It’s no snap making chess a subject of high drama for nonfanatics. Sportswriter Fred Waitzkin found a way by telling about his chess prodigy son, Josh, in the book Searching for Bobby Fischer. Now writer Steven Zaillian (Awakenings), in his directing debut, turns Josh’s story into a riveting screen adventure. Seven-year-old Josh, played by Max Pomeranc, shows promise of becoming as good as Fischer, the reclusive champ he idolizes. Josh can amaze a speed-chess hustler like Vinnie (a vivid Laurence Fishburne) or a strict teacher like Bruce Pandolfini (a superb Ben Kingsley). For Josh’s dad, solidly played by Joe Mantegna, it’s harder to overlook the squeeze that chess is putting on Josh’s childhood.
Pomeranc, a top-100 chess player himself, delivers a finely tuned performance without child-actor hamming. He subtly draws us into the joy and frustration that competing brings to Josh. More perversely fascinating are the scenes on the periphery of the chess world, where former prodigies and champs cling obsessively to the glory days. Credit Zaillian for risks that go beyond making a stand-up-and-cheer movie about a sit-down game.