IT’S BECOMING SOMETHING of a tired saying to note that people exceptional in their professional lives are exceptional in other areas of life, too, in part because it’s cliché and tends to be lazily ascribed, and in part because often its use subtly excuses any number of antisocial or immoral acts, so long as they’re committed by someone who happens to be a dab hand at playing guitar or kicking a football or painting. But that isn’t, I hasten to add, to say that the saying doesn’t contain a grain or two of truth–only, that truly exceptional people are rare.
Bobby Fischer, the American chess grandmaster, might just be one of those people, and Bobby Fischer Against the World, directed by What Happened, Miss Simone? director Liz Garbus, is as good an examination of his tragic and bizarre life as you’re likely to find. Like Miss Simone, Garbus’ film proceeds linearly through the life of its subject, beginning with his birth to Regina, a “homeless” Jewish Communist activist with no intention of letting her son interfere with her goals and Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist who, it later transpired, wasn’t his father at all. From here, and with the contributions of prominent figures from the world of chess such as Garry Kasparov, Larry Evans, Asa Hoffman and others, Garbus patiently and sympathetically leads us through the events that prematurely ended Fischer’s career.
Garbus draws on a wealth of television interviews and game footage to create a narrative that runs, if not exactly seamlessly, then smoothly enough, and is bolstered by talking heads who collectively play the role of narrator without, so to speak, giving the game away for those unfamiliar with Fischer’s life. The time Garbus devotes to Fischer’s early life is an investment that pays off in the later parts of the film, and the slightly exploitative, hard-to-avoid armchair psychologising in which, consciously or unconsciously, she tempts you to engage is softened a little by the decidedly sympathetic tone she maintains throughout the film, and the kind accounts given by the diverse figures from Fischer’s life that she interviews.
Garbus draws on a wealth of television interviews and game footage to create a narrative that runs, if not exactly seamlessly, then smoothly enough, and is bolstered by talking heads who collectively play the role of narrator without, so to speak, giving the game away for those unfamiliar with Fischer’s life.
Chess is an extraordinary game. Richard Reti called it “the triumph of the intellect and genius over lack of imagination; the triumph of personality over materialism”. It is, if I can put it this way, the most purely intellectual sport, and so there’s the implication that its most accomplished players are particularly gifted in this respect. Even among these grandmasters, Fischer was exceptional, and Garbus captures this well. In an era when the Soviet Union, in an effort to show their perceived intellectual superiority, invested heavily in the promotion of chess and chess-players, Fischer, a lonely child from an unremarkable and unstable Brooklyn family, developed an interest and then a passion and then an obsession which led one commentator to say that he had dedicated more time to playing chess than all of his counterparts on the Soviet team combined. Malcolm Gladwell, who makes a welcome if brief appearance as a talking head, discusses his now-famous 10,000-hour rule, which states that in order to achieve mastery at any given pursuit, you must dedicate 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to that activity. It doesn’t take much mental arithmetic to get a sense of how much time Fischer must have dedicated to his art.
Despite their many differences, I was reminded, as I watched Bobby Fischer Against the World, of Christine, the Antonio Campos film about Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter who shot herself live on air. Both directors treat their subjects with not only empathy but something approaching affection, and this makes any accusation of exploitation a weak one. Garbus’ film is, first and foremost, a fair and fairly thorough examination of the life of what might have been the best chess player ever to play the game.