As with most chess enthusiasts, Searching for Bobby Fischer is one of my favorite movies of all time. I always knew it was based on a book, but never actually read it – or for that matter seen a copy (it was first released way back in 1984). I finally got a chance to read it the other day. All in all, it is a good read, but as with most books that were turned-into-a-movie, the book differs from the movie – often in some significant ways.
Josh’s father, Fred, comes across quite differently in the book – of which he is the narrator/author. In the movie, for example, we see Fred dealing with the pressures that come along with raising a chess prodigy. Interestingly, in the movie, Fred is never identified with chess. In the film, Josh one day come home magically from the park (where the chess hustlers play) and challenges his dad to a game. Josh purposely loses a game to his father because, as Josh’s film-mother suggests, “he doesn’t want to beat his daddy.” After this, his film dad demands a “fair game” and the film Josh then plays a real game against his dad – and much to his dad’s amazement – his young son solidly crushes him (in the movie, Josh is practically playing blindfold as he is calling moves from his bathtub).
The book version is significantly different. In real life, Fred and Josh played often – well before Josh showed significant signs of talent. Fred sounds like hardly a patzer. He admits in the book that he was intrigued (like most of America) with chess after the Fischer/Spassky match in Iceland – he took up the game soon after and played semi-regularly. As he would describe chess was in his blood and over the years “Bobby Fischer has occupied much of time in my fantasy life.” Fred’s enthusiasm, however, evaporated when he realized that he wasn’t particularly good. He described one particular incident where he was beaten by another player who read the newspaper as Fred made his moves and hardly paid attention to the game. This devastated Fred – who before such defeats – thought he was pretty good and as such he eventually gave up the game.
This is interesting because the movie suggests Fred’s interest in his son’s chess has more to deal with the typical parent’s desire to see their child achieve the best they possibly can (one could have easily substituted chess for anything and much of the movie would have been the same: fencing, spelling, etc.). The book, however, shows what is perhaps a bruised “chess ego” that Fred, the father, never recovered from. This psychological wound comes up in interesting ways throughout the book. For starters, Fred admits openly to purposely beating Josh anytime he and his son first started playing. Unabashedly he admits to never letting his young win – even to the point where the father feared he might be crushing the spirits of his young son. As such, Fred, at even Josh’s first beginnings, was seeking to push his son down the chess mastery path. It appears that he is forcing Josh to become the chessmaster that he knew he could never be – but so wanted to.
And Fred desperately appears to want to tag along on Josh’s journey to fame – a feature again missing from the movie. In the book, for example, Fred takes on the role of reporting and writing about chess. It comes across as a way of making his son’s chess success his own success. This desire to be included often reeks of desperation. For example, Fred flies to Russia with Josh and Bruce Pandolfini. According to the book, Fred and Bruce are going there to learn how the Soviets rear their young prodigies. Perhaps not too coincidentally they go during the Kasparov/Karpov match. During his coverage, Fred “uncovers” a host of unfavorable aspects of Soviet chess politics (from rigged games to anti-Semitism). (“Uncovers” is definitely questionable – because before his visit several Russian chess defectors report to him the chess situation in the Soviet Union). This news is, of course, interesting, but Fred – in what comes across as an attempt to make him feel important in the chess world in which he clearly is not – treats the news as important information that must be revealed to the West. So convinced Fred is in the importance of the story, that he travels to the U.S. Embassy in Russia to deliver his notes and files on the subject to a U.S. ambassador who will see to it that the “important” documents are shipped – unsearched and uncensored – to the anxious hands of the Free World. It’s in effect making a mountain of a mole hill – but as Josh continued to climb the chess mastery summit, it hard to blame Fred – a wounded chess enthusiast – for not wanting to reach a similar summit.
In the movie, Josh’s mentor, Bruce Pandolfini is portrayed as a man desperate to have Josh succeed. There are a couple points in the movie where Bruce’s desire becomes truly disturbing -- for example when he tells young Josh that he should hold other players in “contempt” if he wants to beat them. It’s hard to really determine what the movie Pandolfini’s motivation is. At one point he is not so much concerned with Josh’s individual success, but excellence in chess itself. As the movie Pandolfini tells Josh’s father, people have been looking for Bobby Fisher along time, but he, Bruce, has found him in young Josh -- implying Josh can and should be the chess titan that previously was Fischer. In a way, the movie Pandolfini seems to be seeking some kind of replacement for the void Fischer left when he abandoned chess and faded into obscurity.
In the book, Pandolfini comes across much less complex from a psychological perspective. Pandolfini (as portrayed by Josh’s father, the author of the book), simply enjoys the game -- and his tutoring of Josh comes across as merely an extension of this. There is none of the desperate desire to win that is seen in the movie. Instead, Pandolfini is described as despising the competitive nature of the game. As he tells, Josh’s father his favorite chess games always end in a draw because there is no winner or loser. He sees promise in Josh -- no doubt, but he lacks the real fanaticism that the movie version portrays. As the book explains, Bruce was often hours late to his practices with Josh and often times completely missed them -- implying that in Pandolfini’s world there were more important things going on. Josh certainly does not come across as Pandolfini’s raison d’etre that you see in the movie.
Ironically, the movie’s star, Josh Waitzkin, is the character most accurately portrayed from the book. The innocence and good-natured boy shown in the movie is very much present in the book. The famous closing quote: “You are a much player than I was at your age” is, indeed, real (at least according to Josh’s father.) -- as are Josh’s fundamental insecurities (often shown in the movie) at how good he is supposed to be.
The only real discrepancy is the final game in the movie. In the movie, Josh faces what is perceived to be a losing position. He then realizes that it is -- in fact -- a winning position for him. He, in an effort to not humiliate his opponent (who Josh empathizes with), reaches out his hand to ask for a draw. The opponent, portrayed as the antithesis of Josh (arrogant, mean-spirited, etc.), refuses and then Josh proceeds -- almost reluctantly -- to beat him to win the championship.
In real life, there was such a game, and against a much less-likeable opponent (as the movie accurately revealed, in real life the parents of the opponent had pulled the boy out of school so he could learn chess full-time; as in the movie, he was extremely arrogant). However, Josh, in the real life championship game, simply draws against this opponent to win the tournament. (The two were undefeated going into the final tournament game and because Josh was higher rated, he would retain the championship upon the drawn match). Relying on a tie-breaking mechanism to prevail is certainly unclimatic -- Hollywood can, perhaps, be forgiven in dramatizing the ending.