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
- 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
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
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?
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