There are many different roles chess has played in popular culture: source of excitement, metaphor for conflict, cause of (or at least form of expression for) madness (e.g., Nabokov’s The Defense). Last night’s HBO documentary, Bobby Fischer Against the World, involved all of those, and was both an empathetic biography and fascinating history of a Cold War showdown to boot.
The film, directed by Liz Garbus, relied heavily on documentary footage and exclusive period photography to tell the story, from his early days as a prodigy to his final years of paranoia, of the chess master whose defeat of Boris Spassky in 1972 was cause for national celebration. It was transporting to see the match—which had both competitive drama and personal drama caused by the psychological gamesmanship of the eccentric Fischer—treated as not just a game but sport, right down to the coverage by ABC Wide World of Sports and spectators gathered to watch on TV. It was like a Muhammad Ali title match, but with two guys sitting at a board.
Fischer, the film reveals, was an odd man to serve as the champion of America and capitalism in a Cold War showdown. His mother was a communist and antiwar activist, while later in life he was drawn to conspiracist thinking that led him, among other things, to declare that America’s chickens had come home to roost on 9/11. (He was also attracted to anti-Semitic theories, though Fischer was himself Jewish.) But Garbus traces Fischer’s outlandish behavior, both in and outside the games, to roots of instability early on: chess may not have driven him mad, but its irresistible complexity attracted a mind, never properly socialized, that found something attractive in its combination of rules and near-infinite possibilities.
But while Fischer’s life and its end were not happy ones, there’s something enthralling and thrilling about how the film makes competitive chess play come alive. I’ve only ever been a casual chess player, and the recounting of Fischer’s famous games by the gathered talking heads makes them come alive for the non-expert. They lay out the jarring mind games he played with Spassky, confounding the Russian’s preparation by introducing openings Fischer had never used, and contrast Fischer’s usual brawling style of play with perhaps his most famous game, game six of the Spassky match, in which he switched up unexpectedly to a subtle, classical style of play—a game of “placid beauty”—that Spassky to stand and applaud in defeat.
“Did you see what Spassky did?” Fischer is recalled to have said afterward. “He’s a sportsman.” Fischer, Garbus’ film showed, may not himself have always been a gentleman or gracious, but his play and his mind could be things of beauty.