“Searching for Bobby Fischer”: A “Wonderful” Chess Movie for Youth Sports Parents and Coaches
By Doug Abrams
Two recent national news stories spurred me to write a different kind of column this time. What follows is my first-ever movie review, about a film that can still stimulate parents and coaches to think seriously about what is best for their young athletes.
The first recent national news story reported the passing of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times’ movie reviewer for more than four decades. The second story reported on March Madness and its climax with the Final Four and the National Championship.
No, not that Final Four. I mean the Final Four of College Chess, which took place in suburban Washington, D.C. last weekend. The Washington Post says that the intercollegiate chess tournament “rais[es] the specter of the sort of arms race that plagues other college sports.”
“In the cutthroat world of college chess,” explains the Post, the “University of Maryland Baltimore County was once as dominant as Duke in basketball or Alabama in football.” But several other colleges and universities now give UMBC a run for its money each year by offering full chess scholarships to top players, recruiting high-priced international grandmasters as coaches, and even luring top chess coaches from competitor schools with commitments of greater institutional support. Seeking to vault in national academic rankings, more and more colleges perceive chess as a way to “build a reputation as an intellectual powerhouse” that trains students for critical thinking.
Last weekend’s Final Four pitted chess teams from UMBC, Webster University in St. Louis, the University of Texas at Dallas, and the University of Illinois. Webster won the national championship.
Chess and Sports
The recent emergence of full scholarships, recruiting, and tournament play in intercollegiate chess invites the analogy that the Post draws with intercollegiate sports. This analogy prompts me to recommend one of my favorite movies, “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” to youth sports parents, coaches and programs.
Bobby Fischer, of course, was the former grandmaster and world champion who was widely considered the greatest chess player in history before he went into hiding and lived most of his short life as a recluse. “Searching for Bobby Fischer” tells the true story of seven-year-old chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, based on a book written by his father, Fred Waitzkin.
Most of us would agree with writer James A. Michener, who said that chess is not a sport at all because it does not “place a demand upon big muscles, lung capacity, sweat glands, and particularly the heart.” Why, then, recommend a chess drama as instructive viewing for youth sports parents and coaches?
The answer is that twenty years after its release, “Searching for Bobby Fischer” still sends universal messages about hyper-parenting, childhood fun, and early specialization in one activity. Considering the direction in which sports parenting sometimes seems to be headed these days, the 110-minute film may be more relevant today than ever before. This wholesome drama about parenting a chess prodigy makes excellent viewing at home or in mandatory pre-season parents seminars because adult influence is adult influence, no matter what the child’s activity happens to be.
“But I Don’t Hate Them”
Sit back, open the popcorn, and enjoy. “Searching for Bobby Fischer” tells the story of seven-year-old Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy who ultimately achieves national championship status. Recognizing the boy’s gift, his sportswriter father (Joe Mantegna) hires a stern private coach (Ben Kingsley), enrolls his son in an elite Manhattan private school, begins traveling with him to distant tournaments most weekends, and pressures the boy to win every one. (Sound familiar?)
Josh soon ranks number one in his age group nationally, but his mother Bonnie (Joan Allen) has mixed feelings because she wants the boy to have a normal childhood. Josh wants chess to be fun, hopes to play second base for the New York Yankees someday, loses an important match because of the pressure, and gets his greatest enjoyment from playing speed chess informally against men who spend their days in nearby Washington Square Park in New York City.
The movie delivers scenes and dialog that would not surprise parents or coaches who have spent time around youth sports. In Josh’s first tournament, the seven-year-olds inside the hall had to wait while the directors broke up a hallway fist fight between groups of parents before herding them behind a locked partition so that the kids could play undisturbed. Josh’s stern private coach later instructed him that to win, “You have to have contempt for your opponents. You have to hate them.” To which, the seven-year-old instantly replied, “But I don’t hate them.”
With tournament pressures building, Josh’s parents square off. “If you’re afraid of losing, you lose,” says Fred, about his son, “He’s afraid of losing.” “He’s not afraid of losing,” counters Bonnie, “He’s afraid of losing your love. . . . He knows you think he’s weak, but he’s not weak. He’s decent. But if you . . . or anyone else tries to beat it out of him, I’ll take him away.”
Josh’s father soon comes around to his wife’s thinking, refuses the stern coach’s advice that the boy stop playing speed chess in the park, and makes chess fun again for his son while also encouraging the boy to pursue other activities. In the end, Josh’s best coaching at the national championships in Chicago comes not from the credentialed private coach, but from one of the men he plays in the park (Laurence Fishburne).
In the end, Josh Waitzkin succeeds by playing chess his way, backed by the support of his mother and reformed father. The 1993 movie ends with this screen: “Josh Waitzkin still plays chess. He is currently the highest-ranked player in the United States under 18. He also plays baseball, basketball, football, and soccer. And in the summer, goes fishing.”
“Remarkable Sensitivity and Insight”
Whether simply watching a film, even one as good as “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” will influence adult behavior depends on the adult. But no sports parent or coach could miss the similarities between parenting in chess and parenting in . . . [fill in the name of the sport]. This movie is not only about chess, any more than Denzel Washington’s “Remember the Titans” is only about football, or that “42,” the new movie about Jackie Robinson, is only about baseball.
What did Roger Ebert think of “Searching for Bobby Fischer”? In a 1993 review, he gave it four stars (his highest rating) as a “wonderful . . . film of remarkable sensitivity and insight” that teaches “a great deal about human nature.” Sensitivity, insight and human nature mean plenty — in chess or in sports.
[Sources: Michael S. Rosenwald, Kings of College Chess Under Attack, Washington Post, Apr. 6, 2013, p. A1; Michael S. Rosenwald, Webster Wins Final Four of Chess, With UMBC Finishing Third, Washington Post, April 8, 2013; James A. Michener, Sports in America, pp. 10-11 (1976); Roger Ebert, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Aug. 11, 1993 (review),http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19930811/REVIEWS/308110301/1023. Trailers: “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pdY47NJv-g; “Remember the Titans,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Itqiy2N6Uo; “42,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9RHqdZDCF0. Thank you to John Coleman for bringing the first Washington Post Article to my attention.]