Review: Bobby Fischer Against The World (2011)

Director: Liz Garbus

***

One of the great ironies about Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players who ever lived, was that at the moment of his greatest triumph, he was merely a pawn in a bigger game. His victory over Boris Spassky in 1972 in Reykjavik was a triumph for the USA over the Soviet Union at their established national pastime at the height of the Cold War. The match catapulted to Fischer to international fame, and is the focus of Liz Garbus’ documentary. Like its subject, Bobby Fischer Against The World is a fascinating but ultimately distant entity.

Whatever your feelings about Fischer, his talent could not be denied. From the age of seven, he was obsessed with chess, filling every spare moment playing and studying it. As the documentary reveals, his mother Regina did little to discourage him, and perhaps allowed his obsession to develop to a point where his social development was impeded. Interviews with former associates and officials from the Reykjavik match reveal a man consumed by a dangerous combination: egotism and paranoia. His specific demand sfor the match, and his relative stoicism afterwards reveal a man for whom fame was not a goal, but something to be avoided. Being Henry Kissinger’s prize fighter for this battle was not the way to go about getting privacy, as evidenced by his subsequent dalliances with religious fundamentalism, anti-Semitism and complete paranoia before his death in 2008.

Garbus’ retelling of events is clearly in awe of Fischer’s abilities, and why not? His skill was immense (one story from the film has him playing up to 80 different games at once at an event in New York as a teenager). However, Garbus tries to make Fischer a sympathetic character too, and is not particularly successful. His troubled childhood may explain his later behaviour, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was also an egotistical paranoid whose necessity to have things his way distanced him from all around him. Indeed, the talking heads in the documentary have little kind things to say about him except for his skill on the chess board. Bobby Fischer Against The World works best as a record of his title match with Spassky; as a portrait of the man, it’s effective to a fault. This is not to suggest that Fischer should have been portrayed sympathetically when he clearly wasn’t.  Yet, when one watches a psychoanalyst request Fischer go away because he won’t stop his anti-Semitic ramblings, one can’t help but share in the animosity.

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