The question of genius

For Fred Waitzkin, father of a chess prodigy, it's more than academic

T he question of genius is posed frequently to author Fred Waitzkin '65. Over the last ten years, interviewers have asked for his slant on what makes a child prodigy, particularly Waitzkin's son, Josh, different from the rest of us.

It's a question Waitzkin asked himself as Josh grew from a cute, bright-eyed six-year-old who vanquished chess foes of all ages to a handsome, dynamic twenty-one-year-old who conquers some of the top players in the world. It's a question that has hung in the air since Waitzkin's splendid book about Josh and chess, Searching for Bobby Fischer: The World of Chess Observed by the Father of a Child Prodigy, was published in 1988 and especially since a critically praised film based on the book was released in 1992.

Waitzkin recognizes that some sort of wonderful genetic alignment has connected Josh's mental circuitry in such a way that he can plot chessboard strategies that few of us can fathom. But, in Waitzkin's opinion, natural intelligence only takes a prodigy so far. After that, it's a matter of heart, commitment, and hard work.

"I'll not take on the question of genius because it's a very elusive idea," he says. "The misconception about a prodigy is that he gets to where he is very quickly and there are no blood, sweat, and tears involved. But a prodigy doesn't become very, very good at anything--concert piano, chess, tennis--without really working hard. What pays off is when he works at it, when he trains, when he falls in love with it."

Waitzkin believes that a love of chess and a commitment to work hard at it are what have carried Josh to the top levels of the chess world. Those are lofty heights indeed. Beginning at age nine, he started winning national championships, achieving national master status by the time he turned thirteen and an international master rating when he was sixteen. In 1994, he captured the U.S. Junior championship and placed fourth in the world championship for players under age eighteen.

A passion for cerebral exercise (in this case, writing) and a commitment to hard work apply to the father's success as well. Waitzkin's love of writing extends back to his teen years, when he reveled in Jack Kerouac's work, and to his Kenyon experiences as an English major. The hard work came later when he struggled as a fledgling fiction writer, found his niche in feature journalism in the 1980s, and, finally, became an accomplished author with Searching for Bobby Fischer and Mortal Games: The Turbulent Genius of Garry Kasparov. His third book, The Last Marlin, will be published by Viking in the summer or fall of 1999.

Love and hard work--they are what get us through the struggles of life, Waitzkin believes.

A s a high school student in New York City, Waitzkin felt drawn to Columbia University. After all, his hero, Kerouac, had attended Columbia. However, the headmaster at Waitzkin's high school, Gordon Newcombe, was a Kenyon man (Class of 1948). He convinced his charge, who wanted to be a writer, to take a look at the College. At the time, Kenyon, basking in the warm glow cast by the Kenyon Review, was a kingpin of the American literary scene.

For Waitzkin, Kenyon became a matter of love at first sight. "It was intoxicating," he remembers. "The place was so enchanting. I recall the first moment I walked down Middle Path. I felt the breeze in the trees and knew this was the school for me.

"The College was an intellectual oasis--a place where wonderful ideas were unearthed and where you learned poetry from great minds. In Ohio in the sixties, there was a dearth of that kind of thing around us, so the Kenyon experience was supercharged for us. It made the information we received precious, alive, and very special."

Especially valuable were the lessons Waitzkin learned from his professors, including McIlvaine Professor of English Gerrit Roelofs and Professor of German Bruce Haywood. "I still think of Roelofs a great deal," he says. "I imagine if he were alive and we were talking about literature, we would probably disagree more than we would agree. But he was terribly important to my development as a reader and writer." Haywood, adds Waitzkin, "spoke to the fundamental tensions in writing. He got at what a good book is about, and what he taught us is still very alive in me."

Waitzkin's years at Kenyon were especially important to him for another reason: he met his wife-to-be, Bonnie, between his sophomore and junior years. They met during a vacation on Martha's Vineyard and continued their courtship when he returned to Kenyon and she to nearby Denison University.

Two children and three decades of marriage later, Fred and Bonnie remain at the center of each other's lives. "Bonnie is my life partner," he says. "There's not a page I've written in thirty years that she hasn't signed off on. Her ideas are immeasurably at the center of my writing."

W aitzkin also recognizes he could not have pursued a writing career without Bonnie's emotional backing and the financial support from her work as a teacher. "There are years when I don't earn any money," he admits. "There are years when I've done quite well. She's always had a stable income."

That was essential in the 1970s, when Waitzkin was trying to establish himself as a fiction writer. After earning a master's degree from New York University, Waitzkin taught literature at the College of the Virgin Islands. He soon discovered that teaching requires the same creative energy as writing and that he did not have enough energy for both. So, in 1971, he returned to New York City to focus on writing short stories and novels.

Some of Waitzkin's fiction was published in literary journals, including the Transatlantic Review and the Yale Literary Magazine, but he admits he had "middling to less-than-middling success." The problem was both financial and artistic. Even when his stories were published, he was paid only a few hundred dollars for them. That was troubling for a man with a growing family.

