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Bobby Fischer Against the World
Directed by Liz Garbus
USA, 2010
Cornerhouse, 29 July 2011

Bobby Fischer Against the World

‘Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy…’

This excellent documentary, focusing on the troubled life and fractured chess career of Bobby Fischer, shows once again the truth of Fitzgerald’s words.  The contributors include Kasparov, Susan Polgar, Krogius (one of Spassky’s seconds in 1972) and various American players who knew Fischer, such as Larry Evans and Anthony Saidy.

The emphasis is very much on the 1972 World Championship match with Boris Spassky, and it’s a story that people will seemingly never tire of: Bobby Fischer, lone American genius, battling against the might of the Soviet Empire and his own inner demons, and emerging victorious.  Only, unexpectedly, he found a friend in Spassky.  It was Spassky’s sportsmanship, his discretion, his moral courage even, that saved the match and gave Fischer an opportunity to fulfil his destiny.  Spassky was a mensch.

There is one notable blunder with regard to the chess, so let’s get it out of the way.  Saidy says at one point that the Modern Benoni was first played by Fischer in the third game of the 1972 match, while in fact Fischer had played it several times before.  He played it twice at Havana 1966, for example, against Pomar and Najdorf, and thrice at Palma de Mallorca 1970, his opponents there being Portisch, Uhlmann and Gligoric.  And, yes, the sixth game was beautiful, as was the tenth, but the thirteenth game was in another league entirely.  It was an extraordinary drama.

Becoming world chess champion didn’t save Fischer, but then again perhaps nothing could.  His problems in living seem to have driven him towards chess, and the fame brought on by the victory against Spassky exposed them starkly.  Anyway, he never fulfilled his talent.  When Fischer’s powers were at their peak he never so much as raised a pawn in anger.  He messed up big-time.   The 1972 match was Fischer’s moment; there are no second acts in American lives, as Fitzgerald also said.

Certain questions remain unanswered, but they’re not really essential.  According to a couple of voices in the documentary, Fischer’s anti-Semitism developed after 1972 (during his s0-called ‘wilderness years’), whereas Donner has asserted that he was expressing such views much earlier, at a tournament held at Bled in 1961.  Also, the label ‘paranoid schizophrenic’ is bandied about a little too often for my liking.  Why not just say that, away from the chessboard, Fischer was a crashing bore, someone you wouldn’t want to be around?

Evans made what’s probably the best and the fairest summation: Fischer’s games will be his monument.  No one asks whether Euclid was a nice person.  We might wish there were more games, of course, but maybe we should just be grateful for those we have.

Pretty much all else – Fischer’s utterances in later life, for example – should be classed as simply nonsense or as wounded, damaged screams.  The poor son of a bitch.