1993 was a good year for Stephen Zaillian; not only did he win acclaim for writing the screenplay to Schindler's List, but he also got good reviews for writing and directing an adaptation of Searching for Bobby Fischer, the true story of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin. I had actually read a condensed version of Searching long before the film was made; it had appeared in Sports Illustrated and I read it standing up in Cody's Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. I liked the movie, too, when it came out. This time around I was much less impressed. Yeah, it's got some clever moments, but all in all it's not much more than a formulaic sports movie.

The reason I stood and read a chess article was that during my first year in college I was into it. Before I got to college I had been casually interested in chess but had never actually beaten anyone who knew how to play. So my freshman year at Cal I got some chess books by Bruce Pandolfini (whom I didn't know anything about at the time, but who turns out to have been Josh Waitzkin's teacher) and learned about tactics. Soon I could beat the guys who'd brought chess sets to the dorms with them. It was pretty cool. But at that point I lost interest. Learning tactics had been interesting, but taking the next step looked like it would require learning openings and reading a lot of ponderous tomes. Not only did that seem boring, but it turned out that I didn't actually even like chess. Its rules seemed clunky and arbitrary. When I learned about go, I became a convert: it was much more elegant. Every piece was the same, and you started with a blank canvas and built something. Even so, the same thing happened. I amassed a small collection of beginners' books and learned enough to unlock the game a bit and make it fun. But once I hit the point that I was going to have to study joseki (established patterns of stones) in order to improve, that was pretty much it for me. I wasn't improving anymore, and I didn't want to put in the effort to improve, so I lost interest.

Collectible card games were a big fad for a while, but I was never even tempted to get into them because everything I saw seemed to indicate that one's success was more or less directly proportional to one's financial outlay for powerful cards. Is chess or go really that different, though? There's some innate ability involved, but it does seem that until you reach the highest levels, how good you'll be is largely a function of how much time and study you put into the game. You're dropping 500 hours memorizing moves instead of dropping 500 dollars on Magic cards from Ebay, but either way, which echelon you'll be playing at depends on the size of your investment.

Of course, that holds true in a lot of different arenas. It turned out to be the thesis of What It Takes, for instance: that the presidency goes to the guy who is the most committed to the pursuit, who least lets things like family and privacy and decency stand in the way of saying or doing whatever it takes to win. We see it all the time in various sports — look at the spate of stories arguing that Tiger Woods was such a dominant golfer because from the time he was two years old he had nothing in his life but golf, and that as soon as he started to develop a life outside the sport and got married and so forth, his game fell apart.

I studied pop culture in college, and even ten-plus years after graduating, I still tend to look at movies like this primarily as cultural documents. Once I found that Searching was lapsing into formula, I found myself wondering, hmm, so what does this tell us as a data point? Clearly Josh Waitzkin is being set up as a hero. He's not very well characterized — which I guess isn't terribly surprising, since he's seven and his character is therefore somewhat inchoate — and the antagonist with which he has the climactic showdown at the end is even more of a cipher. But we can still examine how the film comes down on a number of axes:

  • The natural vs. the grind. Josh intuitively grasps chess, playing pieces in combination in his very first game. A big part of the conflict in the movie is the tug-of-war between his two chess teachers: Vinnie, the chess hustler who lives in the park and teaches Josh to play by instinct, and Pandolfini, who appreciates Josh's "art" but thinks he needs to hone his skills with a thorough education in classic chess strategy. The film hedges its bets; in the Big Game at the end, Josh ends up using both teachers' approaches, channeling Vinnie initially for Big Move #1 and Pandolfini at the end for Big Move #2. Still, all in all natural ability gets the nod. Vinnie is cast as by far the more sympathetic of the teachers — the film's stance toward Pandolfini lurches around, turning him into a Karate Kid III-style Bad Teacher one minute and then into a Crusty But Noble Teacher like Mr. Collins in "The Wonder Years" the next. And Jonathan, the kid Josh plays at the end, is the Ivan Drago of chess prodigies, again highlighting Josh as the playground legend working on instinct. Which brings up a related point:

  • Well-rounded vs. pointy. Jonathan does nothing but study chess all day long, under the tutelage of a stuffy British professor type. He doesn't even go to school. Josh, on the other hand, does well at chess when he spends time playing baseball and going to the park, gets into a slump when chess takes over his life, and then gets his mojo back after taking a break from chess entirely and going on a fishing trip.

