Thursday, October 18, 2007

Searching for Bobby Fischer (Fred Waitzkin)

I’ve been wanting to read Searching for Bobby Fischer for a long time—I’ve seen the movie three or four times, and I’m one of those people (sometimes to Maria’s dismay) who enjoys sitting on the couch with baseball on the TV and a book of tactical chess puzzles in his lap. It was inexplicably not available in our previous library system (despite my repeated detailed submissions in their “Suggest a Purchase” section), but fortunately it didn’t come to that with our current system.

It’s always interesting to read something after having seen the movie version of it, to see how they’ve reshaped the material to fit into a two-hour film. Both focus, of course, on the early life of young chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin. The movie sets up its conflicts in a straightforward, concentrated, dramatic way—the slow, serious chess of Josh’s teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, vs. the wild blitz chess of Vinnie, the Washington Square Park vagrant; the all-consuming, completely chess-focused life of Josh’s rival, Jonathan Poe, and his almost robotic desire to destroy his opponents, vs. the Waitzkins’ struggle to have Josh live some semblance of a well-rounded life. The Vinnie character in the movie, played by Laurence Fishburne, is essentially a wholesale invention, or at least a composite—a man named Vinnie is mentioned briefly in the book, but wasn’t anyone especially notable, and certainly didn’t come to the national championship with Josh and his father. Bruce Pandolfini wasn’t ever thrown out of the house by Josh’s mother after he comes down hard on Josh for not concentrating during a lesson. And, interestingly, at the national championships that end both the book and the movie, Josh didn’t beat the boy the Jonathan Poe character was based on—a kid Josh’s age named Jeff Sarwer, whose father really did keep him out of school so he could study chess full time—nor did he offer a draw in a won position out of empathy for his opponent: instead, he was able to work a tricky draw out of a lost position to finish in a tie, leaving Josh in first place based on the tiebreaker rules. (I was delighted, however, that at the end of the book Josh actually says the line to his younger friend Morgan that ends the movie.)

So although the movie is terrific (with a first-rate cast—highly recommended if you haven’t seen it), it naturally takes plenty of liberties with the source material to fit the story in, and leaves plenty out. The book approaches the same themes in a more complicated and often darker way. Waitzkin struggles constantly with what chess is doing, or might do, to his son and to their relationship. He wants his son to succeed, to fulfill the potential of his inexplicable talent for this game, but is always aware of the sacrifices that have to be made to reach the highest levels. He worries about whether working Josh too hard will cause him to lose his love for the game and quit it, and at the same time worries about the kind of life he might have if he does continue, and succeeds—the book is shot through with grandmaster-level players living in poverty, unable to support themselves on the one thing in life they are truly exceptional at, seemingly taking little joy in grinding out one win after another but at the same time unable to stop playing.

The book was also written in the 1980s, when the Cold War was still on and the Soviet Union still intact, and one of the longest and most interesting sections of the book that was left completely out of the movie is devoted to a trip Waitzkin, Josh, and Pandolfini took to Moscow in the summer of 1984 so Waitzkin could cover the first Karpov–Kasparov World Championship match. In contrast to America, chess is a serious, well-respected pursuit in Russia, where top-level players could live comfortable lives supported by the state. But at the same time, the game was almost absurdly politicized: tournament players were regularly asked to throw games if it would help certain favored players do well, or prevent certain disfavored players from winning (particularly Americans and Jews), and the battle between Karpov and Kasparov was fought as much behind the scenes as on the board, with each maneuvering through their political connections to gain advantages or to force concessions from the other side. When Waitzkin tries to arrange to visit Soviet chess classes for children, he’s told that that won’t be possible; all the schools are close for repairs. When he finally gets a teacher to let him sit in on a class, the visit is conducted like an undercover casing of a military facility—the teacher nervous, urging the Americans not to speak at all, to just nod if anyone speaks to them.

Waitzkin also goes to considerable lengths to track down a high-level player named Boris Gulko whose outspoken political views had left him under house arrest, and who, when he was allowed to play in tournaments, was excised from news reports of the results (if he won, they would simply not mention the winner):

I was told that Gulko would be willing to discuss the politics of Soviet chess, as well as the problems of Jewish chess players in the Soviet Union. . . . “To find Gulko, you’ll need to contact a man I know who is a well-known grandmaster, an expert in the endgame,” said the Russian American, who gave me a name and a Moscow phone number. “He is also a KGB agent, but don’t worry, he is totally corrupt. The first day you meet him, give him a present worth fifteen or twenty dollars—a digital watch, maybe. Don’t expect him to speak candidly at first. Most likely he’ll seem apathetic. But I know this man, and you’ll have aroused his curiosity. He will suggest dinner. During the meal present him with pornographic books and magazines; then the chances are he will arrange for you to meet Gulko.”

In case this approach didn’t work, the man gave me the name of a second grandmaster to bribe with a few digital pens; he wouldn’t be as expensive. He cautioned that I must never mention the name of the second grandmaster to the KGB grandmaster because they were enemies.

The KGB seem to be everywhere, although they rarely know for sure when or if they’re being monitored. When they are planning to leave, Waitzkin has to go to the American embassy and arrange to have them transport his notes and interview tapes back to the U.S.—a process arranged by writing on scraps of paper while the Americans loudly assured Fred that they could not help him with anything, to fool the KGB bugs—while he went back with fakes in case anything was confiscated. (“What madness, I thought. My chess notes were hardly espionage material.”)

If you like chess or liked the movie, definitely give the book a read. And for those who are interested—Josh eventually gained an international master ranking (one level below grandmaster), and is also a Tai Chi champion.


Update: Also, by the way, it looks like Jeff Sarwer has reappeared in the chess world this year after a long absence, and that his sister is writing a memoir of their childhood.

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