Home Page arrow Chess Life Online arrow 2011 arrow February arrow Grandmasters Go Sundancing
Grandmasters Go Sundancing Print E-mail
By GM Joel Benjamin   
February 11, 2011
WIM Iryna Zenyuk, GM Alexander Shabalov, GM Joel Benjamin, WGM Jennifer Shahade, Photo Shannon Bailey for World Chess Hall of Fame and Museum (Like on Facebook for more photos.)
I haven’t had much chance to travel in the last year.  With a toddler at home, I didn’t want to dump on my pregnant—and working—wife.  When Debbie was ordered to go on bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy (she spent her last month in the hospital), I had to cancel a lot of plans.  No coaching at the World Youth, or the Grade Nationals.  Two new tournaments debuted in my adopted home state of New Jersey, and I couldn’t play in either one.

Before my life reached the “single mom” phase, I did manage one dream getaway to Curacao in July (and Debbie was quite understanding in letting me go).  What can I say?  What GM wouldn’t enjoy a tournament with a $1500 first prize and only one IM and two FMs in competition?  [I scored 8 ½ out of 9]  The biggest attraction for me, though, was being in a peaceful place with no responsibilities where I could sleep as much as I wanted to.  When my laptop broke down just before the tournament started, I was actually relieved.  I was forced to not prepare for games I didn’t really need to prepare for anyway. [And I’ve only just brought the laptop to the Geek Squad.]

After Amy was born in December (she’s perfectly fine, and so is Debbie), and sleep deprivation reached new levels, I had reconciled to staying put for a while.  Then I got an e-mail from Jennifer Shahade about an excursion to the Sundance Film Festival.  Now it is true that I have some film experience, “starring” in Searching for Bobby Fischer and Game Over:  Kasparov vs. the Machine.  But I’ve never even been to a film festival before, and I wondered why I should be at this one.

The World Chess Hall of Fame and Museum will be opening in St. Louis (the Hall relocating from Miami) in September.  This new building, like the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, is part of the chess renaissance that Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield have brought to Rex's hometown, and by extension, to the national chess community as well.  The St. Louis group (I know they write it Saint Louis but I can’t bring myself to write those extra letters) saw an opportunity to promote chess with four visiting grandmasters as the instruments.

Debbie gave me the thumbs up, so I formed the fearsome foursome with Jennifer herself, Alex Shabalov, and Iryna Zenyuk.  The new documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World would debut at the festival, and we would be among the first to see it on the big screen.  After that, we would play chess at various sites, talking about the museum, the Fischer film, and the greatness of chess in general.  Plus we would attend a few parties.  All in all, not a particularly onerous assignment.
The whole trip was put together rather late in the day, so the logistics were hardly routine to orchestrate.  The four grandmasters (technically Iryna is a Woman’s International Master but she was upgraded for the weekend) all managed to arrange plane tickets and the Museum found hotel rooms for everyone.  Park City fills up during the festival, but the massive and opulent Westgate resort had rooms, and what rooms they were!  Mine was so luxurious that I felt guilty to stay there without Debbie.  Upon arrival Thursday evening, Jan. 20th, I immediately set about photographing parts of the room.  The suite had a large bath with Jacuzzi and a steam shower.  There was a fireplace, two televisions, a stereo, and a washer/dryer.  The full kitchen had a fridge, oven, microwave, dishwasher, and coffeemaker.  I was sensing overkill when I noticed the toaster, electric can opener, blender, and casual china (mugs, bowls, small and large plates) for eight.

The first activity on the agenda, appropriately enough, was seeing the movie.  I was not expecting to be blown away, mainly because I knew so much of the story already.  I began playing chess, to a certain degree, because of Fischer’s exploits.  Watching the Fischer-Spassky match on television in 1972 sparked my fledgling interest in the game.  My first tournament, the Greater New York Scholastics in December 1972, drew a record 1000+ players, an early blast of the Fischer boom.

