Film / Searching for Bobby Fischer

Searching for Bobby Fischer is a 1993 film about chess.

Fred Waitzkin (Joe Mantegna) discovers that his young son Josh (Max Pomeranc) is a chess prodigy. The Waitzkins send Josh to a special school and start chess lessons for Josh despite the misgivings of Josh's mother (Joan Allen), who is worried about stunting his social development. Ben Kingsley plays Josh's strict chess tutor Bruce Pandolfini, and Laurence Fishburne is a chess hustler in the park that Josh learns a more aggressive style of chess from. Josh must reconcile the lessons from his two teachers, retain his humanity instead of becoming a chess robot, and play for the youth championship against Jonathan Poe, a merciless opponent.

This film contains examples of:

  • Artistic License Sports: The climactic game was designed for the movie by Waitzkin and Pandolfini but it still doesn't really work. It is not actually a forced checkmate but requires Poe to make a serious error on his seventh move after Waitzkin offers the draw. See here.
  • Big Applesauce
  • Big Game: Ends with a championship match between Waitzkin and Jonathan Poe.
  • Check and Mate: Implied. When Josh sees the forced win, he decides to be nice and offer a draw to Poe. When Poe scornfully refuses, Josh says "Take the draw", strongly hinting that Poe has already lost. Poe refuses again, and loses.
  • Child Prodigy: Waitzkin, Poe, and all the chess-playing kids are this.
  • Crazy People Play Chess: There are some creepy weirdos at the chess club. Josh's parents don't want him to become like them.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: About triply subverted. First, it's a Line of Sight Elo Rating, not name (but still falls under this trope in spirit, when not in name). When asked for the rating of Josh, his father sees a sign and says "15"...which would be abysmal (you see, he doesn't know what an Elo is). The other father automatically assumes he means "1500". Which would be extremely high for that age, but since Josh is such a great talent, the value should be historically approximately correct.
  • Nonindicative Name: Bobby Fischer isn't a character. A more accurate title would have been "Searching for the Next Bobby Fisher".
  • Oh, Crap!: "Check."
  • Serious Business: Chess. Players are seen driven to excel to the point they either become emotionless calculating machines - which Poe seems to be developing into - or else they crack from the pressure. Part of the story's conflict is how Josh's parents try to find a way to let Josh play the game while enjoying life the way a kid should.
  • Shout-Out: While playing chess with Josh, Vinny tells him, "Never play the board, always the man." Bobby Fischer was known to say exactly the opposite.
  • Surprise Checkmate: Kind of. The climactic match does not end with a checkmate, but a player of Poe's caliber would have realized that he had lost well before Josh puts him in check at the end.
    • Happens earlier during Josh's rematch with his father, after it was found Josh threw the first game fearing his dad would hate him. While Josh is away from the board taking a bath, Fred makes a move and tells his son down the hall what it was. Josh replies "Can we go do something else now?" Fred answers that the game isn't finished. "Yes it is," Josh answers back, and Fred slowly realizes his son can already see the checkmate.
    • As a practical matter, it might be impossible to present an endgame situation that would be complex enough to fool an expert player like Poe, yet simple enough that non-expert moviegoers could understand what happened without a lot of exposition.
  • Technician Vs Performer: Bruce is the "technician" with his strict adherence to traditional/orthodox chess theory and strategy and a "think before you act" philosophy. Vinny is the "performer", with his instinctual, "act without thinking" style that ignores "proper" strategy in favor of "playing by the gut".
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The Waitzkins were real people as was Pandolfini, but for Rule of Drama the importance of Vinny the chess hustler was greatly exaggerated and the Poe character is basically invented. In Real Life the match between Waitzkin and the (younger) boy that Poe was based on did in fact end with a draw and a shared championship.
  • Villainy-Free Villain: Jonathan Poe is just trying to win the match like Josh is. So the film makes Poe as obnoxious as possible while having Josh offer him a draw.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: "He's not afraid of losing! He's afraid of losing your love!"