Monday, August 08, 2011

Check Mate

When the US and USSR faced off in 1972, there was more than just national pride at stake. The world looked on with hearts in mouths, waiting to discover which one of these nuclear superpowers would triumph in the ultimate test of deductive reasoning and strategic logic. I am of course talking about the contest between American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer and defending champion Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship, as depected in Bobby Fischer Against the World (now in cinemas).

Chess might not sound like the most promising topic for a feature length documentary to most people, but most people would be wrong. 'Most people' made Transformers: Dark of the Moon a global box office hit. Chess is brilliant! Chess grandmasters are intellectual gladiators, doing battle in the theatre of the infinite. There are more possible moves in a single game of chess than there are grains of sand on the planet and the number of possible unique chess games is more than the number of electrons in the universe.

Still not convinced? Bobby Fisher himself was no ordinary chess player. Winning the US Chess Championship at the tender age of 14, Fischer went on to win the tournament eight more times, before being invited to face off against Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky. The USSR had made chess Russia's National Sport and, in 1972, had won 23 consecutive World Chess Championships. However, Richard Nixon's White House was so determined to humiliate the USSR by beating it at its own game, when Fischer threatened to pull out of the match on financial grounds, Henry Kissenger himself called Fischer to tell him, 'You should go'. Archive footage from a major American news network shows the anchor announce stories about Watergate and Vietnam, before first turning to the state of the World Chess Championship in Reykjavík'.

The film is filled with fascinating insights and anecdotes such as these, Fischer brilliant but tormented, driven but self-destructive. His dedication is most evident in his apparently tireless physical fitness regime, preparing for the match as if he were Rocky, about to go 12 rounds against Apollo Creed. Harry Sneider, one-time bodyguard and trainer to the stars, recalls Fisher telling him he wanted to be able to bury the needle on his grip-metre. He then had to explain to Fischer that the world's strongest man had never achieved such a feat, only for Fischer to quip back, 'When I shake that little Russian's hand, I want him to feel it!'

The final third of the film, following his victory, traces Fischer's sad decline into anti-American, anti-Jewish conspiracy theorist. If the filmmakers are to be believed, without chess to sate his intellectual appetities, Fischer's brilliant brain started to eat itself, spiralling ever deeper into Illuminati/New World Order nonsense. Then, in 1992, Fischer made his perenial victim fantasy a reality by staging a rematch with Spassky in the former Yugoslavia, then in the midst of a bloody civil war, in direct violation of UN sanctions. The US State Department immediately issued a warrent for his arrest and called on him to return to the United States to face charges. Fischer was latter broadcast on Filipino TV on September 11th 2001, laughing at the 'big-bad empire' getting one in the eye. Fischer was, in many ways, his own worst enemy.

Arrested in Japan in 2004, Fischer was eventually granted citizenship and thereby sanctuary by Iceland, the scene of his greatest ever victory. He showed some signs of getting his life back together - he was playing chess again - before he died in 2008. The film ends with his friends' lament that Fischer abandonning chess at the age of 29 was akin to Michaelangelo or Beethoven never being given the chance to complete their masterworks. A fascinating portrait.


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