ON JULY 11, 1972, regularly scheduled TV programming was interrupted to bring viewers an ABC Sports Special: coverage of the World Chess Championship.
Unpack that. Can you imagine anything of the sort happening today? A nationally televised chess game? Classified under "sports"?
It certainly was a different world: Nixon was president, the Cold War was just beginning to thaw, and the Soviets had been chess champions for 24 years straight, training competitors with the same fervent attention given to their Olympic athletes. Then along came Bobby Fischer. A poor Brooklyn prodigy raised by a single (and negligent) politically obsessed mom, Fischer was playing chess at six, became a grandmaster by age 15, and before he was 30 became internationally renowned for facing Soviet champ Boris Spassky at the World Chess Championship.
One of the world's most famous people: a chess player. Different times.
Bobby Fischer Against the World is a documentary that not only explores those times and that weirdly thrilling championship, but Fischer's extremely complicated inner world, and the razor-thin line between genius and psychosis. Tons of archival footage and interviews with cohorts, competitors, and Fischer himself tell his story, which could've played out like a cerebral Rocky—if the chess champion's own magnificent mind hadn't turned so viciously against him. His astonishing ability to see thousands of potential moves at once eventually evolved (or rather, devolved) into full-blown paranoia that turned this world-beloved champion into a reviled, ranting, anti-Semitic expat.
However, the beauty of this documentary isn't in the judgment of its subject, but its empathy. Shots of an alone, ruined Fischer linger upon his eyes—eyes that reveal a man no longer in control of the whirring calliope in his head. An unstoppable machine unable to perform any task except calculation.