Posters.jpgResearch was the key to success for this film.  Acclaimed documentary maker Liz Garbus painstakingly dug up an incredible amount of footage of Bobby Fischer.  It is one thing to be aware of statements and events, and quite another to hear the words from Fischer’s mouth while seeing his appearance from various stages of his life.

The images were framed and punctuated by copious interviews.  I felt a few of the subjects were unnecessary or misused.  Susan Polgar knew Fischer when he lived in Hungary and could have spoken of those experiences, but no comments about those times were included.  And Sam Sloan just doesn’t belong in this film, period.

I think I could have added something by discussing the impact the 1972 match had on youngsters starting out in chess.  Hikaru Nakamura also would have been a good interviewee.  As someone who is poised to claim something of Fischer’s legacy (his victory in Wijk aan zee brings him to #7 in the world) I would like to have heard something from him.  And of course, Boris Spassky would have been the cherry on top of the sundae, but he apparently did not want to be interviewed for this film.

In my book, two personalities on camera really stood out here.  The first star is Dr. Anthony Saidy.  Saidy’s studio comments were consistently insightful, but I was particularly riveted by the footage from 1972, when Saidy was desperately trying to get his flaky friend to show up in Reykjavik.  We see a young and handsome Saidy from 38 years ago fending off prying journalists while announcing that only Bobby knew what Bobby was going to do.  Saidy did all this for Fischer while his own father was dying.  It made me think “hero,” without any Hollywood treatment necessary.

Larry Evans also delivered the good and bad about Fischer with great earnestness.  I also enjoyed seeing him in his vintage Wide World of Sports jacket (the trove of news footage hits home how big that match really was).  Fischer had a huge impact on Evans’ life; he was sometimes criticized for dwelling too much on Fischer in his professional writings.  His tragic, premature death late last year lent a poignancy to his performance in the film.  I wasn’t close to him--Evans didn’t establish good relations with players of my generation--but I felt especially saddened that he never had the chance to see the film.

A complete rendering of all that was Fischer could easily stretch out to unwieldy lengths.  In keeping it down to a standard ninety-minute length, Garbus had to leave many subjects uncovered.  She kept the narrative tight around the Fischer-Spassky match of 1972 and the subsequent descent into the madness that had long threatened to overwhelm him.  Along the way, she introduced elements of his back-story, particularly childhood experiences that shaped him later in life.  There is little about his early chess triumphs; we don’t see the brilliancies against the Byrne brothers, the dominant U.S. Championship performances, the failed earlier tries for the world championship, and the matches versus Taimanov, Larsen, and Petrosian.  All of those things are fascinating, but something had to go.  It is a testament to how complex and amazing Fischer’s life was that it defies an entirely neat summation.  What is in the film is truly powerful.  The portrait that emerges is objective.  His great genius is celebrated while his dark side is honestly presented.

OpeningSept8.jpgNext we had to clear our heads and help host a reception at the Thomas Kearns McCarthey Gallery.  Festivalgoers were treated to an exhibit of photographs of Fischer by Scottish photographer Harry Benson.  Fischer mistrusted many people but clearly felt at ease with Benson, allowing him to take remarkably candid pictures.  While a handful have appeared in print, many of the shots were being publicly shown for the first time.  They show Fischer’s love for athletics (one pic is on the blue side) and animals (Benson said Fischer related to animals better than people). Benson's photos will also be displayed at an upcoming Winter/Spring 2012 exhibit at the World Chess Hall of Fame and Museum.

We ate hors d'oeuvres and sipped drinks while chatting with film crew, fans, and a few members of the press.  It was fun to skittle with some of the talented young chessplayers of Utah and members of the University of Utah chess team.

