"He didn't teach you how to win, he taught you how not to lose. That's nothing to be proud of. You're playing not to lose, Josh. You've got to risk losing. You've got to risk everything. You've got to go to the edge of defeat. That's where you want to be, boy - on the edge of defeat."
Two years ago I had the honor of being a contestant on Sports Jeopardy with Dan Patrick. And yes, for one day I was a Sports Jeopardy champion. I mention this because this week’s film played a small role in my success. I doubt you will ever see a more exciting film about chess than 1993’s Searching For Bobby Fischer. From writer director Steven Zaillian, who is best known for his screenwriting work which includes an Oscar for adapting Schindler’s List, comes a gem of film with an all-star cast that includes Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney, William H. Macy, and David Paymer.
The film details the burgeoning career of a young chess prodigy named Josh played by Max Pomeranc. His parents, played by Mantegna and Allen, are both supportive of this gift as well as intimidated. There’s a charming early scene where the son lets his father win to spare his feelings. But the young boy’s talent cannot be hidden for long. His early tutelage comes from the chess tables at Washington Square Park courtesy of Laurence Fishburne’s Vinnie, who is fast-talking and in your face. Eventually, its decided that Josh needs more refined schooling and Ben Kingsley enters the picture as the cold and detached chess master, Bruce Pandolfini.
The film is about the differing styles of these two teachers as well as Josh trying to navigate the world of chess tournaments and just trying to be a kid. Additionally, Josh’s parents try to find the right balance between loving and nurturing their son while trying to develop his talent, not for monetary gain, but because it’s a gift. In one scene, Josh’s school teacher, played by Laura Linney, expresses concern with Josh’s chess preoccupation. In response, Joe Mantegna proclaims, “He's better at this than I've ever been at anything in my life. He's better at this than you'll ever be, at anything. My son has a gift. He has a gift, and when you acknowledge that, then maybe we will have something to talk about.”
The scenes at the tournaments are exciting as well as surprisingly funny. In one scene, the parents have gone a bit over-the-top in their support and are sent to the basement of the school where the tournament is being held for a group “time-out.” The film does build to a climatic tournament where Josh faces off against another formidable prodigy like himself. Without spoiling too much, Josh makes a completely un-telegraphed gesture to his opponent at a critical moment. In the end, he proves himself to be a champion in more ways than one.
As I mentioned earlier, this film played a small role in my game show success. The night before I was due to fly out to LA for the taping, it was on cable. It’s one of those films like Die Hard or The Shawshank Redemption that I have to watch if it’s on. Towards the end of the film after spending time with Kingsley, Fishburne notes that Josh is being taught to “not lose” and that he needs to risk everything. For some reason, this scene truly resonated with me that night.
I had spent so much time studying as well as working on game strategy if and when a Daily Double comes my way as well as how to bet in Final Jeopardy. Fishburne’s words kept reverberating in my head about the need to play to win and avoiding “playing to not lose.” In that moment I knew that there may
come a moment when I may have to risk everything and go all in. Little did I know this would come to fruition. #TrueDailyDouble
Chess may not be considered a sport by most but Searching For Bobby Fischer would definitely make my list of the best sports movies. It’s smart, exhilarating, tense and builds up to a superb championship match. Sounds like a sports movie to me.
In case you’d like to read more about my time as a Sports Jeopardy champ: https://joseturnsforty.wordpress.com/2016/11/02/i-lost-on-sports-jeopardy-after-i-won/