Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993)

Director: Steven Zaillian
Cast Notables:
Josh Waitzkin - Max Pomeranc
Fred Waitzkin - Joe Mantegna
Bonnie Waitzkin - Joan Allen
Bruce Pandolfini - Ben Kingsley
Vinnie - Laurence Fishburne


Searching For Bobby Fischer chronicles the rise of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin from his discovery of chess to his first major national tournament. Despite the title, it has nothing at all to do with Bobby Fischer, save for the name.

It is based on a true story, which is the book of the same title, written by Josh's father, Fred, who is a sports journalist in New York. Josh ends up being tutored by two different schools of teacher. Bruce Pandolfini, a widely famed U.S. chess teacher, who's written scores of books and has a regular column in Chess Life magazine, and Vinnie, the drug addict speed-chess player that Josh plays in Washington Park.

Meanwhile, there is, of course, the evil child prodigy, who is never named, but I caught his name on a scoresheet when I paused the movie once, and it seemed to be "Jonathan Poe." There has only ever been one Jonathan Poe who played rated games in the U.S., and he is rated 900 or so to this day. I really doubt that this was Josh's nemesis. That all being said, the "evil" kid had no social skills, and his parents had removed him from school so that he could devote himself to full-time chess study. Nice folks.

The Review

This movie is really heart warming, and can be enjoyed by people who could care less about chess. It's really a story about the people involved in Josh's life. If I had to classify the movie, it'd by under "Family movies about selfishness." As the whip from Pandolfini (who is certain that Waitzkin is the next Fischer) drives the 8 year old boy on and the selfish father drags the boy all over the country to tournaments and keeps Josh's trophies to himself, on a mantle in his bedroom, I am continually amazed at how reflective this is of the real lives of prodigies, even if this is a watered-down version told by one of the main characters.

It shows in grim detail the world of 'chess parents', and their inhuman drive to make their children win, regardless of how it affects the child. I've been to many tournaments that had kids playing, and their overbearing parents are enough to make you puke. This is one aspect of the story that strikes a perfect chord. At one point, though, a fistfight breaks out between two of the parents at one tournament, and for the remainder of the games, the parents are kept in the cellar. I thought that was a nice touch.

Ben Kingsley plays the dispassionate Pandolfini, and sports some kind of weird pseudo-irish accent (for unknown reasons, as Pandolfini is a New Yorker). Ben Kingsley is a great actor, but he seems to fall short of impressing me in this movie. He isn't bad, but he's not as good as he should be.

Max Pomeranc, who plays Josh, is entirely too cute and is filled with sappy little eight year old things to say. He does an overall decent job of playing the role, but it seems like the director is continually shoving in your face "Look, see how cute he is? Isn't he adorable?" in ways that, at best, only peripherally add to the story.

Laurence Fishburn is great as the street-savvy chess-hustler from Wash. Park. This is another one of those little pieces of the chess world that most chess players never see, and nobody else would probably want to. He teaches strong attacking tactical play as a contrast to Pandolfini's teaching the boy more positional maneuvers.

A couple of cameos spice up the movie for chess fans. Both GM Kamran Shirazi and the real Bruce Pandolfini make appearances in the movie.

All in all, Searching For Bobby Fischer gets two out of four stars. It's an average movie, and safe for family viewing. Add another star if you're a chess player.