A photo from “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” a documentary on the chess legend at Sundance. Photographer: Harry Benson/Donna Daniels Public Relations via Bloomberg

Chess champion Bobby Fischer in “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” a documentary that is playing at the Sundance Film Festival. Source: Donna Daniels Public Relations via Bloomberg

While flying to Utah for the 2008
Sundance Film Festival, documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus read
the New York Times obituary on chess legend Bobby Fischer.

“I immediately decided to make a movie about him,” Garbus
recalled. “I love chess and he was such a fascinating person.”

Three years later, Garbus’s “Bobby Fischer Against the
World
” is making its world premiere at Sundance in Park City.

The captivating film, which will air on HBO in July,
follows Fischer from his lonely childhood in Brooklyn, New York,
to his death from kidney failure in Iceland at the age of 64.

It covers Fischer’s meteoric rise to become the youngest
chess grandmaster, his historic 1972 victory over Boris Spassky
in Reykjavik, Iceland, his indictment for defying a United
Nations embargo to play a 1992 rematch in Yugoslavia, and his
descent into madness.

Garbus tells the story through archival footage,
photographs, letters and interviews with chess champions and
Fischer’s friends, including talk-show host Dick Cavett and
photographer Harry Benson.

Garbus, a 40-year-old New Yorker whose husband Dan Cogan is
a producer with three films at Sundance, spoke with me on a deck
outside a Park City art gallery that was showing intimate photos
Benson took of Fischer in the early 1970s.

Soviet Machine

Warner: What made the 1972 match against Spassky such a
cultural phenomenon? It was such a big deal that it was
televised by PBS and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

Garbus: The Cold War played a significant role. The Soviet
Union
dominated chess and used it to demonstrate its
intellectual superiority over the West. Then here comes this Brooklyn boy who taught himself chess in his apartment to take
on the Soviet machine.

Warner: Give me an idea of how much attention it got?

Garbus: It was the highest-rated PBS show ever and “Wide
World of Sports” interrupted prime-time programs with updates.
They did a survey of bars in New York City, and more people were
following the chess match than the New York Mets.

Warner: Fischer grew up not knowing his biological father
and was left alone at 16 when his mother moved out of their
apartment. How much did that scar him?

Garbus: Bobby obviously didn’t have a great home life, but
I also think he had a disposition for a personality disorder. He
became obsessed with chess, and nothing else really mattered to
him.

Mental Illness

Warner: Three years after winning the world championship
against Spassky, he forfeited it by refusing to defend his title
and retired from competitive chess. Is that when he started to
decline mentally?

Garbus: Bobby was singularly focused on chess, and when
that was gone, his life didn’t make much sense to him anymore.
He had no support system — no close friends, relatives or loves
— and he drifted into mental illness.

Warner: When Fischer was a fugitive living overseas, he
made a lot of anti-Semitic and anti-American statements,
including praise of the 9/11 terrorists. Was that him speaking
or his mental illness?

Garbus: I don’t believe Bobby hated Jewish people. He was
Jewish himself. He was suffering from paranoid psychosis.

Warner: Your original editor, Karen Schmeer, was killed a
year ago when she was hit by a car speeding from a drugstore
robbery.

Garbus: I was here at Sundance and Karen was in New York
editing the film. In the last note she sent me, she said she had
a dream that she was hanging out at Sundance with Bobby Fischer.
I just wish she was here to see how it turned out.

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Bloomberg News. The
opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story:
Rick Warner in Park City, Utah, at
rwarner1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Manuela Hoelterhoff at
mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.