Movie: “Searching For Bobby Fischer”

In the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, the child chess prodigy Josh has two teachers: the Fun Teacher and the Real Teacher.   (Am I revealing my bias yet?)   The Fun Teacher is the guy in the park who makes chess fast, freewheeling, aggressive, carefree – fun.   Under him, Josh gets to exploit his natural talent against less talented opponents.  It’s fun to bring your queen out early, to slash and burn, to make decisions in an instant and see them yield victory.  (Presumably, it is not fun to consistently lose at speed chess.   This part was not covered in the movie.)

The Real Teacher has a different set of values and a different agenda for Josh.   He wants Josh to be able see far ahead in the game.  He sets up an empty board and makes Josh play out positions in his mind.

These two teachers are in conflict with each other, and they pull Josh in two different directions.   The Real Teacher, in particular, wants Josh to stay away from the Fun Teacher, who he says is teaching Josh the bad habit of moving without thinking and taking stupid risks.    He’ll be ruined, says the Real Teacher; he wants to play like this, says the Fun Teacher.  Structure versus flow.   Discipline versus spontaneity.   Josh’s mom sides with the Fun teacher, while Josh’s dad sides with the Real teacher.

Somehow, the work of the Real Teacher gets associated with mean-ness.   You must hate your opponent, he says to Josh.   Josh, who is sweet, does not hate his opponent, and Josh’s mom, like all moms, does not want Josh’s human soul destroyed in a ruthless pursuit of victory.

This is a gratuitous addition to the role of the Real Teacher on the part of the screenwriter, because there is no necessity to it.   There is nothing intrinsic to the methods or content of the Real Teacher that requires hate for the opponent.  In fact, the opposite is true;  it has been the Fun Teacher who has been saying to Josh “don’t play the board, play the man”, focusing Josh on trash-talking his opponents and watching their mental state in order to rattle them and catch them in time trouble in the speed games.   It has been the Fun Teacher who has taught Josh the fun of destroying your less talented opponent.  The work of the Real Teacher would imply the opposite, that the board is what matters, not the other player.   So this extra emotional tension is added on, illogically, simply so the duality of the two teachers will augment the mom-dad drama.

It may be the thesis of the screenwriter that both teachers are necessary, and I suppose there is some truth in that.   A little boy, prodigy or not, needs to enjoy himself.   Most of the audience may walk away thinking both teachers are equally valuable, like yin and yan.   But that’s not the conclusion you should get.

In the climactic scene of the movie, Josh is in the last round of the big tournament against the opponent who is his nemesis and who intimidates him.     Josh has already made the error he learned from the Fun Teacher, when he brought his queen out too early and lost her, and in most chess games that would mean the game is lost.   But, somehow he has recovered, and late in the game the opponent makes a blunder on the board.  Mom, dad, and both teachers are watching the game on a closed circuit television.   They can talk to each other, but Josh cannot hear them.   The Real Teacher sees the blunder instantly, of course, and reacts; no-one else sees it, not even Josh.   We watch Josh’s face as he studies the board.   He senses something is open to him, but he cannot see it.   The Real Teacher says over and over, in a whisper to himself and to the Josh on the screen:  “don’t move until you see it.  Don’t move until you see it.”

Then, of course, Josh does see it, and he wins the game.   The skill, the vision the Real Teacher drilled into him with great discipline and work, saved him.    He sees what the teacher sees.   It is finished.

This moment caught my imagination.  It’s  the dream of every good manager, or parent, or pastor,  —  indeed, of every leader.    Given enough time on the clock, we’d like all those under our authority to not move until they see it.   We don’t want to just issue memos and have people comply, like pieces on a chessboard, even when we have the ability to do so.   The sincere and complete passing of a vision is the point, and nothing less.   I’d rather have you sit still, and do nothing, than comply with my opinion just because I say so; there is no joy in being obeyed.   But the joy of passing the vision — that’s the game.

In the real workplace — or church, let’s say — there is often not enough time on the clock to pass the full vision.   So there is a place for trusting a leader before you can see what he sees.   But this is only from time pressure.   We should work to create enough space and leisure to be able to say  “don’t move until you see it”  — and get to finally see them see it.

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