Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) seems like your average little boy with a bowl cut and an affinity for Legos and sports. However, soon his parents discover that he has a special gift for chess and his father (Joe Mantegna) especially wishes to cultivate his skills. He finds Josh a teacher named Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), a former chess champion himself who looks to discipline the boy’s playing so he can be the next Bobby Fischer. He eggs Josh on with the promise of a grand master certificate once he earns enough points, and so Josh listens to his instruction. His dad enters him in tournaments that Josh wins easily and rapidly moves up the ranks, but as always happens the game is no longer fun and the father gets more intent on his son excelling on the highest stage. The trophies stack up, but Josh is missing a lot of school as well as his friends.
On the urging of Bruce, Josh is no longer allowed to play with the men in the park because they play undisciplined. Stepping back for a moment, there is the realization that this is a seven-year-old boy and yet this really happened, and it happens very often. Parents push their kids so much so because they wish for them to succeed, and they want to give them what they never had.The film deals with this circumstance sensibly with Josh’s mom acting as the voice of reason. His father is not a bad man by any means, and it is during one scene in the rain after Josh loses again that we see that. Josh sits on the curb in silence as his dad talks to him and the boy genuinely asks, “Why are you standing so far away from me?” It’s at this moment that Mr. Waitzkin realizes that he has blown things out of proportion and embraces his boy telling him that everything is okay.
Eventually, Josh goes back to playing with his buddy Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne Jr.) in the park and takes some fishing trips with his dad. Despite the initial cautions of Pandolfini, Josh goes into the biggest tournament against his greatest competition without stressing over chess. He just uses all the knowledge he has accrued and plays a beautiful game. Over the course of the game, he deviates from Fischer, winning on his own terms, the way that he wants. He may have been searching for Bobby Fischer, but ultimately he found himself instead and Josh is better for it.
The film is framed with the voice-over of Josh as he recounts the exploits of Fischer which then is juxtaposed with his own story. When the film came out back in 1993, Josh was still playing in his early teens and Bobby Fischer had come out of solitude to finally beat his old rival Boris Spassky. Both were master chess players, but with two very different stories.
This is certainly a feel good story, but it has wonderfully nuanced characters that make it a step above other such films. Max Pomeranc is wonderfully innocent and unassuming with his big doe eyes and a slight lisp. Kingsley and Fishburne on their part give two worthy performances as his two starkly different mentors with dueling strategies. It is, however, Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen who have the most important roles as Josh parents because their hopes and struggles are universal for all parents. We can empathize with them and the life they want for their son. It’s then the film becomes about far more than chess. It’s about family, friends, and being true to yourself.