By Marc Glassman
Liz Garbus, director
Starring: Bobby Fischer
In 1972, the unlikeliest of Americans emerged as a Cold War hero. Bobby Fischer, a gangly, socially awkward Jewish boy from Brooklyn, defeated Boris Spassky, the World Chess Champion from the Soviet Union. That’s right: Fischer beat Spassky at chess in Iceland while the world watched in amazement on international TV hookups.
Liz Garbus, an award-winning U.S. documentary filmmaker, has created a remarkable film about that event–as surprising in its way as Nixon’s visit to China—and its repercussions on Fischer and the world of chess. Even at the time, it was remarkable that so many people became fascinated with chess, which had always been regarded as an intellectual game, not one designed for popular appeal.
But that was before Fischer began to play mind games with his Soviet opponent, showing up late, deliberately losing the first game and forfeiting the second, and insisting that the third be played in a closed room, with TV monitors broadcasting the event to the international audience assembled in Reykjavik, Iceland, not to mention the rest of the world.
Garbus’ film follows Fischer’s finest moments, turning the series around with triumphs in the third and fourth game, ultimately winning in the 21st game, three before the designed conclusion. The drama, the psychology of the events, and the political significance turned a very odd young American into a huge celebrity–and chess into a marketable entity.
Bobby Fischer Against the World mixes a wealth of archival material with recent interviews conducted by Garbus with people who participated, at least peripherally, in the event: former U.S. chess champs, Fischer’s entourage and the media. Certainly comparable to the Canadian-Soviet Hockey Series which took place that fall, the World Chess Championship was Fischer’s finest hour and well worth reviving for the film.
Garbus goes beyond the events of 1972, tracing Fischer’s tragic tale from beginning to end. Raised by a far-left Soviet supporting mother with no father in sight, Bobby Fischer found chess early in his life. A nice boy, he grew up stranger and stranger, especially after he become U.S. chess champ in his teens. The weird psychological one-upmanship played by Fischer against Spassky may have been less calculated than people supposed: Garbus offers evidence that the Brooklyn boy was battling his own demons and just happened to affect Spassky by his odd behaviour.
Garbus’ doc follows Fischer through the rest of his career as he alienated supporters and eventually the U.S. government with his rants against Jews and the American establishment. Fischer’s life ended in irony: forced into exile after playing a 20th year anniversary series against Spassky in the dying, internationally reviled Yugoslavia, he ended up imprisoned in Japan as a U.S.–and world–traitor until Iceland, of all places, offered him citizenship and sanctuary. There he died, a former American hero, hated in his own country.
Liz Garbus has made a superb documentary, telling the Fischer tale. It’s well worth seeing.