Searching for Bobby Fischer

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Searching for Bobby Fischer
Searching for bobby fischer.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySteven Zaillian
Screenplay bySteven Zaillian
Based onSearching for Bobby Fischer: The Father of a Prodigy Observes the World of Chess
by Fred Waitzkin
Produced byWilliam Horberg
CinematographyConrad L. Hall
Edited byWayne Wahrman
Music byJames Horner
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • August 11, 1993 (1993-08-11)
Running time
109 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$12 million[1]
Box office$7,266,383

Searching for Bobby Fischer, released in the United Kingdom as Innocent Moves, is a 1993 American drama film written and directed by Steven Zaillian in his directorial debut. Starring Max Pomeranc in his film debut, Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley, and Laurence Fishburne, it is based on the life of prodigy chess player Joshua Waitzkin, played by Pomeranc, and adapted from the book of the same name by Joshua's father, Fred Waitzkin. The film was nominated for Best Cinematography in the 66th Academy Awards.


Seven-year-old Josh Waitzkin becomes fascinated with the chess players in Washington Square Park. Josh's mother, Bonnie, is initially uncomfortable with her young son's interest, as the games in the park are rife with illegal gambling and homeless players, but eventually allows Josh to play a game with a disheveled player for $5. Although Josh loses, Bonnie is amazed that Josh understands the rules of chess, despite having never been taught them. Another park player, Vinnie Livermore, alerts Bonnie to Josh's advanced talent in the game.

Josh's father, Fred, asks to play a game with his son and swiftly defeats him. It emerges, however, that Josh deliberately lost to spare his father's feelings. When Fred prompts Josh to play a rematch honestly, Josh effortlessly defeats him.

A friendship blooms between Josh and Vinnie, who becomes a mentor to Josh. Fred seeks out the services of Bruce Pandolfini as a formal chess tutor for his son. Bruce takes an immediate liking to Josh, but disapproves of many of the maverick tactics he has adopted from Vinnie's tutelage. In particular, Bruce disapproves of Josh's tendency to bring out his queen too early, and warns Fred that such careless tactics will weaken Josh's performance in organized chess tournaments.

Against Bruce's advice, Fred enrolls Josh in a chess tournament. Josh wins; the first in a slew of tournament victories for him. Fred develops an unhealthy obsession with Josh's chess career, causing friction between Fred, Bonnie, and Josh's school teacher. Josh, upset by the changes he has noticed in his father, begins losing tournaments.

As a remedy, Fred dedicates Josh entirely to Bruce's teaching regimen, and at Bruce's request, Josh is forbidden from playing any more games with Vinnie. Bruce's relationship with Josh grows cold and misanthropic as Bruce seeks to harden Josh's competitiveness. When Bruce berates Josh by showering him in "meaningless xeroxes" of a certificate that Bruce had previously told Josh was a special award, Bonnie kicks Bruce out of the house.

Fred and Josh reconcile, with Fred assuring Josh that he loves his son, even if he isn't a chess champion. Josh is allowed to resume playing chess with Vinnie and his enthusiasm for the game returns.

Josh attends the National Chess Championship tournament, where he and Bruce reconcile. In the final game, Josh faces off against Jonathan Poe, another young prodigy whose talent has intimidated Josh throughout the movie. Josh's use of Vinnie's reckless tactics causes him to lose his queen early in the game; however, they later earn him an advantage when he is able to claim Jonathan's queen.

Jonathan makes a late-game blunder and Josh draws on Bruce's disciplines to recognize that he can seize an inevitable victory. Instead, Josh offers his opponent a draw. Jonathan, not realizing his own predicament, refuses. The game proceeds and Josh wins.

The film ends with Fred and Bonnie looking on proudly, as Josh encourages his young friend, Morgan, by telling him: "You're a much stronger player than I was at your age."


Some famous chess players have brief cameos in the film: Anjelina Belakovskaia, Joel Benjamin, Roman Dzindzichashvili, Kamran Shirazi, along with the real Joshua Waitzkin, Bruce Pandolfini, Vincent Livermore, and Russell Garber. Chess master Asa Hoffmann is played by Austin Pendleton; the real Hoffmann did not like the way he was portrayed. Chess expert Poe McClinton, still a park regular, is seen throughout the film. Pal Benko was supposed to be in the film but his part was cut out. Waitzkin's real mother and sister also have cameos. Bobby Fischer appears in newsreel footage.

