Film peeks into world of speed chess

October 06, 1992|By New York Times News Service

It was thrilling news for chess fans when they heard that Bobby Fischer would come out of retirement to play his old rival, Boris Spassky. For Scott Rudin, the producer of a Paramount film called "Searching for Bobby Fischer," the timing left something to be desired.

"I picked up the newspaper, grabbed my heart and did a Redd Foxx take," said Mr. Rudin, who was in the chess corner of Washington Square Park in Manhattan, where the movie was being shot. "We were halfway through the filming and I thought, are we going to have to change the story?"

Panic subsided quickly. A few scenes in which the characters discuss Mr. Fischer's long absence from the chess world would have to be rewritten. But the heart of the film, which stars Joe Mantegna, Larry Fishburne, Joan Allen and Ben Kingsley, would not be affected.

Based on the book of the same name by Fred Waitzkin, "Searching for Bobby Fischer" tells the story of Mr. Waitzkin's chess-prodigy son, Joshua, who discovered his calling in Washington Square Park, and describes the joys and sorrows of being a chess parent.

Mr. Fischer is not a character in the film. He is no more than a distant, ghostly presence, whose legend and genius float mysteriously over the tiny corner of New York where he once played in the 1950s.

"In the end, I decided, the match can only be good for us," Mr. Rudin said, "although he's less a metaphor now, more a tangible thing."

The film, to be released in the spring, provides a window into the world of speed chess, or blitz, a frantic mutual assault in which each player has a limit of no more than five minutes, and as little as one.

For decades it has attracted the expert and the curious at the southwest corner of the park. Some come to play and wind up staying for years. "It's a weird, 'Twilight Zone' situation," said Mr. Fishburne, who plays Joshua's mentor, a brilliant, drug-abusing chess hustler named Vinnie. "You can check in any time, but you can never leave."

The film, which culminates in a full 70-move championship game that pits Joshua against his 8-year-old nemesis, could be described as "The Karate Kid" plays chess. The young would-be champion learns street smarts from Vinnie and traditional technique and discipline from Ben Kingsley, who plays Bruce Pandolfini, Joshua's real-life chess teacher.

Both the children and the chess posed unusual challenges. "Early on we decided we wanted chess kids, not actors," said Steven Zaillian, the film's director and screenwriter.

Mr. Rudin, who faced a similar casting problem with "Little Man Tate," said he called his casting director for that movie, Avy Kaufman. Ms. Kaufman came up with two highly rated chess players in the New York public schools, Max Pomeranc (pronounced like Pomerantz), an 8-year-old who plays Joshua, and Michael Nirenberg, a 9-year-old who plays his rival.

Mr. Pandolfini developed more than 200 games for use in the film, which will include nearly 50 scenes in which chess is played.

The requirements were highly unusual. The games had to satisfy plot demands; they had to look right from the director's standpoint, and they had to be genuinely interesting for chess players.

"We had to have the kind of mistakes that a gifted 8-year-old would make," Mr. Pandolfini said. "They don't play perfect chess. They make a brilliant move here, a stupid move there, but stupid in an interesting way."

The physical style of play also had to be convincing, just as in any sports movie. "The way they grip the pieces is essential," Mr. Pandolfini said. "There's a certain snap to the wrist, and there's also a technique in which you capture a piece and hit the clock with it."

Mr. Pandolfini gave Mr. Fishburne good marks -- "He grabs the pieces nicely, bangs the clock nicely" -- but reserved his highest praise for Tony Shalhoub, who flew into New York from Los Angeles for one scene in which he suffers defeat at the hands of Joshua

"You would not be able to tell he was not a top-ranked player," Mr. Pandolfini said. "He even resigned elegantly, knocked over his king very elegantly."

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