A great film was made on the subject of a young chess prodigy named Josh Waitzkin based on the book by his insightful father. Being something of a chess enthusiast myself and being one of the many who were left flabbergasted by Fischer's incredible domination of the chess circuit in the early seventies. I also played money games of Speed chess in Toronto And along with some hacker friends had conducted our own search for Bobby Fischer during his reclusive years. Sadly we found out some details of just how troubled a man he had become
and a victim of his own views at times as well as some grotesque media exaggeration.
I consider it a duty of sorts to debunk some of the inaccuracies of the film which certainly based on reality but there a good deal of misrepresented facts that require clearing up. Before I do that, I just want to reiterate that I am a fan of this film, and I think that given some of the delicate issues at hand any fact tinkering done seems only done out of good sense and in avoidance of any legality risks and it is hard to fault anyone for just being sensible and quite likely sensitive to the real people in that regard.
First, there is the championship match between Josh and seemingly spoiled child opponent named Johnathon Poe in which Josh offers his opponent a draw and Poe refuses before Josh delivers the final blow emerging victorious.
In actual fact Josh did his opponent thus and offered a draw and his opponent played him to a draw and they shared the championship together. In the film Josh is the sole winner. It is also left out the fact that Sarwer was two years younger and had previously beaten him in their only prior match.
Now there are those who might mistake such observations as being unfavourable toward the real Josh Waitzkin, but allow me to say that I have played the chessmaster game he is involved with I hold him in a very high esteem. He is bright, insightful and his understanding of chess among other things is infallible. There will be no disrespecting Josh in this review. It Should be pointed out that content decisions are rarely left for the subject of a film to decide.
In fact my motivation is more out sympathy for the his opponent whose real name is Jeff Sarwer. Jeff and his sister Julia were the subject of some incredible life experiences of which was a seemingly lesser event.
Jeff's being a Canadian is never mentioned and it is my personal belief that Jeff was the stronger player at the time, and closer to being the "next Bobby Fisher" in far more ways than Josh ever could and I'll give my reasons.
First, Josh is from what can only be called a good family that looked out for his well being in every sense of the term, and kept his interests rounded allowing to pursue his choices as they came. He also is accomplished in the marshal arts, and has other interests.
Bobby Fisher was raised by his mother and had a strained relationship with her, and he became so obsessed with chess that all other things suffered, his studies, his respect for the establishment and trust of people in general.
Of course he had good reasons for many of his concerns but there were signs that his psychological state was at least questionable on occasion.
There was an article in Vanity fair by John Colapinto, a very well respected writer, about Jeff Sarwer and his unconventional family that suggested child abuse and other oddities might be involved, by the homelife of the Sarwers. The Ex-wife of Michael Sarwer may have aided in this view, as I've not been able to get more than a summary of the article, it is unfair to comment further.
In Canada the child Protection Agency hounded the Sarwers over their nomadic lifestyle that valued freedom, independent thinking and did not involve going to public school. Home schooling was less common then and It seems more than fair to say that chess was a fair part of the education as both children were incredibly astute at an early age. Two year old Julia taught 4 year old Jeff how to play.
Bobby Fishcer was at least in some regards a genius. There can be no denying that he was at the very least, a chess genius. He attained a rank of 2785 which at that point in history had not existed before. In twelve game matches against grandmasters , which are easily forced to draws if a GM is losing, he won by scores of 6-0 three times in a row which is as absurd as getting a bunch of your friends together for a pick up game of hockey and then playing for the Stanley cup and winning every game of the playoffs four games straight and taking home the cup, with your friends. It can't be done. In the eyes of most, he achieved the impossible and upped the ante several times.
He was making a mockery of the entire chess world and not apologizing for it. He didn't beat them, he pulverized them beyond recognition. He was destroying careers, and national pride. I always found it to have been a particularly bad year for Russia to have lost the summit series to Canada in hockey and then lose their stranglehold grip of word domination in Chess to an American in the same year. 1972 was probably wiped off several soviet calendars if the behaviour of the KGB is to seen as an example.
So confounded were they by Fischer's dominance, his unprecedented and incomparable dominance, that they went to extreme measures to arrive at a sensible explanation. Measures that were so far reaching but not limited to sealing garbage bags and labelling them as "Air from Stage" to see if the air had been tampered with affecting their players or of the U.S government was communicating messages electronically to Fishcer's brain.
If that isn't proof of genius, I don't know what is.
I believe also that Jeff Sarwer was a chess a genius. Like Fischer, his creativity and unconventional approach gave people fits, left them confused and so baffled that he became widely known for his exhibitions on Canada day cross the country. Not attending conventional school probably allowed for more Fischer like chess dwelling time than Josh could afford maintaining the more well rounded upbringing.
Josh also plays a structured game and seems incredibly logical in both his study and application. My personal thought is that while he was surely a "natural" and about as high end a talent as one could hope to find, I believe his studying and analyzing and love of process are the keys to his game. He may differ. I believe that Jeff Sarwer also like Fischer had to suffer some strange and unfair horrors from the media.
Accusations of child abuse in this politically correct era can be more damaging to a person or family that most can even imagine beyond the initial shock. Jeff and Julia were taken from their father's care under all kinds of accusations being conditioned to idolize their father, having Jeff's head shaved once a year as a lesson about about vanity. This and other suggestions that tend to cause people's imaginations to leap off the deep end and convict without further evidence did enough damage that the Sarvers were on the run and had to assume an anonymous lifestyle.
The problem with the whole child abuse allegation is that once the children were put into foster care, they ran away form them only too eager to return to their own father. Now from all I've ever studied about abuse is the cases of removal rarely involve kids running away to return if there are real problems unless the problems are worse elsewhere. The other problem with the accusations is that the children seem incredibly intelligent and well adjusted as adults today. Personally, I don't buy it.
Jeff seems to feel that the pressure from the media to sell their product results in distortion and lies more often then not and that one can only trust the direct source. Sounds pretty accurate to me.
Jeff has a website that one can search where he answers questions, just search him on Google.
This is just my take and I don't want to be unfair to Josh Waitzkin, who, I think is brilliant so If I were asked who is better, while my gut feeling is to say Jeff Sarwer, I suspect he has played a lot less chess than Josh in recent years as he has his own business. The only real answer I could give is that someone should put up some big money and ask these two brilliant chess experts to settle the last draw, and replay a game as adults.