The rest of the weekend was rather low-key.  We set up shop in various places about town, playing chess with all comers, talking about Fischer, St. Louis, and chess.  You never know who you will meet in such situations, and inevitably, you get some kind of surprise. 

party.jpgLucas Carter wandered into Sundance House (a.k.a. the Kimbel Art Center) and saw chessboards.  Sitting down to play with me, he revealed the remarkable irony that he had attempted to get his company to buy the rights to a dramatic Fischer script called “Pawn Sacrifice.”   The project is now unfortunately seriously stalled.  Lucas stills hopes the film will someday see the light of the day, and he graciously sent me a copy of the script.  It looks like quite a different film indeed from the one we saw at Sundance.  I feel a certain rush in possessing something many people are curious about.  It makes me think of the controversy over the printouts of Deep Blue’s logs from the match with Kasparov, documents I’ve had in a drawer for thirteen years.

Lucas was a classmate of Josh Waitzkin, and not the only one I met in Park City.  Apparently the Dalton gang is representing in the film world.
Saturday and Sunday gave us some time to drink in the atmosphere at the festival.  Park City, the main host of Sundance (there are some events in Ogden and Salt Lake City), is a quiet little town nestled in the mountains.  Most of the year it serves as a ski resort, with the downtown brimming with nice restaurants and touristy shops.  In the week of Sundance, the town is absolutely mobbed.  If you don’t have a reservation, you can count on a long wait at any restaurant.  If you want to get tickets to the screenings, held at schools, libraries, and hotels around town, good luck.  Many attendees spend hours on waiting lists in hopes of seeing a low-budget drama or documentary.  We eventually realized it wasn’t meant to be and contented ourselves with seeing only one film, albeit the best one at the festival.

I thought I was sufficiently showing my colors when I met Alex and Iryna in the hotel lobby on Sunday, but my Jets cap was completely upstaged by Shaba’s wild yellow Steelers wig. 

photo-5.jpgThey both live in Pittsburgh; Iryna is a grad student at Carnegie Mellon, and it seemed, for some reason, that every other person she met in Park City had some connection to her school.  Shannon Bailey and Lauren Stewart both have Pennsylvania roots, so it seemed to be, as usual, New York against the world.  Susan Barrett took pity on me and offered to root for the Jets, but she won’t back off her assessment of the Mets as “pond scum.”  Ponzi scum, maybe; pond scum, no.

So after lunch and a little shopping in town the three grandmasters (Jennifer had to leave earlier) settled in to watch the big game, the AFC Championship, at the hotel.  Of course, the first half was a complete nightmare for my team.  At 24-0 we disbanded, having one more party to get ready for.  Thankfully, Shaba is not an in your face football rooter.  If it had been John Fedorowicz, I would have had to kill him.

In the privacy of my room, where no one could hear my cheers, the Jets made a furious comeback.  It came up short of course, 24-19.  I was happy to see the HBO party was very close to our hotel, and I hadn’t missed much when I got there.

We were treated to more great food, flowing beverages, and the usual good company.  We had a celebrity sighting (depending on your standards)—Morgan Spurlock, the documentary filmmaker that brought us Supersize Me, had come to the festival with his new film, The Greatest Movie ever Sold.”  The new film is not only about product placement, but was actually financed by it.  Spurlock’s jacket included ads for all the film’s sponsors, but the ensemble would have been rightly topped off with a St. Louis Chess Club knit hat.   The hat and matching sweater formed our uniforms for the weekend.

I think we all had high hopes of schmoozing with celebrities (there are quite a few, I’m told, at Sundance), but we all had to make due with just a few sightings.  I saw James Franco on the street (totally mobbed) and Forest Whitaker having dinner in the Zoom restaurant.  On the way to his table a fan told Whitaker he was great in The Last King of Scotland.  I could only think of his fine work in a favorite film of mine, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

In closing, I would like to applaud the efforts of the St. Louis crew, who not only worked out the logistics for a complicated weekend in a short period of time, but also made sure the grandmasters knew what to do and had a good time doing it.  Well done Susan, Lauren, Shannon, Bridget, Kelly, and the token male, our local intern Tim.

Stay updated by adding the World Chess Museum and Bobby Fischer Against the World on facebook. Also see GM Joel Benjamin's Best of CLO recognized article on the 2010 US Championship in Saint Louis.