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Virtually every American and billions around the planet knew his name

Bobby Fischer Against the World

Docuramafilms DVD

A vanishingly small number of

Americans can tell you the name of the current world chess champion (it’s Viswanathan Anand). In the early 1970s, virtually every American and billions around the planet knew that his name was Bobby Fischer. It no doubt helped that Fischer was American (the title tournament was covered via satellite on ABC), and if not classically handsome, he was at least young—a mere 29 when he won his title. It also helped that he wasn’t just a media-manufactured figurehead; as talking head after talking head attests in Liz Garbus’ documentary

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Bobby Fischer Against the World

, Fischer was the greatest chess player of all time. Which makes what happened to him all the more tragic and Garbus’ film all the more compelling.

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Due to Fischer’s fame from an early age (he was an internationally renowned player before he was through puberty) and the more unfettered media access of the period, Garbus was able to use copious film footage, television coverage, and intimate stills to tell Fischer’s story. She shadows his rise from the isolated child of a single mother growing up almost on his own in Brooklyn, N.Y., to the torturous maneuvering that finally led to him (after a tense delay) sitting down opposite Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky for the first game of a best-of-24 series in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972, in the thick of the Cold War. Endlessly eccentric and mercurial as a person, Fischer proved so on the board against Spassky as well; Garbus does a fine job of illuminating at least part of the deep brilliance—as well as the endless psych-outs—the American used to thump his opponent.

Just shy of 30, Fischer was rich and internationally famous, and had achieved the goal he had spent most of his life working toward. From there, he defaulted his title by refusing to defend it. He became a recluse and spent much of his time obsessing over conspiracy theories; the son of two Jewish parents, he became fiercely anti-Semitic. After breaking an American embargo to play a sideshow rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia in 1992, he became a man without a country, subject to arrest if he re-entered the United States. Fischer’s decline into mental illness and ignominy isn’t easy to fathom, but Garbus makes it all but impossible not to watch.

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