The Russian player in the park (played by Vasek Simek) who holds up the sign "Game or Photograf Of Man Who Beet [sic] Tal 1953 • Five Dollars", was based on the real life of Israel Zilber, who would regularly sleep in the park, awakening only for a "five dollar game" that he would demand in a Russian accent (reduced to "two dollar game" during slow times if requested) and which he would invariably win. Zilber also played the Queen's Gambit as White.[2][3] Zilber, Latvian Chess Champion in 1958, defeated the teenage Mikhail Tal in 1952,[4] and during most of the 1980s was homeless and regarded as one of the top players in Washington Square Park.

Waitzkin's main chess foil character in the film, Jonathan Poe (played by Michael Nirenberg), is based on chess prodigy Jeff Sarwer. When Sarwer was asked what he felt about his portrayal in the film, he stated:

At the end of the day it was a Hollywood film, a work of fiction, and it helped popularize chess more so that's always a good thing. But I have a lot of distance to the actual book and film, the way I was portrayed was nothing at all like how I was in real life so what's the point in comparing myself to it?[5]

Sarwer versus Waitzkin match[edit]

At the end of the film in the final tournament, Josh is seen playing a tough opponent named Jonathan Poe. The character Jonathan Poe was not the actual name of Josh's opponent; his real name was Jeff Sarwer (a boy younger than Josh). In September 1985, Josh first played and was defeated by Jeff at the Manhattan Chess Club. In November of the same year, Josh returned to the Manhattan Chess Club and beat him in a rematch.[6] The film depicts their third match in the 1986 US Primary Championship. Near the end of the game, where Josh offers Poe a draw, Poe rejects the offer, the play continues and Poe loses. Sarwer rejected the draw offer in the real-world game as well, but the play continued to a draw due to bare kings. Under tournament tie-breaking rules, Waitzkin was determined to have played more challenging opponents during the overall competition and was awarded first place, but they were declared US Primary School co-champions.[7][8] Sarwer went on to win the 1986 World Championship Under-10 (Boys), with his sister Julia winning the World Championship Under-10 (Girls).

Poe versus Waitzkin endgame[edit]

"Poe vs. Waitzkin"
c8 black rook
d8 black bishop
a7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
b6 black knight
e6 white king
f6 white pawn
e5 white rook
g5 white bishop
e4 white knight
h4 white pawn
c2 black king
Black (Waitzkin) to move

The diagram depicts the game position in the film, with Waitzkin playing the black pieces, before Waitzkin offers Poe the draw. This position did not occur in the real Sarwer–Waitzkin game; it was contrived by Waitzkin and Pandolfini for the film. The following moves are executed:

1... gxf6 2. Bxf6 Rc6+ 3. Kf5 Rxf6+ 4. Nxf6 Bxf6 5. Kxf6 Nd7+ 6. Kf5 Nxe5 7. Kxe5??

In the October 1995 issue of Chess Life, Grandmaster (GM) Larry Evans stated that the position and sequence were unsound: Poe (playing White) could still have drawn the game by playing 7.h5 instead. Furthermore, the modern Lomonosov 7-piece endgame tablebase shows White has a win after 4...Bxf6, by placing Black in check, sacrificing White's rook for Black's bishop, and queening safely.[9]

7... a5 8. h5 a4 9. h6 a3 10. h7 a2 11. h8=Q a1=Q+ 12. Kf5 Qxh8 0–1

White resigned.

