Skip Dine Young Ph.D.

Movies and the Mind

Winning Moves in "Searching for Bobby Fischer"

Wise parental teachings from the world of chess

Posted Feb 27, 2015

Source: Google Images

The capacity of movies to be used as teaching tools has recently been captured in the publication of Teaching, Learning and Schooling in Film: Reel Education, edited by Daniel P. Liston and Ian Parker Renga. This book features chapters on particular movies like Whale Rider and Waiting for Superman, as well as commentaries on the cinematic tradition of the heroic teacher in films such as Blackboard Jungle, Dangerous Minds, and Freedom Writers.

I, along with my colleagues Kevin O’Connor, Lisa Comparini, and Anne-Ruth Allen, contributed a chapter entitled, “Dilemmas of Becoming in Searching for Bobby Fischer.” Our entry explores the 1993 movie that is based on the real-life story of chess prodigy, Josh Waitzkin. The movies portray the problems experienced by young Josh as he falls in love with chess and then gets caught in the often contradictory forces exerted upon him by his school, his parents, and his chess mentors.

We found the film to be extremely rich in its potential to be “equipment for living”—the idea first advanced by the rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke that literature and other types of stories have the capacity to not only comment on life but to actually contribute to life. There are many lessons to be learned as Josh fights a narrow view of chess as being simply about “beating your opponent” to seeing chess as a form of human activity that is about developing and maintaining relationships. The movie presents many threats to Josh’s kindly nature as his chess mentor, a bitter ex-prodigy himself, tries to make Josh into a kind of winning machine. Josh cycles through periods of depression and withdrawal from chess, only to reaffirm his passion for chess and his compassion for his opponents in the end.

The most interesting element to me personally was the portrayal of Josh’s father, Fred, played by Joe Mantegna. The importance of this character is not surprising given that the film is based on a book written by the real-life Fred Waitzkin. Parallel to Josh’s journey, we witness Fred go through several phases himself: from shocked, casual chess player (when his pre-teen son easily beats him) to reluctant facilitator (as he searches for a suitable chess teacher) to fervent chess parent cheering his son to victory.

The importance that Fred places on his son’s success is revealed in his response to his son’s teacher after she comments on how balance is important in a child’s life. He is offended at the implication, and he tells her off: “I’ll tell you how good he is. He’s better at this than I’ve ever been at anything in my life. He is better at this than you will ever be at anything. My son has a gift. He has a gift and once you acknowledge that, then maybe we will have something to talk about.” Clearly Fred is experiencing a great deal of vicarious satisfaction from the skill his son shows on the chessboard.

At least since Freud, the importance of the young boy’s identification with his father has been widely acknowledged. The robust nature of this phenomenon can be affirmed by anyone who has ever witnessed a grade school boy dress like his father, take up his father’s interests, adopt his dad’s favorite sports team, etc. Generally, this move is considered a healthy developmental stage in which a child’s identity is given a jump start by borrowing the parent’s values and beliefs.

The identification of the parent with the child is not as easily understood and is probably not as healthy. That doesn’t meant it isn’t common, however. Unfortunately, the image of fathers losing control—becoming hysterical, demanding, and even abusive—during their offspring’s sporting events is all too familiar (made even more so when the events occasionally go viral on the Internet). Part of what seems to be going on here is that the parent starts to validate themselves in their child’s success, perhaps to make up for feelings of failure and regret in their own lives. This seems to be part of what Fred is semi-intentionally trying to tell Josh’s teacher. Not coincidentally, the point of Josh’s greatest emotional struggles corresponds to Fred’s increasing obsession with his son’s gifts.

It is not until a confrontation with his wife, Bonnie, that Fred fully realizes what he is doing. She gives a Fred an ultimatum—she will end her marriage before she allows Josh to lose his basic “decency.” This moment proves to be a wake-up call for Fred. He steps back and begins to reconsider Josh’s overall well-being. He encourages Josh to return to other childhood pleasures like baseball, and he moves Josh’s trophies from a shrine in the living room to Josh’s bedroom where he can better own his personal accomplishments. Josh’s interest in chess is subsequently reinvigorated, and he goes on to more success in the chess world while maintaining the decency his mother cherished about him.

In retrospect, I think that I internalized this film as a lesson in parenting that has turned out to be important to me. While I first saw it years before I had children of my own, it always stayed with me. When the first inklings of competitive parenthood began to creep into my experience—how early and well can my child walk, talk, read, etc.?—this movie sat at the back of my consciousness, warning me to back off, that my children’s development is about them, not me. My children are now teenagers, and I find myself hoping that I have heeded the cautions of this wise film.  

Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at