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Young Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) is your normal elementary school-aged little boy except that he has an extraordinary gift for chess that his mother discovers while he shows interest in watching the speed gamers play in Washington Square Park. His parents take him to renowned instructor Bruce Pandolfin (Ben Kingsley) to teach and guide him to championships through strategies and principles, while the boy remains drawn to Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) from the park, a top-level speed chess player who wants the boy to play from instinct rather than method.
Directed by Steven Zaillian, Searching for Bobby Fischer is a quiet film, and intriguing story based on real life of chess prodigy Joshua Waitzkin. A fascinating look at children’s competitive chess and the toll it takes on the many involved, the movie is made most impactful by its performances with Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen as Josh’s parents a real standout, and both Fishburne and Kingsley highly compelling. But especially Pomerac who was himself a ranked player at the time of filming that delivers the most, a soft, introverted performance that is at times achingly good. The title refers to the reclusive and controversial Bobby Fischer, who is often considered the greatest chess player there ever was but spent much of his time out of the limelight, resurfacing sometimes decades apart to compete.
The talented but untrained Josh is lulled to the action of the game and is so skilled, his father is incapable of even giving the boy a challenge. He likes to spend time with Vinnie, whose fast-tactics are impulsive, daring, and instinct-driven, which Josh responds to quickly. Max’s father thinks his boy could be great and decides to hire one of the best instructors in the business, whose methods are unorthodox but disciplined. Trying to teach the boy to look beyond what he sees, he sits the boy down for a game, and it’s here we must FREEZE THAT FRAME:
The complexities of master chess are about more than where the pieces are on the board now but where they will be in one, two, three, and many movies ahead. Pandolfin wants Max to learn to see these moves before he commits, and so sets up a check mate in four moves but tells Max not to begin until he knows all the steps to the win, something Max say he can’t do unless he can move the pieces. Pandolfin makes it “easier” by brushing away all the pieces with a sudden sweep of his arm, sending them all tumbling to the floor, leaving only the empty board for Max to ponder. So Max does, finally figuring it out and is then shown a “rare” certificate of achievement he can earn if he completes his training, a MacGuffin that acts like a carrot on a stick for the boy as he learns.
This moment is a powerful one simply because it demonstrates how important knowing the board of chess is, and that it is a game of vision well beyond what you are currently seeing. For Max, he needs to learn to let go of the trapping of what lies right in front of him and plan his steps before he moves, something that is contrary to what he learns with Vinnie. The two mentors are the balance that Max needs to find, but as each vie to have their won strategies be the dominate, it leaves the boys always unsettled. This moment leads to a devastating scene later when the certificate comes back into play, and Max learns his hardest lesson yet.