Why 'Searching for Bobby Fischer' Is a Smart Choice for Your Students
A Great Selection for Character Education
There are some great videos for older elementary students that will help launch a unit of study, or support the content in a unit of study. I use the 1993 movie Searching for Bobby Fischer for the sake of my character education building initiative each year, and because its unique plot supports my philosophy of education.
I say 'unique plot', because typically in this genre of film (those involving sports and competitive games), the main character(s) overcome odds to defeat a wickedly portrayed opponent and everyone lives happily ever after -- Except for the opponent, but we don't care about the opponent because he or she has been portrayed as someone not morally worthy of winning, even though in real life, players on all sides are united by their humanity and their common goal...that is to win.
A Review of the Film & Why It Works in the Classroom
In Searching for Bobby Fischer, based on a true story written by the father of the gifted chess player Josh Waitzkin, we get to meet not an underdog as is typical with this genre, but someone who is the best at what he does, but has no interest in being the best at the expense of anyone else losing.
His large eyes and compassionate gazes, caught up close as he watches a losing baseball team sullenly leave, or staring longingly at his opponent whom he knows has no chance of beating him, convey a boy's longing to simply be able to play chess for the fun of it.
However, his doting father loves the chess competitions, and it's him and the other parents in the film that are portrayed in an antagonistic fashion. Neurotics who demand their children use their gift of chess to be the best.
Nowhere (except in one case, and even in that case we are allowed to see why the character is so cold) do we see children portrayed as sneering opponents or sharp-tongued arrogant cardboard cutouts. Just the opposite, the children in this film are portrayed innocently, carrying stuffed animals with them to competition, sucking their thumbs, expressing worry and self-doubt, and wanting only to play the game, not to win.
It's Not About the Competition
I love this movie for kids because it's not about competition even though competition plays a part in it. If anything, it illustrates the dangers of what competition can lead to - dehumanization and separation.
Josh Waitzkin, the ten-year old boy at the center of the film refuses to view his opponents with hatred or wariness, despite the best efforts of his teacher (played by Ben Kinsley) to force this upon him. At the climax of the national tournament Josh, knowing that he will win against the one boy who was portrayed as a cold antagonist, offers a draw to spare the boy the loss.
The heart of the movie is expressed beautifully when Josh is told by his teacher prior to this match that he must hold his opponents in contempt. Josh says, "I don't want to." His teacher says, "Bobby Fischer held his opponents in contempt." Josh's response was, "I'm not him."
I play this movie for my fifth graders because it brings them into the world of a smart, sophisticated, athletic and in every way wonderful boy who seems to have everything, but wants nothing but to play. It's the one movie where humanity is valued over the game.
I talk with my kids about this aspect of the movie and highlight all these points in discussion and children always love the movie. The soundtrack is great, the acting is suberb, much of it done through expression on the part of the young Max Pomeranc, and the story is wonderful.
Unfortunately for every fifty children's movies released in the US, there is only one movie like this that has the grace to portray children in such a positive light. Most movies about children have them running the show, smarter than is believable, rude, crude, and violent.
Searching for Bobby Fischer, directed by Steven Zaillian, is a winner for classroom viewing and a lesson in what is wrong in the world of competition.