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Bobby Fischer Against the World is a 2011 documentary film directed by Liz Garbus. Bobby Fischer was an American chess genius who became the youngest Grand Master in history at the age of fourteen and then later world champion in 1972 when he beat the great Russian Boris Spassky in what was (for chess anyway) an epic contest. It made headlines around the world and was essentially the Cold War encapsulated in a game of chess between two men in suits sitting over a table. It was like the chess version of Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling. Two competing ideologies going head to head through the prism of sport. Or a game if you prefer. Spassky represented the totalitarian system and had the Soviet chess machine behind him from a young age while Fischer was a former child prodigy from Brooklyn who had taught himself how to play at the age of six for something to do. Henry Kissinger actually badgered him into taking the match because he knew what an intellectual propaganda coup for America it would be if he won. An eccentric and strangely charismatic New Yorker taking on the might of the Soviet chess empire and winning. His sensational feat captured the hearts of America and he was suddenly a big celebrity and much in demand for commercial deals and television appearances. Chess schools opened up around the country and the game enjoyed an unprecedented boom and more exposure than it had received before (or since). But while Fischer was brilliant at chess he was not equipped or willing to deal with life or fame. He wasn't the hero that America wanted him to be. To put it bluntly he was a fruitcake and not a very nice one in the end. Fischer never defended his world championship and soon completely disappeared from the chess scene and public life, only resurfacing in the nineties for a bizarre rematch with Spassky in Belgrade in the middle of the Balkan war. He was in defiance of a US travel ban and so spent his last years in misanthropic exile in Iceland. Fischer became a pathetic figure. Despite being Jewish himself he made outrageous and incredibly offensive anti-Semitic statements on a regular basis and even seemed to take great pleasure in the 9/11 attacks on New York.
America had desperately wanted Fischer to be the next great American hero after he beat Spassky but ended up disowning him at the end of his life. The loathing was mutual. What went wrong? The film suggests that perhaps in order to be brilliant at chess you perhaps have to be slightly insane because it is completely immersive and requires a degree of concentration that most people can't even begin to imagine. The great chess players have to plot so far ahead in their minds and have an acute spatial awareness that is unimaginable. Maybe they have some sort of insight into the universe that drives them to the brink of madness. Fischer's father was missing when he was growing up and we are led to believe that this created an emotional void that he poured into learning the game of chess. These themes are rather vague and don't completely wash. I'm sure there must be other chess players who were great at the game, had a lonely childhood and absent parents but didn't end up as scruffy bearded eccentrics proclaiming that the Jewish race must be expunged from the earth on radio shows. More interesting is the fact that Fischer had a bossy mother who was always pushing him on and he was also something of a child star. In the sixties he was on television frequently with his chess feats and started beating adult chess players when he was only eight. Maybe he was burned out early because of this. You don't actually learn an awful lot about the subject here, far less than you would reading a biography for example. There are no interviews with relatives or girlfriends of Fischer but only really people from the chess world who once knew him. These are interesting though even if they can never get a grip on Fischer themselves. He was a difficult and complex character and it was hard to be friends with him sometimes.
The core of the film revolves around the showdown with Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972. This is fascinating even if you think chess is the most boring game in the world. It's not really about chess but more about the battle of wills between the two very different men and the mind games. You don't really learn too much about what the intricate strategy and tactics employed by the players was but sort of gather that Fischer was a more impulsive, unorthodox and aggressive player and that this often threw and unsettled his methodical Russian opponent. Spassky had never met a Bobby Fischer playing in Russia. Fischer would turn up late and sometimes not at all. He would complain about the cameras (the match was beamed around the world) and always seemed rather petulant as if he could hardly keep still in his chair. He wasn't much of a sportsman and was prone to tantrums if he was in a bad mood or thought something was off. He was used to winning and couldn't bear the thought that he might be beaten. Like a spoilt child. The documentary looks great and I love the old archive footage of this contest. The game is like a film script. I love chess myself but even if you don't you'll find yourself absorbed by this. It isn't that surprising really that Fischer could never put himself through this all again. It took too much out of him. The match is as full of intrigue and speculation as a secret meeting between Cold War spies. We see film taken of Fischer escaping to the countryside right at the end of a match. He's out in the middle of nowhere stroking a horse or something. He couldn't wait to get away from the attention and go and hide somewhere so was hardly likely to want to become a huge celebrity despite his sudden fame.
Fischer appears on a few televisions things like a Bob Hope special but it isn't really him at all and he turns down all his commercial offers despite the wealth it would have showered him with. Thereupon he packs up his chess board and vanishes like JD Salinger. We learn that Fischer had always been solitary and a strange fish even as a child. "He's tedious, he's arrogant, he's inconsiderate. Basically people think there's something wrong with the man," says an Icelandic journalist. You do wonder why he wasn't given some sort of help. There are some fascinating snippets of a press conference he conducts in 1995 where he is confronted about his mental anti-Semitic outbursts and also of a television crew tracking him down in the late seventies. He didn't want to be interviewed and he was already yesterday's man. A reclusive and nutty character who had already had his fifteen minutes of fame and didn't want a second more. While the subject always remains too weird and ephemeral to ever really get a handle on Bobby Fischer Against the World is an absorbing and fascinating documentary about a brilliant but deeply strange and ultimately unpleasant man. Fischer was clearly deeply disturbed and we learn that he even became estranged from his mother in the end. What friends he made he had a habit of turning on too so in the end he was more or less completely alone in the world. Someone who probably needed help a long long time before he died in 2008 but never got it for some reason. This is good film about an unlikely and very short lived American hero. Definitely worth a look if you are interested in chess but a knowledge and fondness for the game is not a prerequisite. At the time of writing you can buy Bobby Fischer Against the World for about £6.