As an undergraduate student at Yeshiva University many years ago, I had the opportunity to watch Bobby Fischer play chess. I do not know how to play chess, but a friend of mine who did was participating in a school-wide completion between about 50 students and the chess master, who would play all of them simultaneously. I still remember coming down to the school cafeteria and watching close to a hundred students set up their chess boards on long tables preparing for their match with Bobby who would stroll down the various aisles making his moves quickly as his opponents reflected on what to do next. To my knowledge, no student won his match that night; but it was fascinating to observe this chess genius casually dispose of so many opponents in so short a time.
Searching for Bobby Fischer is a film about chess; but, more importantly, it is a film about life. We watch as little Josh Waitzkin develops a love of chess. He is fascinated by the game and enjoys watching the exciting contests of speed chess in Washington Square Park in New York City. His mother senses his love of the game and pays to have him play one the players in the park. His interest in the game grows, and his father decides to get him a top flight teacher. Josh studies with the guru but still retains his childlike interests and attitude. Basically Josh is kind person, the kind of person who wants to be nice to other people. He does not hate his opponents, nor does he look at them as objects to destroy. His mother, on listening to Josh’s wish to help a friend, tells him “You have a good heart. That’s the most important thing in the world.”
It is this conflict between being nice and being a winner that is the subtext for this sports film about chess. As Josh achieves success in tournaments, his father becomes possessed with his son’s genius at playing the game. Frank Waitzkin comes to see chess not as game nor as science, but rather as pure art. The notion that his son plays like Bobby Fischer animates his ego and he begins to push Josh harder. He more than Josh wants the glory, the attention, the honor that he never received in his life. Frank pursues the ephemeral goal of fame, and forgets about balance in life. As Josh advances in skills, his teacher Bruce puts him though exercises designed to toughen Josh mentally. But Josh is boy who likes and respects other people. His coach’s desire to make him like Bobby Fischer “who held the world in contempt” evokes a simple, direct response from Josh; “I’m not him.” His mother sharpens that observation when she tells her husband that “Josh is not weak. He’s decent.”
Several Torah themes are embedded in Searching for Bobby Fischer. In Proverbs, there is the wise directive to “train the child in the way that he goes (Proverbs 22:6).” The message here is that parents need to understand the uniqueness of their children. Different children possess different personalities, different interests, and different proclivities. That is the lesson that Frank Waitzkin learns as he first pushes Josh to excel, and then comes to recognize Josh for the decent boy that he was and is. Frank ultimately realizes that the game of chess does not define his son, who is much more than a chess player. He is a good son, a caring friend, and a decent human being who wants balance in life.
We also learn from the film that wisdom can come from many places, from parents, from a speed chess hustler in Washington Park, and from a serious teacher of chess. Notably, all are present for Josh’s crucial match at the Chess Grand National Tournament in Chicago, the site of the film’s finale. Our Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers explicitly tell us: “Who is wise? He who learns from every man (Avot 4:1).” Everyone has something to teach us if we are a careful observer of mankind.
Finally, we learn the pursuit of fame is illusive. The more one runs after it, the more difficult it is to acquire. Finally, fame in the Jewish view is acquired through the simple acts of friendship and kindness that punctuate our lives. The film ends with Josh putting his arm over the shoulder of a friend who has just lost a match and telling him, “You’re a much stronger player than I was at your age.” As the credits begin to roll, a coda informs us that while Josh still plays chess, he also plays baseball, basketball, football and soccer, and in the summer, goes fishing.” Josh intuitively understands that a fulfilling and meaningful life is a life with balance.