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‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ – Public Spaces & Chess

 Chess in Public

Last week we explored the exceptional documentary Brooklyn Castle and the lives of its incredibly talented young chess players four years on. This week, we’re going to be looking at another film, again ostensibly about chess, but rather than devote the entire post to it, we’re going to use it as a jumping off point for something very different: chess in public spaces, with New York City as our focal point. And with summer just around the corner, the timing couldn’t be better!

Searching for Bobby Fischer

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

In Steven Zaillian’s 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, the young chess master, Josh Waitzkin, played with wonderful sensibility by then eight-year-old Max Pomeranc (at the time of filming, he was in the top 100 U.S chess players), is introduced to the game whilst playing in Washington Square Park. Here he meets Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne), a speed chess hustler who begins teaching Josh unorthodox play styles, much to the chagrin of his mentor, Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley). There are so many directions to take with Zaillian’s debut it was difficult to settle on one topic. We have its biographical roots, the source book having been written by the real-life Waitzkin’s father, Fred Waitzkin (here played by Joe Montegna), a writer for the New York Times. Fred Waitzkin and Bruce Pandolfini alone make fascinating subjects in the world of chess. And then there’s the film’s thematic elements. Searching for Bobby Fischer is totally invested in the question of genius and its place in an individual’s life and is eloquent in its sentimental approach to it. Where does it take us, and is there a cost to that? The quiet pain of Kingsley’s Pandolfini carries the weight of that question as much as Josh Waitzkin does. And, of course, there’s the titular Bobby Fischer, a spectral presence in the film, the oddity of which is more haunting than reassuring in Josh’s journey to realise his potential without sacrificing his decency. And a lot of that comes down to his time playing chess in the park.

Chess in the Park

Josh plays Vinnie in Washington Park
Josh plays Vinnie in Washington Park

New York City and chess are a frequent pairing in cinematic language, and it’s a fairly iconic image. But Fischer takes the time to investigate the nature of playing chess in a public space, and it proves essential to the film’s empathetic core – something its antagonists, singularly obsessed with the game, conspicuously lack. His mother, Bonnie (Joan Allen), is understandably nervous when Josh takes an interest in the park’s players, who are seen gambling for drugs and hustling their opponents. But there’s a vibrancy to the proceedings in the speed at which the games are played, the swelling crowd of spectators, and the systematic breakdown of social barriers as we’re drawn into the game. Josh starts playing there for the love of the game and his love of the people with whom he is playing – a far cry from the halls of the Metropolitan Chess Club. Pandolfini asks if Bonnie and Fred can stop Josh from playing in the park, but having grown to appreciate their worth, Bonnie declines. “No. It’d kill him not to play in the park, he loves it.” The message couldn’t be clearer.

As Chess in NYC’s slogan goes, “More than a game, it’s our culture.”

Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park; Photograph by Alexander Porter
Washington Square Park; Photograph by Alexander Porter

A section of Washington Square Park – a hub for all kinds of public activities –  is decked out in stationary chess tables, and attracts a variety of players from across the social spectrum. There’s something here for everyone to enjoy and become involved in, and again we come back to the idea that ran through Brooklyn Castle – chess takes many forms, but is, above all else, a powerful educational tool. It’s an obvious and perhaps even trite point, but the notion of chess being available to everyone in a delineated public space (for $5 a pop!) engenders a sense of social compassion.

The park went through a series of renovations throughout the 20th century, and saw a $16 million refurbishment in 2007. It has continued to be an enduring icon of New York City. Significantly, Bobby Fischer, much like Waitzkin, played in Washington Park, tutored by his mentor, William Lombardy, who lived close by.

However, Washington Park’s chess culture took a hit a few years ago with the closure of the Village Chess Shop in Greenwich Village (a block down from the park), which had opened its doors in 1972, the year in which Bobby Fischer won the World Championship in a match against the USSR’s Boris Spassky. The store sold a variety of chess-related products, and arguably contributed enormously to New York’s chess scene.

Bryant Park

Manhattan’s Bryant Park, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and 40th and 42nd Street, is another great chess locale. Here, there is a dedicated Bryant Park Games station, where visitors can enrol to play a variety of different games, chief among them for our purposes is chess! This includes Chinese Chess, called Xiangqi, which, whilst bearing many similarities to its Western variant, features some slightly different rules.

Central Park and the Check and Checkers House

Central Park is a must-see destination in Manhattan, which offers, among many other sights, a place to play chess, checkers and backgammon. The Check and Checkers house provides visitors with pieces for games should they wish to play.

An Enduring Legacy

What is perhaps most striking about staging many of the scenes sequences in Washington Square Park, and, more broadly, chess in the public, is that without it, there may not have been a Joshua Waitzkin. There may have been no book, no film, and no enduring legacy in that regard. That’s just speculation, of course. I’m sure there are many ways in which Waitzkin may have discovered chess, but the possibility that his walk through the park could have been experienced sans chess tables does open up the idea that chess and Waitzkin may never have come together. The real-life Waitzkin describes his first experience of encountering chess in the park thusly: “I remember the shape of the pieces, I remember the experience of chess as this jungle that pulled me in, and I remember this feeling, this bizarre feeling, of discovering a lost memory, as if I’d seen chess before.” It’s an interesting and powerful statement, one I think that is suggestive of a child’s ability to immediately latch on to something and begin learning without actually realising it, which is something Waitzkin himself similarly describes. Indeed, Waitzkin dismisses the idea of being a “prodigy”, instead arguing that chess – and anything else, really – is something that anyone can learn, providing they’re willing to put the work in. It’s the 10,000 hour rule – apply a substantial amount of time and effort to a given skill, and you will absolutely master it. Chess permeates the city of New York and creates a kind of cultural memory, a resonance that many people are familiar with, as the game is married to our image of the city. It gave us Joshua Waitzkin, and all the possibilities in which this post could have been.

The opportunity to access that in a public space is absolutely essential, engendering learning, social compassion, and great scenes with Laurence Fishburne and Max Pomeranc moving pieces around the board at a blistering speed!

One comment on “‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ – Public Spaces & Chess”

Yeah that’s nice and all but where is that club room with all the tables and boards that he went into where his mom signed him up for membership and coach lessons at? Is it the Marshall chess club?

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