That was the text I received a couple of weeks ago, as my work day was came to an end. My daughter was recovering from having her wisdom teeth pulled, and she wanted to snuggle up on the couch with her dad to watch something together. How can you say no to that?
I rushed home.
It wasn’t “a” movie, though, it was “the” movie that Sophie and I had been talking about all week: Searching for Bobby Fischer, a film about parenthood, family, sportsmanship and chess. For a couple of years, I’ve been trying to convince her to watch this gem, one of the many I’ve assured her she’d love. I fear that an ill-fated attempt at watching Airplane scarred her (that movie is rated PG and I forgot that there was a topless scene… she was 13). Furthermore, each time I explained the plot of Searching for Bobby Fischer, she’d zone out after the word “chess.”
Leave it to her swim coach to make her to watch it for the first time; it was a swim team requirement. However it came to be that she saw the movie for first time, I was thrilled that she finally watched it. Moreover, I felt vindicated because I knew she’d love it.
Released in the late summer of ‘93, Searching for Bobby Fischer is based on Fred Waitzkin’s memoir, Searching for Bobby Fischer: the Father of a Prodigy Observes the World of Chess. It was adapted for the screen and directed by Steve Zaillian, one of Hollywood’s most gifted screenwriters. It features a brilliant cast including Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley and Laurence Fishburne, as well a young actor named Max Pomeranc, who was making his film debut, carrying the film on his shoulders. Behind the scenes, film legend Conrad Hall acted as the Director of Photography and James Horner provided the emotional score.
Pomeranc plays Josh Waitzkin, the 8-year-old son of a New York sportswriter (Mantegna) and a stay-at-home mom (Allen). On an uneventful stroll through Washington Square Park, Josh becomes fascinated by speed chess players who spend their days hustling for money. The Waitzkins soon discover that Josh is a chess prodigy. Having never played the game before, he is able to hold his own and defeat the grown men who spend their days playing in the parks.
Under the tutelage of a hustler named Vinnie (Fishburne), John learns to play an aggressive version of chess, always in attack mode. When Josh’s dad hires a more “respectable” teacher named Bruce (Kingsley), Josh is instructed to discard everything he learned from Vinnie and instead study the board to anticipate his opponents actions 4-5 moves ahead. The clash of the different coaching styles, as well as Josh’s dad’s transformation from skeptical parent into stage dad, pulls at Josh’s heart. He’s an empathetic kid who loves the game, but doesn’t want to destroy the fellow 7-8 years olds he plays against. Although he has a competitive edge (one of the things I love about Zaillian’s direction of Pomeranc), like the best athletes, it’s not personal, it’s just a game.
Following the trajectory of many sports films, Josh must eventually face down his fears, a prepubescent adversary, and all three of his mentors. As Sophie said to me at the end of the film, Josh succeeds because of the different coaching styles, and love.
My wife, Julie, and I saw Searching for Bobby Fischer upon its initial release. The movie’s humanity and abundance of heart (not to mention Horner’s score) brought us to tears. Like any great work of art, I was inspired by the film and tried to apply the lessons I learned from it to daily life. Easier said than done.
In the ensuing years, whenever I popped in my laser disc copy, or listened to the soundtrack, I imagined someday sharing this wonderful story with my children. You can only imagine how excited I was when I got that text that Sophie wanted to watch it with me.
That Friday, while we snuggled on the, she recited lines from the film, and made comments like “ooh, this is a good part,” or “I love the mom in this scene.” Julie joined us and Sophie shifted, resting her head on my shoulder. With her cheeks swollen from surgery, and her mind a little groggy from pain meds, she seemed so vulnerable. It took me back to the year she was born. During her infancy, she would wake up early in the morning and I’d rock her back to sleep while watching Rocko’s Modern Life on Nickelodeon. She was tiny, and I would do anything to protect her. As she’s grown, that feeling has only strengthened.
I used to wonder what great things she would accomplish and who she would be when she became an adult. Now 18, Sophie has grown into a remarkable young woman whose accomplishments outshine anything I ever did by the time I was her age. With high school graduation approaching, and the possibility that she’ll go away to college, I don’t know how many more Searching for Bobby Fischer nights we’ll have in the coming months. That’s why I’ll hold on to precious moments like this one. Searching for Bobby Fischer has become one of “our” films, the kind that when/if it shows up on TV, we’ll call each other and to watch together no matter where we are in the world.
As the film draws to a close, Josh walks arm in arm with one of his best friends. His father looks on with a feeling of pride and wonder. Like that character, I’ve been blessed to learn so much from my child. For that I will thank God for the rest of my life.