Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

I was never great at chess. I did decent, but I never had the intensity to get serious about chess. I loved the game, this modest board filled with endless possibilities and each game taught you a little bit more about how to play. But the chess world teaches you a lot about the people you play with and Searching for Bobby Fischer certainly captures a lot of my experience.

Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) is a kind-hearted child who becomes fascinated with chess after he watches homeless people on street corners play rapid games for money and bragging rights. He quickly becomes a chess prodigy, but when put under the wings of Bobby Fischer’s teacher Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), he’s taught that in order to be good at chess he must grow thicker skin and be deliberately mean.

When Bruce prepares Josh to face his toughest opponent, he says that in order to win he has to hate. He has to want to destroy the person on the other side of the board. Competitive chess becomes a psychological state of being, a state of being Josh finds repulsive.

And the chess world is vicious. I remember people talking about tactics to intimidate opponents in games. There were also the people who would try to play mental games with you: nervously tapping the table to make you feel rushed or reaching for pieces while looking at you like you might reveal something. It was a game of intimidation, mind games, and sometimes outright psychological warfare.

Josh plays with pieces instead of people. He’d rather lose a game to maintain a relationship than win and climb up the ranks. While the film certainly shows how impressive Josh Waitzkin is as a chess protegee, it’s more concerned with who he is. Is it more important that Josh wins or that he’s a good person?

One of the big things chess taught me is that if all you care about in life is winning, you end up being an asshole. The need to outperform, the drive to be at the top, is this act of constantly putting down other people in a competitive context is a breeding ground for jerks.

I had a number of friends who would beat me and then gloat. They’d revel in how they broke down my defense or forced an advantageous trade. I distinctly remember beating them on separate occasions. I’d give a small grin, say “good game,” and extend my hand and all three responded the same. They got quiet, half-heartedly shake my hand. And then set up the board again.

Years later I’d realize that these people were never my friends. They didn’t care about me. They just wanted someone to beat, someone to show off to. They chose me because I was smart enough to appreciate the complexities of their victory but not smart enough to be a true threat. I didn’t care at the time. I was too much in love with the game to notice what was happening.

I remember having arguments with them about how I didn’t care about losing, how I just wanted to get better and improve my personal game. And they would argue that deep down I wanted to win like everyone else, that I wanted that thrill of victory. Sure, the few wins I got felt good, but I never felt the need to gloat, the need to beat my chest in victory.

I see Josh Waitzkin and it’s like looking back into my childhood. He has a similar demeanor, he smiles whether he wins or loses and just enjoys the game for the sake of the game. He doesn’t need the game. He doesn’t need the rush of victory or the ego boost. And he doesn’t like the viciousness. He enjoys the game for the sake of the game.

One of my earliest memories is winning an award for learning the most Bible verses in a year I had to have been about five or six years old. I didn’t even realize there was an award for such a thing. But then it suddenly made sense why this other kid all year had stayed behind and said extra verses when I started doing it. He wanted to beat me. And when he saw me with the award in my hand, I could see the hate in his eyes. He wanted the prize. He wanted to win. I was just a goofy kid who liked memorizing things.

I’m no saint. But when I got into competitive video games, I’d be the guy who’d type “gg” (good game) after every match. Win, lose, no matter if I was angry at myself or the game for some lack of personal performance. And my friends would yell at me, saying that game wasn’t good or that it wasn’t a fair fight. Once again, I didn’t care. I just wanted to have fun. I loved the act of playing game too damn much to care about winning.

© James Blake Ewing 2017