On the artistic side, Waitzkin, at age thirty, faced up to the fact that he struggled to develop plots for his stories. "I'm a good storyteller, but I'm not a guy who creates plots easily," he says. "I was always fighting that element. I wasn't a natural at that."

Nonfiction didn't pose that problem, because, as Waitzkin points out, "Everyone I talk to is a plot." He had a knack for telling a great story, and the lives of his subjects provided the plot lines. With nonfiction, Waitzkin could also make a living at what he still loved to do: write.

To his surprise, he found several important magazines, including the New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York, and Esquire, willing to let him run with a writing style in which he often became a character in his own articles. "I discovered the same kind of literary impulses I felt with fictional stories could be used in nonfiction," says Waitzkin. "That was amazing to me, and instead of two hundred people reading my stories, I had a very large audience and could make a living at my writing."

S everal forces collided to propel Waitzkin toward starting work on Searching for Bobby Fischer in 1984. One was an article, "The Grungy World of Big-Time Chess," that he wrote for New York magazine. The other was the discovery that six-year-old Josh had an amazing grasp of the intricacies of chess. The boy was so talented he could hold his own against highly skilled adult players whom Josh battled on the chess tables of New York City's rough-and-tumble Washington Square Park.

Waitzkin had been bitten by the chess bug in 1972 when American Bobby Fischer conquered the Soviet Union's Boris Spassky in an historic championship match. Waitzkin's interest in chess waned when he saw he had little feel for the game. It was rekindled, though, as Josh began entering competitions and became a pupil of the noted chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini.

"It was an underground world rich in personality and passion," says Waitzkin, "and no one else was covering it. It was a phenomenally fertile world to write about--there were more stories than you could even think about covering. The passion sizzled."

In talks with a literary agent, Waitzkin discussed writing a book that would provide a penetrating look at the quirky world of chess. He didn't think about focusing it on his relationship with Josh until the agent told him, "That's the book."

Between the pull of the book and Josh's quicksilver success in chess competitions, Waitzkin found himself on risky ground. "I kept asking myself, `Are you pushing him into a life he might not want to live,'" he remembers. "I was scared. . . . I was guilt-ridden as I wrote. I was determining a fate that might not be otherwise."

As fate would have it, the book received as much acclaim for its rich reflections on father-son relationships as it did for its insider's look at the fascinating world of chess. "In the framework of chess, Waitzkin has written a book about human feelings: a book so warm and revealing that it captivated me," wrote one reviewer. Another asserted, "This is a vivid, passionate, and disquieting book."

And Waitzkin's fears that he was pushing Josh in the wrong direction--that the boy might follow the same sad path of some brilliant chess players sucked into poverty and despair by their obsession with game--proved unfounded.

Now twenty-one, Josh is striving to achieve grandmaster status. Still, playing chess doesn't consume him. The national spokesperson for Mindscape, a publisher of the "Chessmaster" software series, he gives lectures and leads exhibitions on chess at schools and universities. A gifted athlete, Josh is also an avid reader with an interest in Eastern philosophy. He has written a book, Josh Waitzkin's Attacking Chess, and, with his mother, reads Fred's manuscripts.

"I have plenty to fall back on if I want to, but now I'm in a solid flow," says Josh, who has been accepted at Columbia but has deferred entering while he pursues his myriad interests. "I'm loving chess, and I'm loving my growth within it. I'm looking into my own soul when I compete at chess. It's a neat part of my life."

He calls Searching for Bobby Fischer a "wonderful book--very honest and true," adding he and his father remain "very passionate about this chess thing." While Josh recently moved to California to live on his own, he and Fred continue to travel together to chess competitions. They remain best friends, according to Bonnie. "There's a wonderful bond between them," she says.

T he colorful characters and intriguing father-son relationship explored in Searching for Bobby Fischer struck a chord with the movie moguls at Paramount Pictures. In 1992, the film company released a movie based on the book. Called a film of "remarkable sensitivity and insight" by the Chicago Tribune's famed critic Roger Ebert, Searching for Bobby Fischer did well at the box office and later became a home video hit. It also made for some dramatic changes in the lives of its protagonists--the Waitzkins.

"The movie opened up a lot of people's eyes to the humanity of chess," says Josh. "It told the story of a father and son being thrown into the glass menagerie of chess and their struggles within it."

But the film was not entirely true to the book. That was especially the case with Josh's supposed obsession with Fischer (the reclusive chess master actually had little influence on Josh) and actor Ben Kingsley's less-than-flattering portrayal of Josh's mentor, Pandolfini. "Bruce is a wonderful guy, but Ben portrayed him as a creep," says Josh.

The popularity of the film cast an unwanted public glare on Josh. He was besieged by autograph seekers at chess competitions, and his every move was scrutinized by those watching him play in tournaments. "It was not an easy experience," says Josh. "I didn't want people to know when I cried. I was pushed into the spotlight when I was very young. It was terrible to deal with that."

