The inspiration for the iconic film, this memoir by the father of a prodigy reflects on chess, competition, and childhood.
Fred Waitzkin fell in love with chess during the Cold War–era showdown between Russian champion Boris Spassky and young American superstar Bobby Fischer. Twelve years later, Waitzkin’s own son, Joshua, discovered chess in Washington Square Park and began displaying the telltale signs of a prodigy. Soon, crowds gathered to watch the six-year-old, calling him a “Young Fischer.” An unstoppable player, little Josh was suddenly catapulted into the intense world of competitive chess.
When Josh first sat down at a chessboard, he was a charming, rambunctious, rough-and-tumble child. Within weeks, he was playing the game with poise and constrained violence, as if there were a wise old man plotting moves inside him. Then, renowned coach Bruce Pandolfini discovered Josh in the park and began to refine the child’s game.
In Searching for Bobby Fischer, Waitzkin recounts his journey with his son into the world of chess, from the colorful milieu of street hustlers to the international network of grandmasters. Looming large over their story is the elusive Bobby Fischer, whose mysterious disappearance from the chess world created a vacuum that would profoundly affect young Josh and his dad.
Josh went on to win eight national championships before he turned twenty—but his achievements did not come without cost. In this memoir, Waitzkin explores his love and ambition for Josh, who faces pressures far beyond his years. Even as father and son travel to Moscow to watch Kasparov challenge Karpov, Waitzkin doubts his own motives: Is he pushing his son too hard? Is the game a joy to Josh, or is he just fulfilling his father’s wishes?
Searching for Bobby Fischer is about more than chess. “A little gem of a book,” it is ultimately about the struggle we all face to love our families and do right by them while also setting our own paths as individuals (The New York Times).
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Searching for Bobby Fischer
A Father's Story of Love and Ambition
By Fred Waitzkin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Fred Waitzkin
All rights reserved.
FATHERING A CHESS PRODIGY
In the spring of 1984, at the National Elementary Chess Championship in Syracuse, New York, a distraught father began to whisper moves to his son. Across the gymnasium floor, scores of other parents crowded close to the chessboards and nervously discussed the games within earshot of the players. Some of the six-, seven- and eight-year-old children asked the parents to be quiet and to give them room to play. Two frustrated fathers began shoving each other, and one took a swing. Eventually the irate tournament director ordered all parents out of the playing room. Soon more than a hundred fathers and mothers were pacing in the hall outside. The absence of desperate parents was a relief to the kids, no doubt, but being locked out heightened the already feverish anxiety of these poor people. Once in a while the tournament director would open the door a crack so the children could have some air. Instantly, scores of parents would scramble for a hand-in-your-face glimpse of their kid's game. I was among them.
When Josh was a baby, I fantasized that he would grow up to be a star basketball player, with me cheering from the stands. Together we would stay in shape, jogging like Joe and his father in Ernest Hemingway's story "My Old Man." Instead my son is a chess player. Since he began playing in tournaments at the age of seven, he has frequently been the highest-rated player for his age in the United States. Our home has become cluttered with gaudy trophies, chess sets, chess clocks, score books, computers and chess literature in different languages. His precocious ability for this board game has seized control of my imagination. I used to worry about my career, my health, my marriage, my friends, my mother. Now I mostly worry about Joshua's chess. I worry about his rating and whether he's done his chess homework. There are tournaments to be concerned about. Has he practiced enough? Too much? In years past, while I sat at my desk struggling to write, I often daydreamed about the Knicks or about going fishing. Now in my mind I play over my son's chess games; his sedentary activity has displaced many priorities in my life.
Josh is very athletic, and at chess tournaments he is eager to play ball between rounds. While I gather up his chess pieces and pencils, it's my job to say, "No, Josh. You don't want to knock yourself out. Why not go over your openings?" Usually at scholastic tournaments he is seated at the number-one board, and other little kids sometimes get sick to their stomachs because they have to play against my little kid. Their parents treat me deferentially, as if I had done something myself. It's an odd position for a father to be caddy and coach for his three-and-a-half-foot, sitting, brooding son.
