HBO doc puts tortured genius Bobby Fischer in check

In the early 1970s, an unlikely hero surfaced for athletically challenged Jewish boys who couldn’t dream of becoming the next Sandy Koufax or Mark Spitz. His name was Bobby Fischer, and his game was chess.

Fischer was already a legend in the chess world by this point. In 1958, he had won the U.S. Championship at the unprecedented age of 14 years, 9 months, beginning a streak of eight titles in nine years (he skipped the 1961-62 tournament).

Bobby Fischer photo/harry benson

Far and away the most dominant player in the free world, Fischer’s only potential competition lay behind the Iron Curtain, in the Soviet Union, where grandmasters were groomed, trained and feted as national heroes.

In the summer of 1972, with the whole world watching, Fischer met Boris Spassky in Iceland for the World Chess Championship. This pop-culture milestone is the crux of Liz Garbus’ eminently interesting, sweetly nostalgic and vaguely disturbing “Bobby Fischer Against the World.”

Fischer ultimately comes to haunt the film as a tragic, unhinged figure. The epitome of skinny-tie, American-Jewish intellectual achievement, he devolved in his later years into a raving anti-Semite. The mystery of this behavior endures, for even in death (he died in 2008) Fischer frustrates the filmmaker’s effort to penetrate the core of his enigmatic character.

“Bobby Fischer Against the World,” which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, debuts June 6 at 9 p.m. on HBO. The 93-minute HBO-backed documentary also is slated to be screened in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 21 through Aug. 8.

Fischer was raised in Brooklyn by a single mother who worked two jobs. She was no doubt grateful when her son discovered chess and happily amused himself for hours every day reading, studying and playing by himself.

That didn’t help his social development, of course. When Fischer routinely routed opponents and was recognized as a prodigy, he inevitably (albeit politely) conveyed the condescension and impatience of someone who’s used to being the smartest person in every room.

Boris Spassky (left) and Bobby Fischer square off in their famous 1972 match. photo/harry benson

By 1972, with the world championship looming, Fischer was part diva, part control freak and part 29-year-old superstar. Under a mountain of pressure, he demanded, dodged and delayed all the way up to and beyond the opening day of the 24-game match with Spassky.

As presented in the documentary, the tense showdown marked a bloodless battle for prestige between the two Cold War powers. Not mentioned, though, is that Fischer was viewed as a kind of proxy by American Jews who had spent the last several years protesting the USSR’s refusal to let its beleaguered Jews emigrate to Israel.

Nor does the film point out that the deciding game between Spassky and Fischer coincided with the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, where Spitz set seven world records en route to winning seven gold medals. In other words, the chess master was sharing the headlines with another Jewish sportsman.

Both superstars were bumped off page one by the horrific massacre of Israeli Olympians in Munich on Sept. 5, 1972. You’d think that might be worth a line or two of narration, especially given its presumed effect on Fischer’s fame and state of mind, but no.

The rest of Fischer’s life was composed of long periods of reclusiveness marked by bizarre conspiracy theories and anti-Jewish tirades. He re-emerged in 1992 for a rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia that resulted in a nice paycheck but less-than-scintillating chess. It also cost him his American residency, for he risked arrest for violating the U.S. embargo in effect during the civil war.

Eventually, Fischer landed in Iceland, by which point he had long since alienated any remaining Jewish fans. He died in 2008, indisputably one of the greatest chess players of all time.

Unfortunately, he was considerably less successful at the game of life.

“Bobby Fischer Against the World” will air 9 p.m. June 6 on HBO. Check for additional airtimes.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.