  • Good sport vs. bad sport. Jonathan laughs derisively at bad moves in games he's watching and mocks the loser in games he's playing. Josh offers Jonathan a draw even after he knows Jonathan has lost. It's a standard Goofus and Gallant setup. However, on the basis of a couple of moments like this, Josh is built up as a figure of magnificent compassion... one of the reasons I found the movie pretty flimsy.

So here's one data point holding up as an ideal a competitor for whom mastery of the game comes easily, so easily that he can rise to the top without spending all his time practicing and can instead stay a well-rounded person with a good heart. A couple of things are interesting about that. First, there's the issue of admiring people for inborn traits, but I've already rambled about that a bit in recent entries. The other is that it's pretty delusional to think that real champions are like this. People who rise to the top of this sort of field when they're young generally spend their entire childhoods preparing for it, whether that means training or growing up on sets in Hollywood or what have you. They're not well-rounded; listen to a teenage pro tennis player give an interview, or run across clips from that Jessica Simpson show, and it is immediately obvious that these people have nothing whatsoever in their heads except tennis or the latest from "Entertainment Tonight". (I actually once heard a tennis player respond to a current events question by saying flat out, "Sorry, I don't know about anything but tennis.") And they also tend not to be mensches. Champions have a killer instinct. It's why they succeed where others fail. And it's also why they are insufferable. I used to follow basketball, and you know Michael Jordan? Idol of millions, once possibly the most famous human on the planet? Complete asshole. Larry Bird? Complete asshole. Read stories about them and you find that these guys seem to do nothing but try to humiliate and destroy everyone around them, on the court or off.

And how about that Bobby Fischer? Funny how these things work. He too had been an idol of millions; America loves a winner. People knew full well that the young prodigy had blown off school to do nothing but study chess, knew that he was a prima donna with nothing but contempt for those around him, but these things didn't count against him — they were part of his legend. Even at the time Searching for Bobby Fischer came out, Fischer was still widely regarded as an eccentric genius. The movie's stance toward Fischer is guarded, its respect for his achievements mixed with concern about the toll matching those achievements might take on a person. But nowadays the idea of modeling a promising young chess player after Bobby Fischer seems not very different from that of helping a young football player follow in the footsteps of OJ Simpson. The headlines Fischer makes nowadays are for violating international law and calling up radio stations around the world to vent his rabid hatred of Jews. Suddenly his ignorance of everything outside of chess and his contempt for others don't seem like such assets.

They've also helped to make the point that, although chess is often classed as an intellectual pursuit, chess ability has no more to do with intelligence than the ability to throw a baseball has to do with physical fitness. I've always found that games actually work at cross-purposes with my ability to think. My head gets into game mode, with a whole different set of mental routines, and it's hard to turn off. Scott McCloud has written about this, getting so wrapped up in chess that he started to see "lines of force" on cafeteria floors; that's the story of my life where these games are concerned. I play Tetris and the shower wall tiles come to life. I play go and start seeing flocks of birds as tesuji problems. Recently I got back into Europa Universalis II after having played it for a grand total of an hour since January 3rd. It's a real-time game, but you can go to a menu and adjust how quickly time moves. You can also click a pause button in the top right corner of the screen. This is crucial when, say, a box pops up announcing that a neighboring country has declared war on you; you click pause, examine the map, move all your armies into position, send your diplomats to call in your allies, and when you've made all the arrangements you need to make, you click the button again and time starts back up. Every time you load up a new game: pause, assess how things stand, unpause, wait for the tide of new events to roll in, pause, see if there's anything you need to react to, unpause...

...and then I turn off the game and start reading web pages and keep thinking, "Crap! Forgot to turn off the clock while I sit and read this!" and automatically go to the top right corner of the screen to freeze time. In the shower I find myself deciding, "All right, time to rinse out this shampoo — better turn the clock back on..."

Oh, one more thing — earlier I suggested that "real champions" are more like Jonathan than like Josh... but isn't this a true story? Uh-huh. Josh Waitzkin's a real guy. He has a web site. It turns out that he never made grandmaster and is now more into martial arts. He also gives talks on "the psychology of competition."

As for my ideal competitor? Meet her.

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