Josh and I played our first chess games on a squat coffee table in the living room when he was six years old. He sat on the floor, his face cupped in his hands, his eyes at the level of the wooden pieces as if he were peering into a dangerous but alluring forest. By trial and error, more than by my instruction, which he staunchly resisted, he found tricky ways to trap my pieces. He unearthed standard chess strategies and tactics that players have used for centuries. He was good at this new game.
So good that I kept forgetting how old he was. Often I became caught up in the intrigues of combat and found myself trying to take my son's head off. I batted aside his little attacks like Rommel — I crushed him. Josh would come back shaking his fist at me and grimacing. "I must win, I must win," he'd mutter to himself while setting up the pieces. It must have been profoundly confusing for him that I was able to defeat his best ideas. A couple of times I offered him the handicap of knight odds and he cried at my impudence, as if I'd tried to humiliate him. Already he seemed to know that his old man was a hack, what chess players call a patzer.
While I tried to slaughter Josh, I rooted for him to win. The game became a quicksand of passion for us. After an emotional loss, he would pretend not to care, but his lower lip would tremble. Dejected, he'd go off to his room and my heart would be broken. My carefully crafted victories felt like defeats. The next day he would refuse to play me again, not even for a new toy car — not even for candy. I would feel panicky. Maybe during my last blistering attack I'd killed off his baby dream of being the world champion. Or maybe it was my dream, not his. Such distinctions are ambiguous between a father and a little son. This is how fathers mess up their kids, I'd lecture myself. Would you throw a slider to a six-year-old just learning to hit? Or smack him in the belly with a hard spiral? Still, a few days later we'd be at it again. Once after I'd sprung a trap on his queen, Josh announced that he didn't want to become a grandmaster; "it's too hard," he said. Feeling bad, I asked what he would do instead. He announced soberly that he would work in a pizza shop that had a Pac Man machine (he knew how much I hate video games).
In retrospect I suppose that Josh was just beginning to exercise his muscles as a chess psychologist, trying to soften me up, because the following afternoon he was squirming with pluck and purpose, knocking down pieces each time he reached his short arm across the board to take one of my pawns. That day I was feeling like Karpov, carefully building an insurmountable attack. The game took a long time, and while he was considering the position, I took a break for a shower. I was toweling off when Josh called me, beside himself with impatience. I grabbed a beer, checked the position and made my move. Josh smiled, slid his rook over and announced, "Mate in two."
"I doubt it," I said smugly, but every move was a vise. He had me. I hugged him and we rolled on the floor laughing. It was the first time he'd ever beaten me.
A FEW MONTHS later, to find Josh stronger opponents we took him to the Marshall Chess Club on 10th Street, which was within walking distance of our apartment. In the Marshall, the worn Victorian furniture, the unpolished parquet floors, even the dust resonated with brilliant chess games from the past. But in the shadows of late afternoon the tangible presence of chess history made no impression on six-year-old Josh, who picked red gummy bears out of a plastic bag while he observed two chess masters playing speed chess, which is called blitz. While my wife and I chatted with the manager, our son giggled as the players moved the pieces at sleight-of-hand speed and took turns ferociously slamming the time clock after each move.
We were politely informed by the manager that there had never been a six-year-old member of the Marshall, and that it would make more sense to bring him back in six or seven years, after he had learned more about the game and was old enough to read chess books. By now Josh had sauntered to a far corner of the room where a young man with a sallow complexion sat in front of an inlaid oak-and-mahogany chess table and played from a book of Russian openings, silently moving the pieces for both black and white, a mime of chess. Josh didn't know what to make of this; maybe the man was pretending, like playing with dragons and superheroes. After a moment, he asked exuberantly, "Wanna play?" and the young man looked up with a dazed expression.
A few minutes later my little boy was sitting on a telephone book so that he could see over his chess pieces, and as he plunked his men down he chewed gummy bears. Surprisingly, the game went on and on, into the second hour; by then half a dozen members of the club were clustered around the table watching. Down only a pawn, Josh moved almost instantly, parrying attacks, then fidgeting, looking out the window and making faces at his embarrassed and proud parents while waiting for his opponent to move. The young man played the game in a vacuum; he seemed to sift through history before making each decision and never glanced at his miniature opponent.
