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A Life in a Dead Draw

Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)


Some celebrities are born. Others are made through willpower. Rarer are celebrities who attain such status in spite of themselves due to their sheer talent. Bobby Fischer was one of these, a chess player of unusual skill who began as a child prodigy. His victory, watched by millions, over Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik was a metaphor for the Cold War. And then he dropped off the radar.

This question of what happened is not really answered by director Liz Garbus in this documentary. Originally produced by HBO, it is being screened theatrically in Britain despite coming off very much like a made-for-TV documentary. This shows the hunger people still have for information about Fischer. But it is never clear what point Ms. Garbus, who has extensive documentary production experience, wanted to make about Fischer’s life.

As it is, "Bobby Fischer Against the World" is a decent introduction to who Fischer was, with the majority of the movie using vintage footage to focus on his career, especially the 1972 championship. Plenty of talking heads, including Garry Kasparov and Susan Polgar, analyze in considerable detail his playing style and still considerable impact on the game. There are also several interviews with friends from his youth, as well as his closest living relative, Russell Targ, the widower of Fischer's sister Joan.

Despite this, the movie contains nothing new about Fischer's life or the reasons for his erratic and outrageous personal behavior, which made him more and more isolated until his death in 2008. This included blatant and pervasive anti-Semitism, which was all the more repulsive since he was Jewish himself. It's clear that he had mental health problems; but according to the interviews in the film, this mainly made him a bad dinner guest. If there was more to it than that, it seems no one — Ms. Garbus included — cared to find out.

The film gallops through the years Fischer spent in exile, including the notorious phone call he made to a Filipino radio station after 9/11 but featuring only one person who saw him between 1992 and 2005. Considering that during that time he was rumored to have a wife as well as a child by a different woman, this is a curious approach. In fact, the only fresh moment in the whole film is from a press conference Fischer gave in Reykjavik in 2005, after being given Icelandic citizenship to prevent his deportation to the United States for violating Yugoslavian trade sanctions in 1992. During the conference, he insulted the father of one of the journalists present, who replied by telling Fischer precisely what he thought of him. It's a deeply unpleasant moment, which demonstrates perfectly how Fischer and the world off the chessboard treated each other. Why didn't Garbus explore moments such as this further? If she was worried Fischer's personal darkness would overshadow her movie, then it should have been only about the chess.


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