Thursday, April 23, 2009

Searching for Bobby Fischer and Jeff Sarwer

I think Searching for Bobby Fischer was a decent film as far as films go and as a chess fan I was happy to see a film made about chess, but it is unfair to one person, Jeff Sarwer.

First of all lets look at how things really were during the time setting of Searching for Bobby Fischer and "Waitzkin-Sarwer". (Around 1985-1986)
Bruce Pandolfini's prized student was Jeff not Josh, after all Bruce at the time said that Jeff was by far the most talented kid he ever taught. He even gave Jeff and his sister Julia free life memberships to the Manhattan Chess Club for their talents, I don't believe Josh got the same. Next we have more proof of what is true prodigy talent and what isn't. Jeff was playing 40 boards simultaneously at the age of 8, was Josh? No way. Jeff and his sister were so talented that they were analyzing the world championship matches between Karpov-Kasparov with a panel of Grandmasters for 2 seasons on PBS. Josh? No. Jeff was the subject of a huge GQ article in September 86 about him being the future of chess,(The next Bobby Fischer) Josh? No.

Jeff was called the knight who would end the long soviet domination of chess. He was a huge ambassador for the game at the time, being loud, famous in the media, loving the spotlight and loving street chess hustling because he essentially grew up as a street kid who's family sometimes had no home but their car. He played speed chess for money in Washington square park, among the drug addicts and hustlers. (His winnings I am sure helped support Jeff's family by the way). Was this Josh's well to do family's story? a story about the Waitzkin's good connections among Manhattan's high society? No. Frankly, Josh's upbringing was simply not as interesting or challenging as Jeff's.

Don't get me wrong it seems clear that Josh was a talented, well coached chess kid pushed by his father, but Jeff was the opposite. Jeff was a once in a generation chess prodigy who was so good that he won the world under 10 championships at the age of 8 with virtually no proper coaching. On top of that he was able to perform well even while living through hell with a crazy father who abused him, controlled him, starved him, and eventually (tragically for the chess community) took him away from the game he loved so much when people were getting mad about Jeff not being allowed the proper training necessary to become the best he could be.
His father never allowed this because he was a jealous control freak who didn't want anyone else taking over Jeff's life.

Jeff went through media hell, mainly caused by a huge negative cover article in Vanity Fair magazine about his father's abusive ways. It even forced the Sarwers to go into hiding and change their names, after Jeff and Julia ran away from a foster home and back to their dad. Perhaps that was the opportunity Fred Waitzkin was waiting for. After all he was bitterly obsessed with the fact that Jeff's massive successes and popularity made his son Josh look very average.
And without lying about Jeff's character Searching for Bobby Fischer wouldn't have been a success. After all who would want to see the true Josh Waitzkin story, which was about a 2 year older kid (Josh) who suddenly became second best to a true up and coming prodigy (Jeff) who didn't take him seriously, so this prodigy (Jeff) slips up and allows a draw and shares the national scholastic title with Josh but Jeff quickly moves on anyways from the "major upset draw" and then continues to dominate the chess scene including becoming the world - 10 champion and afterwards becoming a big media celebrity? How does Josh's true character look in that honest scenario? In the big shadow of Jeff's.

That's why the film Searching for Bobby Fischer should have been about Jeff, and the Waitzkin's and everyone else in the New York chess community back then knows it. Jeff had the talent, the fame, the charisma,the accomplishments, and all the odds against him in his personal life and still became a world youth champion!(Something Josh never achieved even after trying to do so for many years after) Josh was never a big rival for Jeff, after all Jeff crushed Josh in their only other tournament game that they played (Once again unlike Fred's lie in his book that Josh won a tournament game against Jeff) and Jeff even mentioned on that he used to give Josh 5 to 2 time odds in speed chess.

So Josh continued playing chess and had moderate success later on in the 90's, but after getting the best coaching available, training his hardest and not being talented enough to become a Grandmaster (GM title, top 500-1000 players in the world) let alone World Champion, he gave up the game as is normal for a talented chess kid who was pushed into the game by his dad but never had world champion potential. I suppose it would be the same in Tennis or many other sports.
But Jeff was a true prodigy who did have adult World champion potential! Anyways it is clear to me that the 1980's New York chess prodigy story is all about Jeff and Julia Sarwer to anyone who was tuned in at that time period.

On a side note, the Chessmaster series should trade in Josh's face for Jeff's! If Jeff would be into that kind of thing that is. Chess-wise I think Jeff would easily beat Josh right now and Jeff has barely played since he was a kid. Judging from Jeff's 3rd place chess performance in Poland in 2007 he is comfortable being right up there with the Grandmasters with seemingly little effort at all. But talented people tend to make things look effortless.

Please come back to be an ambassador for chess Jeff! Those who are big fans of yours remember you and your sister for the charming, brilliant young kids you were on TV, and in real life. You inspired, entertained and are sorely missed. Your true character was nothing like Jonathan Poe in the film.


  1. Funny, after reading the text above something occurred to me. That draw which Josh had with Jeff he has used to make money on with all of his projects: Chessmaster (GM edition), Searching For Bobby Fischer and and The Art of Learning. You almost have a feeling that without this draw he would have nothing worth selling in his life.

  2. What you do have wrong was that Jeff and Josh shared the championship \, Josh had won enough earlier in the tourny to secure a win with a tiw or better. With the Draw Josh won the title, not shared.

  3. Wrong Keith, they shared the title. Just check out the photo in July 1986 Chess Life Magazine with Jeff and Josh as 1986 scholastic primary co-champions. They had a co-champion system for ties, same as the year before that when 2 kids tied and were also co-champions. You must be making the silly mistake of taking seriously information from Fred Waitzkin's book or something. Even Larry Evans wrote in his Chess Life column years ago a quote from Bruce Pandolfini mentioning how he was surprised that history was in the making with that draw, since after all they shared the national title and Jeff went on to win the world-10 a couple of months later.

  4. I think it's pretty ironic that the movie changed the final match so that, instead of Waitzken battling back from a deficit to draw the game, they have him generously offer "Jonathan Poe" a draw and, when the villain of the movie refuses, goes on to beat him. Ironic because, although that never happened to Sawyer, it DID (according to his own account in AoL) happen to an older Waitzken in a match for a European championship -- he was offered a draw in the final (which would have given him the title), but refused, and wound up losing the match. Poetic justice?