Bobby Fischer: Mind Over Matter

Nothing has absorbed the American consciousness so thoroughly as the singular hero; the one-man army. It is something that is re-enacted over and over in video games, and action films, where stars such as Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone defeat masses of people against all odds. In the real world, figures like this are few and far between, but tend to emerge in the world of sports or politics. In the 1950’s, a young boy rose up and took the United States by storm. The boy’s name was Bobby Fischer, and his game was chess. In Liz Garbus’ film Bobby Fischer Against the World, she reveals the highs and lows in the life of what many believe to be the greatest chess player of all time. Fischer’s rise to fame was unprecedented in the American world of chess, and in the end, it was his own obsessive habits and eccentricities that would prove to be his undoing.

The film provides a thorough analysis of Fischer’s youth, and where his fascination with chess began. Bobby Fischer was raised by his mother, a fiercely intelligent woman, who spoke several languages, worked as a nurse, telegram operator and a welder. She was also an activist and known Communist who was closely watched by the CIA. Her unsteady income forced the family to move around quite a bit, and saw Bobby and his sister left home alone from a very young age. In interviews, Bobby would often speak of his lonely childhood.

At the age of six, he became obsessed with chess, and spent all of his spare time reading about it and playing. By the age of 13, he was the United States champion. His sudden rise to fame, which put the United States on the map in the world of chess, had its dark side. Garbus points that Fischer became his own worst enemy, often disputing the rules of chess competitions, and almost refusing to attend the 1972 World Chess Championship. While many read his actions as stemming from pure arrogance and selfishness, Garbus theorizes that Fischer may have been deeply uncertain. Although there is no way to verify this, as Fischer has since passed away, she makes her case through use of interviews with his colleagues, chess champions and former coaches. They note that Fischer was at the mercy of his obsession, and that chess was all he had; to lose would be a devastating blow.

The film also successfully frames the political and cultural importance of The 1972 World Chess Championship. Deep in the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the ultimate producer of chess masters. Fischer’s chess match against reigning world champion Boris Spassky of the USSR was the perfect metaphor. Each man representing his country: Boris emerging from a state supported system that churned out chess champions, and Fischer having worked up the ranks by his own strength of will. The rigorous championship, which could span over two months, was eventually won by Fischer. Unfortunately, he held the title for only a few short years, succumbing to his inner demons, and fears that he had peaked at age 29.

The subject of mental illness is also prevalent in this film. Fischer struggled with paranoia, and as he aged, became more and more obsessive. He attached himself to fringe groups such as The Worldwide Church of God and became increasingly anti-Semitic (ignoring his own Jewish heritage). Garbus draws together interviews with chess players who note the historical connection between mental illness and chess masters. Fischer, it seems, is just one in a long line of talented chess players to be brought down by their own mind.

This riveting film is a must-see. Chess fanatic or no, Bobby Fischer Against the World tells a detailed story about arguably one of the most fascinating figures in recent history.