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Film / Searching for Bobby Fischer

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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:

  • All According to Plan: During the final game against Jonathan, Josh loses his Queen early on and looks shaken, causing Bruce to shake his head dejectedly and Jonathan to smirk. Just a couple of moves later, lured into a false sense of overconfidence, Jonathan loses his Queen and Josh smirks at him, revealing that he had sacrificed his Queen to outmaneuver Jonathan.
  • All of Them: When Bonnie, angry at what she thinks Fred and Bruce are doing to Josh, asks Fred how many baseball players are afraid of losing the love of their fathers, Fred snaps, "All of them!"
  • 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.
  • As Himself: Kamran Shirazi, the chess master Josh watches Vinnie play in the park near the beginning.
  • Awesome by Analysis: Josh wins the final game by looking 12+ moves into the future based on his opponent's play style, and outmaneuvering him into a loss.
  • Bait-and-Switch: At Josh's first tournament, we hear the tournament supervisor (played by Dan Hedaya) giving a speech about the rules, and it's assumed he's speaking to the children who are playing. When we finally see him, he's actually talking to the parents, warning them not to interfere (and when he leaves, and they start to come after him with complaints, he turns around and gives them a Death Glare, which shuts them up).
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: When Josh and Bruce first meet, Fred leaves them alone, and after cutting away to Fred telling Bonnie about Bruce, we're led to assume the next time we cut to Bruce and Josh, they're playing chess. Then:
  • Berserk Button: Do not call chess just a "game," or "this chess thing" around Fred, at least when talking about Josh.
    Fred: He's better at this than I've ever been at anything in my life. He's better at this than you'll ever be, at anything. My son has a gift. He has a gift, and when you acknowledge that, then maybe we'll have something to talk about..."Chess" is what it's called. Not "the chess thing", chess.
  • 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, ironically for this trope, not in a checkmate but in a resignation.
  • 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. Note that Asa Hoffman is a real chess player, but he did not like his portrayal in the film.
    • Justified in that Bobby Fischer had some serious mental problems — and character flaws — for most of his life.
    • Not to mention the people who gamble on speed chess for drug money at the park.
  • Fascinating Eyebrow: A very subtle one. After Josh realizes he has the game won and offers Jonathan a draw, Jonathan coldly says, "Move." Josh looks at him or a moment, gives a barely perceptible cock of the eyebrow, as if to say, "You sure about this? Well, okay," and proceeds to wipe the floor with Jonathan.
  • Get Out!: Bonnie orders Bruce to leave because of what she thinks he's doing to Josh.
  • Good-Times Montage: Josh winning tournaments, which is cut against Josh playing baseball in Bruce's office.
  • Handshake Refusal: During the Big Game, Josh offers a draw, but Jonathan is too adversarial to accept.
  • 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 Fischer." The book itself has a full chapter in which Fred Waitzkin goes to a lot of effort trying to find Bobby Fischer and ask for an interview. He never found him.
    • In a way it's also a subversion. Bruce is searching more for the spirit and love that Bobby Fischer brought to the game.
    • Though in the movie, when Josh and Vinnie are sitting in Washington Square Park one day, they see a commotion in the park around a chess game, and they both assume it's Fischer (they even say his name out loud), until they run over and see it's Jonathan.
  • Oh, Crap!: "Check."
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The book the film is based on doesn't have a through-line; it is mainly a series of loosely-connected stories, with the one common theme being Josh Waitzkin's progress as a chess player. A full third of the book is devoted to Fred and Josh traveling to Russia to see a world championship played between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, and learning how depressingly political the professional chess world can be. Fred Waitzkin also tells several stories about different people in Washington Square, a game Josh had with a "champion player" in the Bahamas while on vacation (and Fred's realization that the player is an incompetent hack), and Fred actively trying to find and interview Bobby Fischer, to no avail. The book also notes Fischer's mental and emotional problems, concluding that Fischer was something of a monster in his personal life, something the film alludes to but doesn't detail.
    • The final match between Josh and Jonathan is also an example, as the real match played out differently and ended in a draw, with Josh winning the tournament on points. The one in the movie was created to 1)look good on film, 2) give Josh a definitive win to end the film, and 3) be simple enough that the average viewer could follow along with the events and not be lost in the complexities of chess at the level Josh was playing at.
  • Real-Person Cameo: When Josh goes back to playing in Washington Square Park late in the movie, the real Josh Waitzkin and Vinnie can be seen in the crowd, watching him. In addition, Josh's real-life sister Katya is the one playing Josh at his first tournament game in the movie, and the woman talking to Bonnie outside of Josh's school early in the movie is Josh's real-life mother.
  • Scary Black Man: Averted with Vinnie; even in his first appearance, when Josh sees him in the rain, all he wants is to trade Josh' baseball for the chess piece Josh found, and seems undaunted when Josh refuses.
  • Self-Deprecation: The trainer Pandolfini comes over as a total Jerkass (although he claims he just does what he has to do to make Waitzkin a great player - the whole drama is based on this conflict). Well, Pandolfini was the film’s chief chess consultant...
  • 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.
    • They did succeed in the end. Josh played chess for many years and won national championships for himself and his school and earned the rank of International Master, but also branched out and became a coach, an author, and a martial artist, winning the world Tai Chi Chuan and becoming a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt and coach. He hasn't played a ranked game since 2000.
  • Shout-Out: While playing chess with Josh, Vinnie tells him, "Never play the board, always the man." Bobby Fischer was known to say exactly the opposite.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The Russian Park Player played by Vasek Simek. He only appears in a couple of scenes, but his game against Josh is when we first get an indication of how good Josh really is (Vinnie certainly seems to think so), and his game against Jonathan later in the movie shows how formidable an opponent Jonathan is going to be.
  • So Proud of You: Bruce says this word for word to Josh the night before his big game with Jonathan.
    • Vinnie also says this to Josh after he beats Jonathan at the end.
  • Sports Dad: Played with; Fred doesn't rant and rave at Josh or at the other parents or players, but he does give off vibes of You Have Failed Me after Josh starts losing in tournaments, and Bonnie is definitely afraid he and Bruce are going to force Josh to lose the best part of himself, his heart. Fred does eventually get better, though, as eventually lets Josh play in Washington Square Park again (after Bruce ordered him not to play there anymore), and even taking him fishing before a tournament, instead of practicing for it.
  • Suddenly Shouting: When Bonnie, Bruce, Fred and Vinnie are watching Josh play Jonathan on a TV monitor, they're mostly quiet, or talking in low voices. However, when Josh takes Jonathan's queen, Vinnie yells out, "THERE IT IS!"
  • 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. Vinnie is the "performer", with his instinctual, "act without thinking" style that ignores "proper" strategy in favor of "playing by the gut". Josh combines the two styles, using the theory and tactics Bruce taught him (looking 12 moves into the future to win the game) combined with the more loose style from Vinnie (example: bringing out the Queen early to cause maximum damage and throw off your opponent).
    • The performer is actually the type that masters hate to play. They are accustomed to a standard set of attacks and strategies in tournament and Elo play that speed/battle chess players don't use.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The Waitzkins were real people as was Pandolfini, but for Rule of Drama the importance of Vinnie 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. Also, Bruce Pandolfini is much different from Ben Kingsley's portrayal; he has curly brown hair, a New York accent, and is very soft-spoken and friendly. Josh Waitzkin and Bruce Pandolfini have no problem with the film (both have cameos), but Josh is quick to point out that the film is fictional.
  • 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!"
  • Worthy Opponent: "Good game."