This article by Quah Seng-Sun was originally published in THE STAR, a Malaysian newspaper, on 06 Feb 1998
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THE MAKING OF A GRANDMASTER
So, what did you do during the long holiday break last week? Were you playing chess? Not me, anyway. Rather, I found the long festive break just perfect for some indulgence in other activities.
I'll tell you what I did. Apart from the normal obligatory visits to relatives and friends to redistribute my income, I decided to become a couch potato.
I think during the seven days away from the office, I watched more shows on television than I had ever done in the past two years. Honest!
I caught up with several old movies which I said that I wanted to watch but could not find the time. You may be interested to know that among some of the movies I saw were Black Rain, Gremlins, Dumb and Dumber, Mission Impossible and ... Innocent Moves.
Innocent Moves. I am sure some of you readers will recognise this movie. It is the story of American international master Josh Waitzkin as a seven-year-old child, adapted from the book, "Searching For Bobby Fischer," written by his father, Fred Waitzkin.
I thoroughly enjoyed the show. For once, here was a movie all about chess and chessplayers, and with a very believable storyline.
It opened with Josh Waitzkin celebrating his seventh birthday in Washington Park where he chanced upon a group of chess hustlers. From there, his interest in the game grew.
After moving through various sub-plots, the movie culminated with Josh playing in and winning the United States' national scholastic championship.
I found the most interesting parts of the movie to be the historical footage showing Bobby Fischer arriving in Reykjavik to play his world chess championship match with Boris Spassky in 1972, how he won the title and the general euphoria and adoration in the United States that followed Fischer after his win.
In another historical scene, there was a young Fischer, 14-years-old at that time, giving a simultaneous chess display to a group of adults in the Manhattan Chess Club.
The most amusing scene in Innocent Moves occurred during Josh Waitzkin's first-ever junior tournament. Before the tournament started, the organiser was lecturing not the children, but their parents!
"You are expected to conduct yourselves as adults. You can stand behind your children, but there must be no throat noises, no comments and no eye contact," the organiser said, glaring at the parents.
Yet despite the warning, some of the parents still managed to get themselves too involved with their children's games. There was a scene showing two fathers arguing and shoving one another.
Can this actually be happening in the United States? Parents fighting and quarrelling over their children's games? Really, I can't see this ever happening in Malaysian chess and I hope it will not happen.
The organiser's solution was simple. Before the next round began, he locked up all the parents in a room away from the tournament hall.
When the story first unfolded in Washington Park, I was surprised to see one man who looked very familiar to me. There was no mistaking his features.
The man was Kamran Shirazi who had escaped from the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iran in 1979. What was interesting about Shirazi, now a naturalised American, was that he had played in Malaysia before. I knew him in 1976 when the Penang Chess Association organised the first leg of the inaugural Asian grandmaster chess circuit.
Shirazi was not the only chess player who appeared in the movie. American grandmasters Joel Benjamin and Roman Dzhindzhihashvili also made brief appearances as themselves.
I think one aspect of the movie which was not very apparent was that it was not only about Josh Waitzkin. The show was essentially about Bruce Pandolfini too. Pandolfini is an author of many chess books but it is clear from this movie that he also teaches chess in the United States.
In Innocent Moves, Pandolfini was played by Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley (for his role in Gandhi). His character came across as a man wrought by conflicting emotions. On one hand, he seemed disillusioned about teaching chess but on the other hand, he was very concerned about Josh Waitzkin's progress as a chess player.
Was Kingsley's portrayal of Pandolfini correct? Well, I think we have to ask Pandolfini himself one day. After all, Pandolfini was mentioned in the movie credits as the technical advisor.
The highlight of the movie was, of course, the showdown at the national scholastic championship where Josh Waitzkin found himself playing Jonathan Poe in the final round.
In "Searching For Bobby Fischer," Poe was actually a talented junior player named Jeff Sarwar. I suppose legal issues prevented Sarwar's name to be used in the movie, thereby forcing the producers to use a fictional character like Jonathan Poe.
Poe was a dark brooding kid who, at the critical point of the game, turned down an offer to share the championship title with Josh. Somehow, the movie managed successfully to capture the tension of a chess game and the build-up came when the opposing pawns raced down the edges of the chessboard.
Poe queened his pawn first, only to see Josh queening his and skewering Poe's king in the middle of the board.
All in, Innocent Moves is a fascinating movie. I had seen it three or four years ago, but seeing it again after all these years simply renewed my interest in the game.
The Union High School, Penang, will organise their first Union open tournament on Feb 15. This will be played over seven rounds.
The entry fee for the one-day tournament is RM7 per player, and participants are required to register themselves at the school hall at 7.30am on the day of the event.
Six cash prizes ranging from RM150 to RM20 will be offered. In addition, trophies will be given to the best under-12, under-18, women's and Union High School players.
For more details, contact Lim Chu Ai (tel: 04-226-7067), Lim Swee TIn (tel: 04-262-9824) or Wong Wai Quan (e-mail: email@example.com).
Copyright: Star Publications
(M) Berhad. Thank you. Author: SSQuah
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