Computer Chess

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

9 March

Bobby Fischer born, 1943

On this day in 1943, the future chess grandmaster Robert James Fischer was born in Chicago, Illinois, USA. The son of a communist teacher and of either the physicist Paul Nemenyi or the biophysicist Gerhardt Fischer (the FBI believed it was the former), Bobby learnt to play chess aged six and became immediately fascinated with the game. He played against his first master, Max Pavey, aged eight and though he lost it led to an introduction to the Manhattan Chess Club, where he was tutored by William Lombardy, and then the Hawthorne Chess Club, where Jack W Collins was his mentor. By age 13 Fischer was playing 12-board simultaneous exhibitions. The same year he was being credited with having played “the game of the century” against International Master Donald Byrne. By 14 he was US champion. By 16 he had dropped out of school – “You don’t learn anything at school” he said. By 20 he was a multiple US champion with a profile in Life magazine. In 1960, aged 27, and having retired twice already, he set out to win the World Championship, which he achieved in 1972, beating Boris Spassky in a blaze of publicity at the height of the Cold War – the Soviets had had, until 1972, a lock on the world title. Fischer did not play another competitive game in public for 20 years, when he again played Spassky and, in spite of “playing the openings of a previous generation”, according to grandmaster Andrew Soltis, and unwilling to use computers to aid his game, unlike everybody else, he beat Spassky again. He died in 2008 of kidney failure, having spent the years since 1992 in exile from his home country.

Computer Chess (2013, dir: Andrew Bujalski)

Andrew Bujalski is often credited with having invented the mumblecore movement of lo-fi film-making that swept through indieworld in the mid-noughties. It was as refreshing as it was infuriating – not every actor is good at improvising, and making a virtue of that doesn’t make a bad performance better. But Bujalski sidesteps the entire genre with this film, which has all the hallmarks of a late 1970s documentary shot on archaic black and white video cameras.

Yes, that’s exactly what mumblecore films looked like too, especially Bujalski’s, but he’s really gone the whole hog here, to the extent that it would be easy to watch for a good 20 minutes or more convinced that what you’re actually seeing is some resurrected documentary being shown as part of a “how quaint we were” retrospective. Bujalski is up to something far more intriguing. The focus of this supposed documentary is a competition held annually by computer nerds in an attempt to find out whose program is best at chess. Simple as. What it’s actually about, though, is the birth moment of the culture we inhabit now – nerdworld – and the death of the dominant touchy-feely culture exemplified by hippies, their free love, letting it all hang out and orgasm as a right. Bujalski focuses on a select few people at the event – Mike Papageorge, the antsy programmer, Shelly, the only woman there and the sort of full-on nerd who doesn’t realise that her tight stripey 1970s sweater really emphasises her breasts, though Mike certainly has. And Peter, a young, speccy programmer who is targeted by free-loving creep Dave and his fleshy belle (Cyndi Williams) – the scenes where they try to get Peter to indulge in a bit of harmless swinging are the film’s highlight, funny yet awful.

The cinema loves the 1970s but Bujalski’s noticed something else about it, apart from the hair, clothes, cars and fondness for the colours orange and purple – he’s noticed how alien a lot of it looks now, the re-birthing therapy, the casual sexism, the regular drug-taking, the open marriages. And how seedy a lot of it looks from this end of the telescope. too. Which is why, I’m guessing, he shunts the film from bleachy black and white into a garish Super 8 Kodachrome look for a few minutes towards the end. Partly to demonstrate that there is life outside the airless motel where the weekend of human v computer v chess board is going on. Partly to show us the colour schemes in their full florid glory. Not everyone likes this film. I loved it.

Why Watch?

  • A great film and a real one-off
  • Myles Paige as Mike Papageorge
  • A comedy so bone dry it’s hard to work out if it is a comedy
  • It’s shot on Sony AVC-3260 cameras, a tube camera from the 1970s

Computer Chess – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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