching some exercise program on TV and repeating exercises after the program host; of Fischer on a treadmill and in the pool: photos all confirming his good physical form. Once, he asked the trainer to work on his wrist – Fischer’s goal was to be able to squeeze with the palm of his hand 100 pounds. Of course, the trainer asked “why?” and heard the answer that when Fischer shakes the hands of those little Russians he can show them what a real hand shake is.

DSC00985.JPGI am not sure how much can I disclose of the movie without spoiling it for you. It will come out on HBO some time this summer. I highly recommend it. The music, the suspense, the weirdness of Fischer-- it all keeps you on your heels through the movie. It is interesting what kind of people Garbus selected to tell the story. Of course, they all had to either know Fischer or contribute in some different way. For example, to my delight Malcolm Gladwell talked about his 10,000 hours rule to success in any field. As a side note GM Benjamin thinks that this rule is kind of ridiculous – he has seen many people who put in this amount of time but haven’t gotten anywhere. My stand is that 10,000 hours is a must to get somewhere but other components might play an equally important role.

Another interesting nuance was that Dr. Frank Brady was not in the movie (you can hear his voice once from a 1972 broadcast but there is no direct interview), he is considered to be one of the experts of Fischer’s biography. He also just published a book called “Endgame – Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall…” I imagine he had a lot of good stories to tell. On the other hand, Sam Sloan made it in to the movie-– he is a controversial chess player and chess politician, not having a perfect reputation. The director explained that she could have followed different paths developing the plot of the movie, using different interviews but she had to choose one and she had to cut many good interviews and stories. When asked why she wanted to make a movie about Bobby Fischer, Liz Garbus answered that “it is a good story.”

DSC00970.JPGWhat you cannot separate from the movie is the photograph exhibition by world-renowned photographer Harry Benson. They are mostly black and white and they are private. Benson was Fischer's friend and was allowed to make photos whenever he wished. Everyone is surprised that he has never showcased the exhibition and showed it only after Fischer’s death. It is a gift to the chess community to being able to see Fischer in a new light after his life took a dramatic downturn. There is a photo – a close-up where Fischer’s face is resting against a beautiful white horse’s face – looking at the photo one could never have guessed the troubled life that awaited Fischer ahead. In another photo he is laying on the bed in a formal suit and there is a wreath on the other side of the bed; there is a check too and Fischer is staring into the ceiling. They say that the photo was taken 40 minutes after Fischer won the World Championship Title. How does one cope with the fact that the greatest moment of ones life, his career was already behind - 40 minutes ago. This is what I read from the photograph. The photographs will be moved some time later this year to the St. Louis World Chess Hall of Fame and Museum, located across the street from the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center.

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