The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The rise and fall of a chess icon

with 15 comments

I was about to start this review with some statement about how slim the line is between genius and insanity.

I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but it felt like the natural thing to reflect over after watching Bobby Fisher against the World.

This is a documentary about an American chess player who went from fame and glory. In 1972 he grabbed the eyes of the entire world were fixed on him as he became the first American to become a challenger for the world champion title. The stakes were high, since this was in the middle of the cold war and the reigning champion was from the Soviet Union. He was the idol for millions of people, but soon he fell from the top to the bottom. Most of his life was spent in a state of mental illness and misery and he ended up as a fugitive from his home country, known for his bizarre conspiracy theories about Jews and the US government.

How could someone so smart all of a sudden do so stupid things? Did all those calculations about the billions of possible combinations on the chessboard and the efforts to anticipate every move from the opponent make his brain melt?

Can you be “too smart”?

I think quite a few of us would like to answer the last question with a “yes”. It gives a bit of comfort to all of us who aren’t particularly bright or good at chess. At least we can tell ourselves that we’re sane.

So we embrace the idea that genius and insanity are two sides of the same coin and that a chess master needs both.

However only took me a quick peak in Wikipedia to realize that the assumption was wrong. As a matter of fact there isn’t any confirmed link between being chess skills and intelligence. If anything there might be the opposite connection; one study hinted that smarter children were worse chess players.

Like Senna
So let’s leave that beginning and the faulty theory behind us and begin in a different end:

A few months ago I watched the documentary Senna about a Formula one driver from Brazil, who was as good at car racing as Bobby Fisher was at chess playing.

The film about Bobby Fisher reminds me a little bit of this. We get to follow the career of someone who is obsessed with what he’s doing and very good at it.

As opposed to Senna Bobby Fisher wasn’t very likable. In his youth he was arrogant and annoying, and from that things went worse until he ended up like a lunatic.

His ideas were repulsive and this film makes no secret of this. And yet I can’t help pitying him, or at least regretting that things turned out the way they did. All I feel when I watch this film is sadness. It was sad that he got badly hit by mental illness early in his life and that noone really could help him against himself. It was sad for him, it was sad for his family and friends, it was sad for the world.

Someone in the documentary compares it to as if Picasso only had gotten to paint for a few years instead of an entire life. There were so many chess games that never were played. Personally I can’t tell the difference, but from what they say Fisher’s way of playing was beautiful, like music. He was so exceptional at what he was doing that even his opponent, Boris Spasski, stood up and gave him applause out of admiration after losing one particularly well played game.

Not about chess
Only the very best documentaries have the ability to make you absorbed even if you don’t bother all that much about the topic as such. In the case of Senna I couldn’t have cared less about Formula one and yet it turned out to be among my top movies of 2011. And it’s the same thing with Bobby Fisher against the World.

I’m not interested in chess. I play it so rarely that I have to look up the start position for the pieces every time since I don’t remember how they’re supposed to stand. Besides I’m really bad, so I avoid it since I’m a bit competitive and don’t like the humiliation of losing.

But Bobby Fisher against the World isn’t about chess. It’s about the cold war, the media landscape and currents in the opinion at that time. It’s about a strange man with a beautiful, but broken mind.

It’s not as heartbreaking as Senna, but it’s just as fascinating and I can’t recommend it enough.

Bobby Fisher against the World (Liz Garbus, US, 2011) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

April 17, 2012 at 1:15 am

15 Responses

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  1. I should check this film out. Not sure how I haven’t heard about it yet. I used to be big into Chess when I was a kid. Facinating game that attracts some interesting people.

    James Blake Ewing

    April 17, 2012 at 1:26 am

    • Check it out. It came out last autumn and was available at my library so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it.


      April 17, 2012 at 7:25 am

  2. Small translation issue, it should be “genius”, not “geniality”. Geniality means “having a pleasant or friendly disposition or manner”. That makes your first line mean something totally different than I think you intend.


    April 17, 2012 at 1:29 am

    • Thanks for the heads-up! I’m afraid the automatic spell and grammar check only takes me that far.


      April 17, 2012 at 7:21 am

  3. I saw this on HBO last year. I kinda felt sorry for the guy but man, he went way off. Yet, it reveals that these chess prodigies do turn out to become very insane individuals. It’s as if they play the game of life in such troubling circumstances that they lose touch with reality. It’s OK for genius to be weird but man, he went nuts. A self-hating Jew who praised the 9/11 attacks. Talk about insanity.

    Steven Flores

    April 17, 2012 at 1:50 am

    • Yes, it appears as if he wasn’t the only one. I’m not sure though if this is a REAL connection between chess and insanity or if it’s just an effect of that many people play chess and statistically a few of them will develop mental illness.


      April 17, 2012 at 7:24 am

  4. Intelligence and making sense has nothing to do with each other, some very intelligent people have concocted some very elaborate conspiracy theories. Also, it sounds like the movie tries to make the point that mental illnes is more tragic in the case of people like Fisher than “regular” people? Maybe it’s just me reading too much into it.


    April 17, 2012 at 5:53 am

    • No, I don’t really think it suggests something like that. But of course there’s a world of chess geeks who would have loved to see more chess brilliance and less insanity.


      April 17, 2012 at 7:22 am

  5. […] the rest here: The rise and fall of a chess icon « The Velvet Café Filed Under: Chess, General Tagged With: became-the-first, chess, entire, eyes, fixed-on-him, […]

  6. Brilliant and informative write up my friend. I haven’t heard of this one. But my word I am interested now. thanks Jessica

    • Thanks! It was actually mentioned on Kermode’s podcast (he loved it too), but apart from that I think it past without getting too much of attention. I found it intriguing and I think you will too.


      April 17, 2012 at 10:48 am

  7. Jessica, first off, I love the site and your posts. As far as Bobby Fischer, I was 14 at the time he won the world chess championship in 1972. I don’t think the movie really puts that event in the right context…This was more than front page news, it was actually a continuation of the cold war on the chessboard, and all that pressure on Fischer surely took it’s toll. It was Fischer that taught me how to love the game of chess, and no matter how arrogant or crazy he became, I always thought he was given the short shrift from the US government. The movie certainly shows the sad aftermath, but I don’t think it really explores the whys & hiows of this event in relationship to Fischer’s downfall.

    Again, thaks for all the great posts!!

    Karl Kaefer

    April 17, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    • Why, thank you! Both for your kind words and for your insightful comment. I can definitely see your point that there’s more to the story than what is shown at the movie. The same curse as always: you need to trim your material and leave things out, and the picture won’t be complete. I also learend from an article on wikipedia that Fisher was married to a Japanese woman and not quite as alone on Iceland as it’s suggested. But that part was also left out. Still: I think the film is a good effort to if not tell the entire truth, at least tickle my curiousity to learn more about this peculiar man.


      April 17, 2012 at 3:17 pm

  8. Saw this a couple of months back and wholeheartedly agree with your review. It’s very well made and manages to give you a pretty good idea of what Fischer was like. You can’t imagine that chess was so big that people stayed home to actually watch it.


    April 19, 2012 at 11:20 am

    • It got way more publicity back in the days than it gets now. I have no idea of who is the champion now, but when I grew up I was familiar with names such as Karpov and Kasparov. In Sweden we had a female star, Pia Cramling. But as of now I can’t name a single chess player.
      Did we perhaps lose interest when we realized computers could beat them?


      April 19, 2012 at 11:25 am

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