"Trick or treat," Josh announced finally as he pushed a pawn forward. The young man was perplexed for a moment, then flushed as if he'd been slapped. One of the members couldn't contain his excitement and whispered, "He's won the rook!" The pawn had sprung a discovered attack. Josh's bishop was checking the king, and when it moved away, he'd take the rook.
The young man ran his fingers through his hair, his expression anguished. After five minutes of considering he reached across the table and offered Josh his hand. My son was confused by this gesture; he had not yet learned about resigning.
BY THE TIME Josh was seven, he was clearly a stronger player than his father, and his United States Chess Federation rating was higher than those of half the tournament players in the country. Sometimes my friends would watch while he took me apart. They'd shake their heads, and I'd beam with parental pride. But later that night I'd be studying chess books for a new opening to use against him. Excited as I was by his burgeoning and inexplicable chess talent, I found it unsettling that he could calculate exchanges more accurately and three times faster than I could. He beat me game after game. Losing to him made me feel old and dull. The first time he offered me knight odds I became furious, as if he'd been egregiously disrespectful. There were times when he was so blithely trapping my pieces that I'd want to wrestle him to the ground and pin his arms.
Long before he turned eight Josh knew that he was in a different class than his old man and in our games he stopped trying. While I carefully appraised the possibilities for each piece, he thumbed through books, looked out the window, chewed gum, chatted with his mother, cracked jokes, tapped his foot, sighed. Usually when he played in this indifferent manner he lost. I took his neglected knights and bishops. He yawned when I snatched his unprotected queen: so what, big deal. It made me furious. With a chess player's reasoning and guile he pointed out that he was allowed to lose to me; he was only seven. Sometimes, after he'd carelessly lost a piece, I'd get impatient with him and sweep the chessmen from the board. I yearned to be beaten, but Josh would have no part of it. Once, after a particularly frustrating encounter, my wife, who frequently reminded us that there is life after chess, said, "Don't you understand? He really doesn't want to beat his daddy." The remark stopped me in my tracks. In the heat of our competitions it had never occurred to me that my son might feel uncomfortable snuffing out his old man like an ant.
After that, Josh and I rarely played chess. Instead, I watched his chess lessons or took him to play stronger opponents in Washington Square Park and in tournaments. In my new role as chess coach and fan I've come to feel compassion, if not grudging respect, for John McEnroe's father and for other fathers and mothers like us, a beleaguered fraternity of watchers and worriers who have been unexpectedly sucked into a world in which we are not proficient.
Josh is a rough-and-tumble kid, handsome, with thick brown hair, his mother's brown eyes and a sturdy body. Since the age of three he has called me Fred, though I would have preferred Daddy, and has waited impatiently for me to finish work in the evenings, as if my raison d'être were to throw him passes beneath the street-lights in front of our apartment building. After dinner he badgers me to wrestle with him on the living-room floor and argues to the last instant about how much more time remains before bed. To his schoolmates he is a basketball and football kid, a big eater, a good math student, but more conspicuously a cutup in class, often testing his teachers' patience with tardy or sloppy homework and boisterous practical jokes. They know him as a vicious kickball player, a teaser, a candy maniac, crazy about the Hardy Boys but a scaredy-cat about horror and kung fu movies. To them his chess playing is a vague activity which results in big trophies. One afternoon during a conference with his second-grade teacher, Bonnie and I tried to explain that Josh had a special talent for the game. As we spoke the woman tapped her foot, as if we were describing a different boy from the one who couldn't sit still in his chair and was struggling with reading and writing. We urged her to come to the park to watch him play; he just doesn't seem like a chess player until you see him settle in front of the board, his body stiffening a little, his face becoming serene and ageless, the little boy taking leave for a time while Josh muses over ancient, difficult ideas.
