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Ahead of the Game

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IN MANY WAYS MAX POMERANC IS LIKE A lot of other 9-year-old boys: He plays baseball, listens to Eric Clapton, loves to watch Married…with Children, and lately has perfected the art of belching, which he proudly demonstrates to his mother, Marion, 43, a writer, outside a friend’s home on New York’s Fire Island. Unlike most kids his age though. Max, an only child, has two other special gifts. A chess wizard who learned the game at age 4 from his father, Abe, 46, a stockbroker, Max now ranks among the top 100 kids in his age group. Even more remarkable, he has just made his movie debut. In Searching for Bobby Fischer, Max stars as Josh Waitzkin, a real-life chess prodigy who began playing competitively at 7.

Director Steven Zaillian picked Max over hundreds of young chess masters who auditioned last year. “He was missing four or five teeth, and I couldn’t understand a word he said,” recalls Zaillian. “But his eyes were so expressive, and he had a confidence in himself.” Max’s reaction when he was offered the role: “He was running around screaming, ‘I got the part!’ ” says Marion. But he soon settled into a performance that New York Times critic Janet Maslin calls “touching and credible.”

Now Max, who just started fourth grade in his native Manhattan, has an agent, and Marion is screening scripts for him. Still, the Hollywood scene may not be quite his thing. At a screening party in Los Angeles last month, Max lasted all of 15 minutes before announcing he was bored. “We went back to our hotel with him,” notes his mom, “and Max raided the mini-bar.”