Alternate endgame[edit]

An alternate endgame position had been composed by Pal Benko. It was supposed to have been used in the film, but was rejected on the day before the scene was filmed because it did not use the theme that Josh overused his queen.

f5 black pawn
f4 white pawn
c3 black knight
h3 black king
h2 white bishop
h1 white king
Black to move

In this position, Black should play:

 1... Ne2

after which White is in zugzwang; he must play either 2.Bg3, losing the bishop to 2...Nxg3+, or 2.Bg1, allowing 2...Ng3#.[10]


The book and the film have each received positive reviews from critics. Waitzkin's book was praised by GM Nigel Short,[11] as well as chess journalist Edward Winter, who called it "a delightful book" in which "the topics [are] treated with an acuity and grace that offer the reviewer something quotable on almost every page."[12] Screenwriter and playwright Tom Stoppard called the book "well written" and "captivating".[13]

The film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 42 reviews, with an average rating of 8.10/10. The site's consensus reads: "As sensitive as the young man at its center, Searching for Bobby Fischer uses a prodigy's struggle to find personal balance as the background for a powerfully moving drama."[14] On Metacritic the film has a score of 89 based on reviews from 23 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[15] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade "A" on scale of A to F.[16]

Roger Ebert gave the film a score of four stars (out of four), calling it "a film of remarkable sensitivity and insight", adding, "by the end of [the film], we have learned […] a great deal about human nature."[17] James Berardinelli gave the film three stars (out of four), calling it "an intensely fascinating movie capable of involving those who are ignorant about chess as well as those who love it."[18]

Bobby Fischer never saw the film and strongly complained that it was an invasion of his privacy by using his name without his permission. Fischer never received any compensation from the film, calling it "a monumental swindle".[19]

The film was nominated for Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall) at the 66th Academy Awards for 1993 but lost to Janusz Kaminski who won for Schindler's List, which was also written by Steven Zaillian. It won the category at the American Society of Cinematographers the same year. The film also ranked No. 96 in AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers.


  1. ^ Eric G. Carter (1993). "1993–94 Film Releases". Archived from the original on July 29, 2001. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  2. ^ "Searching for Bobby Fischer (Josh Waitzkin) Trivia (March 11, 2006)". January 5, 2008. Archived from the original on January 5, 2008. Retrieved January 8, 2023.
  3. ^ "The chess games of Israel Zilber". Retrieved January 8, 2023.
  4. ^ "Mikhail Tal vs. Josif Israel Zilber, LAT-ch (1952)". Archived from the original on October 1, 2007. Retrieved May 26, 2007.
  5. ^ Shahade, Jennifer (January 8, 2010). "The United States Chess Federation – Lost and Found: An Interview with Jeff Sarwer". United States Chess Federation. Archived from the original on January 19, 2019. Retrieved July 28, 2017.
  6. ^ Wall (billwall), Bill. "Searching for Bobby Fischer (the movie) Trivia". Retrieved January 8, 2023.
  7. ^ pp. 214–22 of the book
  8. ^ "Jeff Sarwer vs. Joshua Waitzkin, US Primary Championship (1986)". Archived from the original on November 5, 2007. Retrieved August 17, 2011.
  9. ^ 5.Re2+ Kd1 6.Kxf6 Kxe2 7.h5 Nd7+ (7...a5? 8.Ke6 and White can win the pawn race safely) 8.Ke7 Ne5 9.h6 Ng6+ 10.Kf7 Ne5+ 11.Kg7 Nd7 12.h7 Nc5 and White queens.
  10. ^ Bruce Pandolfini, Endgame Workshop: Principles for the Practical Player, 2009, p. 64, Russell Enterprises, ISBN 978-1-888690-53-8
  11. ^ The Spectator, April 8, 1989, pp. 30–31
  12. ^ "Searching for Bobby Fischer (Josh Waitzkin) by Edward Winter". Retrieved January 8, 2023.
  13. ^ The Observer, April 2, 1989, p. 45
  14. ^ "Searching for Bobby Fischer". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on April 16, 2021.
  15. ^ "Searching for Bobby Fischer". Metacritic.
  16. ^ "SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER (1993) A". CinemaScore. Archived from the original on December 20, 2018.
  17. ^ Ebert, Roger (August 11, 1993). "Searching for Bobby Fischer". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on March 11, 2013.
  18. ^ "Review: Searching for Bobby Fischer". Retrieved January 8, 2023.
  19. ^ Brady, Frank (2011). Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (1st ed.). Crown. pp. 267–68. ISBN 978-0-307-46390-6.

Further reading[edit]

  • "20 years of Searching", Chess Life, August 2013, pp. 38–41

External links[edit]