Bobby Fischer Against the World reviewed

“Chess doesn’t drive people mad: it keeps mad people sane,” the journalist and former British chess champion Bill Hartston once said. The documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World, currently being shown in cinemas around the country, does much to confirm his view.

Bobby Fischer Against the World tells the story of his World Championship match against Boris Spassky from the Soviet Union. Fischer won the title, but never played in an officially sanctioned match or tournament again.

But the film also tells the story of Fischer’s life before and after his match with Spassky. As a child Fischer did not know who his father was and had effectively separated from his mother by the time he was 16.

In 1975 Fischer was due to defend his world title against another Soviet, Anatoly Karpov. Even though the authorities met most of his far-reaching demands, he refused to take part and forfeited the World Championship.

The only serious chess Fischer played after that was a match against Spassky in 1992, when both players were much weaker than they had been 20 years before. This match was played in Yugoslavia during the civil war, in defiance of international sanctions. As a result was threatened with arrest in the United States if he ever returned there.

He was later detained over his immigration status in Japan, before being offered sanctuary in Iceland. He died there, the scene of his greatest triumph, in 2008.

Once he gave up serious chess in 1972 Fischer’s behaviour became increasingly strange He came to believe in conspiracy theories and made many anti-Semitic and anti-American statements. The day after 9/11 he was interviewed on a Philippine radio station and expressed approval of the atrocity.

Chartered Psychologist Dr Victor Thompson, who is qualified as both a sports psychologist and a clinical psychologist, says:
"To become expert at and to perform at the highest levels in sport or other performance domains such as dance, music and chess, requires much dedication to your passion. In sport and physical performance domains, thousands of hours are spent practicing so the performers moves become automatic, reactive and more exact. In chess, the thousands of hours spent practicing - or playing - helps the player to develop a larger repertoire of moves, more elaborate strategies and to consider more plays in comparison to a more novice player. 
 
As for the elite athlete, the practice provides structure to the players day. Competitions and key games provide a focus, excitement (plus stress) and give motivation and purpose to all the practice. Being a successful chess player, the best in your club, highly ranked nationally or even a champion, gives status among fellow players in the chess world, of even beyond in newspapers and other media. Being a successful chess player contributes to your identity as it is something that you do a lot, think about a lot and what other people know you as.
 
Once a top player stops competing or stops playing, they are left with a void and difficult transition to a different life. This life is one without the structure provided by the practice; without the goals, challenge, meaning and purpose provided by competitions; without the reminders of your high status; and with a reshaped identity. 
 
As a consequence it is no wonder that chess champions, or champions in other performance domains, might struggle with their life after they stop competing. What can make this even more challenging, is if the player believes that their career was cut short before their goal was reached or for some other reason it had a bad ending. Then of course, we should also consider the influence that the performer's personality and mental health status or resilience has on how they coped with competitive situations and their transition into retirement.
 
Maybe instead of thinking about why some top performers unravel after they quit competing, it would be better to wonder why it is that so many don't unravel?"

 

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