Star rating – 7/10
When I was 8 years old I remember the world, (well John Craven’s Newsround and my chess mad Dad at least), being gripped by the 1972 World Chess Championship in Iceland. I know it sounds a bit unlikely now but chess was big news back then, and this was billed as a Cold War show down between the prevailing world champion the Russian Boris Spassky, and the dashing young enigmatic American genius Bobby Fischer. A fascinating documentary about Fischer directed by Liz Garbus, which was on at cinemas for about two seconds earlier this year, has just been released on DVD.
This is a gripping but disturbing story, as the young Bobby starts his chess career at the age of 6, and pretty much plays chess to the exclusion of everything else in his life from then on. Fischer was born to a Jewish single mother and grew up in Brooklyn. From this film Regina, his mother, seems to have been a pretty intense character too, and as her only son grew up, they clashed more and more. They both reportedly had obsessive compulsive character traits, which may have helped Bobby to become a chess legend, but didn’t exactly represent a recipe for his future happiness.
The film charts the progress of extraordinary World Chess Championships, to which it was not clear up until the eleventh hour whether or not Fischer would even bother to turn up. Shots of Spassky waiting ever more impatiently to see if his chess rival from the USA would show are amazing. And as you may know, Fischer not only showed up, but triumphed in a tense and tightly fought contest which represented so much more than a chess game between these two unofficial representatives of the two then dominant world super powers.
After this victory Fischer’s life spiralled into an ever more tragic downward trajectory. His genius was his greatest strength and also his fatal flaw. He descended into a very strange anti Semitic shadow of his former self – strange and very sad considering his own background. He became a recluse and was only welcome in one country in the whole world, Iceland, the scene of his triumph years before. And even there he was barely tolerated before his lonely and untimely death. This film tells his fascinating story, and whilst not being an easy watch, does remind us that being a genius is not all it’s cracked up to be.