Coming to the big screen, Josh Waitzkin stars in Leaving Behind Bobby Fischer, a dramatization of his early life as a chess child superstar. Know-it-all critics at Rotten Tomatoes generally describe the movie as a coming of age story that pleads for introspection and decency. But what they miss is what Josh outgrows in the first place and that is Bobby Fischer.
Josh is at heart an ordinary kid who loves to play baseball and legos. He also loves to play chess with drug addicts, hustlers, and other typical wholesome inner city residents in Washington Square Park. It is in this muddy water where his chess talents begin to bloom as a lotus. His father encourages Josh’s talent and gets him a drunk bitter Irishman failure for a chess teacher.
The two jaded adults live vicariously through the small boy, burdening him with adult expectations and responsibility. Josh strains under the pressure and meets his rival, Jonathan Poe, a child chess machine who is what Josh is in danger of becoming. Poe is a mean-spirited arrogant little shit completely lacking in normal human behavior and emotions. His father, unsurprisingly, is another bitter failure who vicariously lives through his son.
Josh and Poe face off in a national championship for tots who still wet their beds and pick their noses in public. Josh remembers the advice of his very first teacher, the drug addict street hustler and the most human chess player in the film, and plays the man, not the board. Josh takes advantage of Poe’s arrogance to avoid a draw and claim victory. The movie ends with Josh reflecting on Bobby Fischer’s influence on chess and America.
Yes, the actual title of the movie is Searching for Bobby Fischer but what really happens is Josh leaves him. The stunted Poe is, as a bystander claimed, “the next Fischer”. Bobby Fischer never appears in the film in person. He is an icon, a symbol, but Josh finally sees him in person through Poe, and it is not a pretty sight. Poe has no life outside of chess and his father even stopped him from going to school and playing with other kids
Bobby Fischer was a great chess player; that cannot be questioned, but he was a failure as a human being. He had a superficial and one-dimensional understanding of the world, he knew little of human contact and intimacy, and he was an easy dupe to the anti-Semitic and anti-communist propaganda of his time. Americans hailed him as an all-American hero before he turned his back on them, glorying in the deaths of the victims of 9/11.
He is exactly the kind of person Josh doesn’t want to be. His mother rightfully senses that he fears losing his father’s love and protects Josh from losing his humanity, the thing far more important than chess. Too many gifted children are raised wrong, closed off in ivory towers as they are deemed too special for us mere mortals. This creates a stunted person unable to deal with the real world. I should know. My dad was raised a similar way by his parents, and he became an abusive, irresponsible person who damaged many people. Thankfully, Josh avoids that path and transcends that mentality.