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‘Chess Kids’ Documentary a Weak Move

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The subjects of “Chess Kids,” a one-hour documentary airing tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28, are delightful. They are children ranging in age from about 7 to 14 who say the darndest things about being chess champions from around the world competing for four or five hours at a time under intense pressure from parents, coaches and themselves.

Among others, Josh Waitzkin, the real-life subject of the book and movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” describes in his cherubic, good-natured manner how he wants to “kill” his equally cherubic opponents.

It makes wonderful film just to watch the faces of the young competitors as they play--grimacing or thrilled, alarmed or passive.

It’s hard not to join the excitement of an 8-year-old boy as he relates with great animation his move-by-move triumph, no matter that he’s talking almost incomprehensibly in algebraic chess notation.

But this disappointing documentary works only when those compelling voices and faces are on screen. Writer-director-producer Lynn Hamrick would have done well to leave it all to them.

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Instead, Hamrick manages to obscure her subjects with insipid voice-over, irritating music, Olympic-style shots of flags and little evidence of hard thought or work.

Right off the bat, Hamrick errs by thrusting herself into the narrative by playing a game, completely overmatched, against Judit Polgar, one of the most extraordinary young players in the history of chess. Who cares that she can lose to Polgar? So can 99.9% of the world.

*

Hamrick’s weak interviewing style is tagged perfectly by a precocious British boy who asks her at one point, “Is that supposed to be a question?”

For chess players, the greatest disappointment is that the documentary makes only a weak-hearted effort to profile Polgar, the Hungarian phenomenon who has since become the strongest female player in history. (The documentary was filmed in 1990.)

But Hamrick, who refers frequently throughout the film to Polgar, never even gets an interview with her, casually mentioning that her father didn’t want to put her on camera without payment. Providing some insight into such an extraordinary person such as Polgar would have been something special.

Instead this thinly reported documentary promises something it doesn’t deliver. Hamrick would have been better off focusing on the players she could find and letting them tell their own stories.

* “Chess Kids” airs at 11 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

Mark Saylor is a former chess kid--1972 California junior champion--and is ranked as a national master.


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