Friday, October 19, 2007

Searching for Jonathan Poe

In the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, you may recall, the main character, Josh Waitzkin, has a rival for the national chess championship: a brooding, solitary kid named Jonathan Poe. Jonathan is so single-minded about chess that he doesn’t even go to school; he spends all his time playing and studying the game under the grinding tutelage of a glib and supercilious coach, a Svengali for whom Jonathan is less a human being than a lump of clay to be molded and shaped into a champion whose triumph, the coach apparently believes, will redound to his own good fortune as much as to Jonathan’s.

It’s a disturbing image, but it’s not a Hollywood fabrication: there really was such a kid in Josh’s life. His real name was Jeff Sarwer. In the book on which the movie was based Josh’s father Fred Waitzkin had this to say about Jeff:

“Little Jeff studied and played chess from morning until night. He was
insatiable about the game, happy when he was moving pieces and restless when
there was no opponent to crush. ‘Kill, kill, kill,’ he sometimes said with
an impish grin as he launched his attacks.”

Apart from the fact that the coach was actually Jeff’s father, “an undiagnosed manic depressive,” the story of Jonathan/Jeff as told in the movie is mostly true. Jeff and his sister Julia, who was also a chess prodigy, had a bizarre childhood, and thanks to the eagle eye of Michael Goeller at the Kenilworthian, we now know about their Web site, which describes their lives today and their efforts to recover.

There was at least one other fact on which the film diverged from reality. Josh didn’t actually win that big game at the end of the movie; it ended in a draw. Here it is:

The best way to see the game, though, is here, with Michael Goeller’s annotations. Batgirl adds some intriguing information about Jeff’s recent comeback over at


Anonymous said...

The chess world is filled with its share of interesting stories and personalities, and those of Jonathan Poe/Jeff Sarwer and his chessdad certainly qualify. Thanks to you and Micheal for bringing this one to us on a damp chilly Friday morning in the Windy City.