Fred feels Josh's chess game suffered because of all of the hubbub linked to the movie. "He worried about how he would be as good as that guy in the movie, who was bigger than life," says Waitzkin. "He could never be as good as that guy. He had a period when he wasn't growing quantitatively as a chess player."

The same can be said of the effect the film's fame had on Waitzkin's writing. Suddenly, he was answering questions on television talk shows more than he was working on his next book. "For years, I was the one asking the questions," says Waitzkin. "Then, all of a sudden, I was the person being interviewed. Everyone in the world wanted to interview Fred Waitzkin. And not only am I answering the questions, I'm developing a shtick. I'm answering the questions the same way and starting to sound rather cliched to myself. And the writing is not coming. I'm worrying about how I came across in the last interview."

Finally, after months of upheaval connected to the film, Waitzkin recommitted himself to his writing. Realizing he probably wasn't going to top a book that became a $30 million movie, he went back to his studio in the Soho section of Manhattan and returned to the basics. "You're just supposed to write a good paragraph and do your work," he insists.

T he film version of Searching for Bobby Fischer was released shortly before Waitzkin's second book, Mortal Games: The Turbulent Genius of Garry Kasparov, was published in 1993. With unprecedented access to the world's greatest chess player, Waitzkin crafted a book that brilliantly examined obsession, risk, and triumph. From 1990 to 1993, the author interviewed Kasparov dozens of times and became a trusted friend and member of the grand master's inner circle.

"We were together so much that the connection became very intimate," says Waitzkin. "He would pour his heart out to me. Mortal Games became a book about a world champion who became my friend."

Part of the agreement between writer and chess master was that Waitzkin had dinner with Kasparov after each of his matches--win, lose, or draw. The author discovered that, to a world champion such as Kasparov, a loss is devastating. "The greatest players feel the most pain," he says. "When Kasparov lost a game, it felt as if the walls would cry. . . . He was dying."

After finishing Mortal Games, Waitzkin realized he needed to move away from chess and toward other topics. "Josh and I talked about it, and he said it was time to stop [writing about chess]," he recalls. "Josh was right--it was a world that had drawn me in and now it was time to make my way out of it. My deal was I wouldn't write about chess for five years."

Waitzkin is from the "write-what-you-know" school, so for his next book, he turned to subjects that he knew intimately: family, fishing, and the island of Bimini in the Bahamas. At age fifteen, Waitzkin's parents took him to Bimini for a fishing vacation. He has returned on a regular basis ever since, even though the island, once a fishing paradise, has been taken over by the drug culture and many of its great game fish, including the blue marlin, are on the verge of extinction.

The Last Marlin, according to Waitzkin, is not about fishing, just as Searching for Bobby Fischer and Mortal Games were not necessarily about chess. "This is a book about the loss of fishing, loss of parents, loss of loved ones," explains Waitzkin. "Within the parameters of a story, I recollect a life. It deals with boyhood, my parents' lives, and another story."

Like Searching for Bobby Fischer, The Last Marlin examines complicated father-son relationships. This time, it is the one between Waitzkin and his father, Abe. "I adored my father," says Waitzkin. "His love and the absence of his love were the ebb and flow of my life as a young man. With Josh, we don't have such a weakness at all. He's my best friend."

W aitzkin is uncertain what direction he will go after finishing The Last Marlin. He is not ruling out a return to Kenyon, perhaps to lead a seminar on creative journalism, the art of the memoir, or creative writing.

That may sound strange coming from a man whose visit to campus this spring was his first since graduating thirty-three years ago. It wasn't that Waitzkin held hard feelings toward the College--he loves the place--only that his busy life got in the way. "After a while, it became increasingly difficult to come back," he says.

One obstacle was a recurring dream in which he returned to Kenyon but no longer knew anyone. But that wasn't the case when he brought his wife, Josh, and daughter, Katya, to campus for three days in April. The principal purpose was for him and Josh to discuss Searching for Bobby Fischer with College audiences and for Josh to take on about twenty local chess players in a simultaneous match. The visit also afforded Waitzkin an opportunity to spend time with schoolmate Fred Kluge '64, the College's writer-in-residence.

"Those long talks and walks with Fred were wonderful for me," says Waitzkin. "He invoked all the memories and personalities of the days when I was here. It was as if the place wasn't strange at all. I was stirred by Middle Path exactly as I was thirty-three years ago."

His visit was also colored by the impressions of his children. "I looked at it through Josh's eyes and felt his perception of the beauty of the place and with a certain sadness that he has not had a place like this in his life," says Waitzkin. "I saw it through my bright-eyed little girl, who had the most marvelous conversation with [McIlvaine Professor of English] Perry Lentz ['64]; I was delighted with the gentle and intelligent way he discussed literature."

The visit also presented Waitzkin with an opening to offer a bit of advice to students considering a writing career. "When I talk with young writers, I want to hear how much they want it," he says. "If I don't hear that, I gently push them in another direction. It's a very tough ride and a very hard way to make a living."

It's about love, hard work, and commitment, he adds, not genius.

A member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group and a former news director at the College, Jeff Bell is a freelance writer in Newark, Ohio.

Back to Top