August 16, 1993 12:00 PM

Max Pomeranc, Ben Kingsley, Joan Allen, Laurence Fishburne, Joe Mantegna

Chess fanatics are the obvious targets for this tabletop Rookie of the Year, but anyone obsessed with obsession will do. The film has only a peripheral, albeit lionizing, interest in Fischer, the boorish prodigy who became the first American to win the world chess championship in 1972, then forfeited the title three years later by not showing up to defend it against Anatoly Karpov. (Fischer surfaced last fall to play a pointless exhibition match against Boris Spassky.)

Fischer does appear in news clips, but the film’s focus is Josh Waitzkin, a Manhattan 7-year-old who became a youth champion (and is, at 16, still the highest-ranking U.S. player younger than 18) after being turned on to chess by the hustlers he saw playing speed chess on tables in the city’s parks.

Pomeranc, 8, himself a nationally ranked chess player, plays Waitzkin with an understanding of the single-mindedness that kids need to become stars. Still, he keeps a cute-kid part of him alive. Kingsley, as Bruce Pandolfini, a former Fischer mentor who coaches Waitzkin, is strangely dispassionate. (If Gandhi had been this phlegmatic, India would still be a colony.) Fishburne has a thin role as the street-chess hustler who becomes Waitzkin’s buddy, and Mantegna is in characteristic nonstop-grimace mode as Josh’s lather, Fred (on whose book the film is based). Allen has little to do as the boy’s passive mom. And everyone is overshadowed by Michael Nir-enberg, 9, who displays a sinister, future-villain grace as the boy who becomes Josh’s biggest rival.

Director Steven Zaillian doesn’t get much tension out of their final showdown. But he does sketch a convincing portrait of how a hobby can turn into a fixation. (PG)

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