Bobby Fischer Against the World (Liz Garbus, 2011)

05Mar12

Directed by Liz Garbus. Running time: 93 minutes.

One of the whackiest passages in Plato arrives in The Republic, when he writes that the best path to morality is the study of mathematics. His thought was that this kind of abstract thinking was necessary to transcend the physical world and discover greater truths, and with an appreciation of numbers will also come, in time, an understanding of other aspects of reality including ethics.

The mistake, of course, is to fail to distinguish the various senses in which an individual may employ reason and possess knowledge. Nothing in mastering algebra ensures one will also go on to be charitable and just, as Aristotle quickly noted. And if there’s anyone that could be offered up by him as a perfect example to counter Plato, Bobby Fischer would be the man.

There’s evidently a sense in which the guy was a genius. He spent thousands of hours throughout his childhood mastering chess theory, culminating in him defeating the US Open Champion when he was merely aged thirteen. But before he knew it he was a key pawn in the game of the Cold War, and it was Kissinger calling him to encourage participation in the World Championship, intent on using Fischer as an American asset to demonstrate intellectual superiority over the Soviet Union.

And come out as World Champion he did, but barely before descending into apathy towards the game and soon ‘achieving’ what can only be called senility. Over the next few decades he went from being a national hero to wanted villain. He could not return to the US for fear of imprisonment for playing chess in Yugoslavia whilst UN sanctions banned such activity, as part of a diplomatic isolation strategy. And Fischer became obsessed with anti-Semitism, cherishing his copy of Mein Kampf and other such associated literature.

It’s utterly bizarre, and the documentary sadly can’t help us to shed light on how such a perplexing mix of characteristics came to be carried by one mad man. But it felt odd that it wasn’t even interested in the chess and the beauty of his game that the interviewees harp on about, instead seeming more interested in his mind-game antics rather than his actual moves. Which was a shame. I saw no point in trying to avoid alienating non-chess players by omitting such details. One is, after all, unlikely to watch the documentary unless one takes a keen interest in the game in the first place.

And the moral offered is, I think, an unconvincing one. The film seems to want to suggest that Fischer’s fragility was intrinsic to his genius; that without his quirks and sociopolitical stupidity, he couldn’t have been so creative on the board. They have some minor evidence to suggest history supports that, but in the end the power of the film lies only in the intrigue it induces about its bizarre protagonist. But that’s more than enough.

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