OUTSIDE CHESS CIRCLES, my involvement with Joshua's chess is often perceived as a kind of quirky self-indulgence. I watch the parents of his friends make harsh, silent judgments when I try to explain that he is living a well-rounded life, but that there is simply no time for Little League. "What're you doing with that boy? Chess? He should be taking piano and tennis lessons, playing stick-ball, going to more Yankee games. And what about his religious education? You mean you're keeping him out of Hebrew school because of tournaments?" Such disapproving messages confuse me and make me feel guilty. Perhaps Josh doesn't really like chess, I tell myself. Maybe I'm forcing it on him. When I ask him how he feels about the game he shrugs in a way that suggests he likes video games more. Then I have to wonder if you can really trust what an eight-year-old says he likes. I'm the parent; I must decide what's best for him. But what is best? Many afternoons Josh sits at the chessboard shielding his ears from the siren song of little boys riding their bikes on the sidewalk below our window. When I was seven, I'd have cried if my father had made such a demand. But my father didn't make a little John McEnroe.
ONCE OR TWICE a week, Joshua's chess teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, arrives at our apartment at six-thirty in the morning, and our son stumbles out of bed in pj's wearing a face as dreamy as his infant sister's. But within a few seconds he has assumed the position — two hands under his chin — and is staring bullets at the chessboard. My little Karpov. Watching him sit at the board concentrating like a miniature master has become more exciting to me than watching Michael Jordan whirl 360 degrees and jam. But maybe Josh will hate me when he grows up. Will he spend years talking to a psychiatrist about the trip I laid on him at seven, when he stopped concentrating during a speed game with his eight-year-old friend Nicky Silvers?
WHENEVER JOSH IS about to play in a tournament I'm haunted by the possibility that he isn't any good, that his supposed talent is a house of cards manufactured by a father who thrives on fantasy. I bring a book or the Sunday Times to read while he plays his games. Hours pass with the paper on my knee but I haven't read a paragraph. I'm preoccupied with his game. The last time I looked he was down a pawn. Did he get it back? Is he concentrating? Has he had too little to eat? Too much Coca-Cola? Other parents also pretend to read the Sunday paper while they worry. The kids sit monkishly in front of their chessboards, a roomful of miniature Erasmuses assiduously inscribing moves on score sheets. When the games end, they offer their hands in congratulation like courtly gentlemen. But for the parents the tension is often too great and the veneer of nonchalance cracks. Mothers and fathers wring their hands, feel nauseous and shake. Veins in their foreheads pulse with tension. Sometimes they snap at one another or at the tournament director.
When he was eight, in the final round of the 1984 New York City Primary Championship, my son played against a boy also named Josh. A group of fifteen or twenty parents and children crowded around the game, which would decide the city championship for kids between the ages of six and nine. I was too nervous to watch and stood in the stairwell of the Manhattan Chess Club with a couple of mothers who were nursing babies. Someone asked me why I wasn't watching. "I don't want to make him nervous," I lied. "The position is dead even," someone called hastily from the door. "Josh is using too much time." Which Josh?
At one point I caught the eye of the other Josh's father, an intelligent, gentle man, and we nodded at one another, a little sad that it had come down to this: both of us rooting for an eight-year-old kid named Josh to crack under the tension and make a heart-breaking blunder. This father had been a star running back in college, and it occurred to me that he had probably never felt more pressure on the football field than he did right now, all of those bone-crunching games toughening him up for an afternoon like this, watching his son trying to outthink another kid.
"Josh is running out of time," someone whispered loudly. "Josh is crying," another boy said. Which Josh?
Excerpted from Searching for Bobby Fischer by Fred Waitzkin. Copyright © 1988 Fred Waitzkin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Fathering a Chess Prodigy,
2. Fischer's Legacy,
3. Washington Square,
4. Bruce Pandolfini,
5. The Greater New York Open,
6. Training for Moscow,
7. The Hall of Columns,
8. Mark Dvoretsky,
10. The Pressroom,
11. Not Closed for Repairs,
12. Boris Gulko,
13. The Chess Shop,
14. Josh and Bruce,
15. Playing for the Title,
16. The Championship of Bimini,
17. Losing It,
18. A Chess Fan's Notes,
19. Chess Parents,
21. Searching for Bobby Fischer,
22. The Nationals,
About the Author,