Although his dad expects him to play baseball, Josh wants to learn chess, so to show his support his father buys him lessons. Josh is taught the more tactical methods by a wise old man and in the finale he is pitched against another boy who has takes more drastic approach.
Sports writer Fred Waitzkin (Mantegna) expects his seven-year-old son Josh (Pomeranc) to be a Little League baseball star and is surprised when the kid wants to hang out in the park with the hustlers who play chess on the public boards. It gradually emerges that Josh is America's greatest potential master since Bobby Fischer, whose erratic career and periodic disappearances punctuate the film.
Fred hires Bruce Pandolfini (Kingsley) to coach the kid to tournament level, and arguments rage about how best to treat the pre-teen genius. Meanwhile, a deadly rival emerges in Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg), a monstrous child who has been raised to be a soulless chess ninja. In the finale, the kids face each other over the board and, with the crazed spectre of Fischer somewhere about, the film upholds the values of well-rounded normality over creepy weirdness, though the outcome of the final match includes an unexpected twist.
Originally entitled Searching For Bobby Fischer, Zaillian's first feature is funny, tense and demanding, with cerebral clashes to equal the physical bouts of Rocky. Pomeranc is a miraculous movie kid, expressive in his soulful looks at the board but never cute or forced. The rest of the cast are similarly perfect. Zaillian (screenwriter of Awakenings, Jack the Bear and Schindler's List) manages to get an incredible variety into its repetitive games, and surrounds the action with an uncringemaking family story. Forget your preconceptions and give this one a try.
With this touching story about a boy learning to play chess, Zaillian cuts an impressive debut, brining out strong performances from his cast most notably the young Pomeranc who is genuinely moving a the chess genius, even when he's not talking we are able to know what he's thinking, a rarity amongst child actors.