A Quick Review of Bobby Fischer Against the World

A Quick Review of Bobby Fischer Against the World

Jun 13, 2011, 11:52 PM |

[Boy, it's been too long since I last did a chess blog entry! Innocent]

Things are coming up Chess, and in a big way. Chess is clearly experiencing a second golden era, largely due to the arrival of the affordable PC and internet. Contrary to the warnings of certain pundits who forecasted that Chess would soon be “played out” due to extensive computer analysis and information sharing via the internet, Chess has actually become the stronger for it, with new and ever more daring lines of play being explored in countless online games and over the board tournaments. But even beyond the theoreticals of high-level play, Chess has found the PC-internet combo to be an incredibly powerful tool of proselytization, with untold numbers of formerly unreachable people becoming exposed (and, subsequently, addicted) to mankind’s greatest game, right from the comfort of their own parlors no less.

As I wrote above, this would make for Chess’ second golden era as a first golden era is often cited as occurring during the period where Bobby Fischer rose to national prominence and successfully challenged the Soviet Union’s champion, Boris Spassky, to a climactic duel in 1972. Fischer, like no one else had before him, made Chess the passionate hobby of millions around the world, largely because of his sheer brilliance at the game and his mercurial behavior.

Even though Fischer passed away in 2008, his larger than life personality continues to garner interest, perhaps more so than ever due to this second Chess boom. Not only is there a feature length movie in the works – reportedly starring Tobey Maguire as Fischer – but recently HBO produced a documentary by Liz Garbus on his life as well. Entitled Bobby Fischer Against the World, this one and a half hour long documentary details the life of Fischer, from his early days to his ignominious end in Iceland.

I have to say this I really enjoyed this documentary. Possessing a style similar to the equally excellent 2003 Chess documentary Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, Bobby Fischer Against the World is a biopic that is made accessible to those who know little or nothing about the game. Admittedly, for people who do understand the game, its superficial style might be a tad annoying, especially when it covers Fischer’s iconic over the board battles during the ’72 World Championship, but one must remember that this doc is meant to be general interest biographical piece and not a Chessbase DVD.

Helping to tell Fischer’s tale are a series of notable Chess personalities, including Susan Polgar, Shelby Lyman, Gary Kasparov, Bill Evans and Assa Hoffman, amongst others. Some never knew Fischer and just bring their Chess acumen to bear in explaining some key Chess concepts, while others were actual Fischer associates and relate a number of interesting and, at times, poignant personal stories. All make for interesting watching.

Surprisingly, for me anyway, I found the most interesting part of this documentary to not be the detailed recreation of his climatic match against Spassky, but two other parts. The first part that I found unexpectedly interesting was the early years of Fischer’s life, particularly the tension that existed between Fischer and Regina, his Marxist activist mother who often abandoned her son to pursue political causes and to further her studies overseas (as an aside, I found that Fischer’s mother sounded remarkably similar to President Obama’s own mother). Interestingly, this abandonment abated somewhat when Fischer started earning some money and garnering some popularity, whereby she suddenly took more of an interest in the boy (funny how that works with Marxists). Ironically, at this point Robert had had enough of Regina and insisted that she stay behind while he and his sister made the tourney rounds. The tension between Robert and his mother would haunt and damage him for the rest of his life.

Likewise, the years after Fischer’s triumph in Reykjavik proved to be interesting. This period would see Fischer fall in with a millennialist cult, reject it after a failed rapture prediction, and then become something of a raving anti-semitic and anti-American vagabond, relentlessly pursued by own his paranoid demons, a not uncommon fate for dedicated Chess players. This portion of the doc proved to be interesting not because of his personal decline, but because this is the one period of Fischer’s life where he truly did succeed in avoiding the public eye and managed to live off the grid, leading to a period more often filled with myth than fact. This documentary helps to clear up those last years by filling in some of the details, particularly his last year as an Icelandic citizen.

As is the case with most modern documentaries, this one is livened up with a nice use of period photographs and film, as well as some animations to help explain certain Chess concepts, with all serving to keeping the documentary from becoming bogged down with idle chatter.

Overall, Bobby Fischer Against the World is a very good documentary and highly recommended for both devoted Chess players, as well as for those who are merely curious about the legend who was Robert J. Fischer.

Score: 4/5

Promo vid: