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‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 11, 1993

"Searching for Bobby Fischer" does for chess what "The Karate Kid" did for martial arts, albeit with considerably more complexity and class. An odyssey into a mythic kingdom of castling and queens, it celebrates the spiritual triumphs of a prodigy, a beautiful little boy who revels in the magic of simply doing a thing well.

Based on the real-life adventures of 7-year-old Josh Waitzkin (new discovery Max Pomeranc), the movie plays off the mysterious disappearance in the '70s of the legendary chess player. Like the young Fischer, Josh grows up in New York playing three-minute speed chess with the zany obsessives in Washington Square Park. Unlike Fischer, Josh is a modest, seemingly well-balanced Wunderkind with more interest in gamesmanship than in destroying an opponent.

He's a dream child, at least as portrayed by 8-year-old Max, a captivating munchkin with eyes like new stars and a sweetly unnerving presence. Best of all, he's 100 percent puppy dog tails -- a little bit of boy and a whole lot of sneakers. Among the nation's top 100 players in his age group, Max also has the moves of a bona fide clock-slapping chess blitzer.

Based on a book by Josh's father, Fred Waitzkin, this adaptation by Steven Zaillian begins with the little boy's first encounter with a blitzer, Vinnie (engaging Laurence Fishburne), and his subsequent love affair with the lightning-fast game. Word of Josh's genius spreads and soon the grandmasters, like wise men seeking the manger, come to see if Bobby Fischer has been reborn. One of these adepts nearly breaks Josh trying to force him into a classical mold.

A rigid disciplinarian, Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley with a displaced Irish accent), believes he sees Fischer's finesse in Josh's style and strategy. He agrees to tutor Josh, but insists he give up his games with the trash-talking Vinnie, the embodiment of the black knight in the child's eyes. "It just makes my job harder," says Pandolfini to Josh's mother, Bonnie (Joan Allen). "Then your job's harder," says Bonnie, who is fiercely protective of her son's right to a childhood.

Bonnie frequently finds herself at odds with her husband, Fred (Joe Mantegna), who quickly turns into chess's answer to the murderous cheerleader mom from Texas. Writer-director Zaillian milks Fred's brief madness for its poignancy, but mostly for its comic lunacy -- as in a deftly choreographed series of scenes at a kiddie chess tourney. A montage of gamboling kids concludes with a lecture by the organizer (Dan Hedaya) on acting like grown-ups. The twist is he's talking to the parents.

A writer making his debut behind the camera, Zaillian has penned the screenplays for "Awakenings" and more recently "Jack the Bear," both tales of childlike adults and the innocents in their care. Of course, the same can be said of "Searching for Bobby Fischer," which emphasizes the kids' vulnerability to the craven needs of parents and coaches. They're pawns, really.

Zaillian may have gone overboard in terms of pore-exploring close-ups, but he's used great care when itcomes to the bittersweet details, such as a little chess wizard clutching her stuffed bunny before sitting down to play. A wonderfully acted, heartwarming family film, it suffers from a goopy score, but not in the least from its potentially stalemated subject matter. Zaillian can make a chess tournament look like the Threepeat.

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