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The rise and fall of a chess icon

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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