I am one of those guys who spends most of his life wishing that he could go to film festivals to catch the latest and greatest independent films from across the globe. Instead of actually going to these festivals, however, I am most likely doomed to tracking the films that interest me as they spend years in distribution limbo awaiting a mainstream theatrical release. This has especially been the case with the movie Pawn Sacrifice, the upcoming biopic about the 1972 World Chess Championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. I remember hearing about it for the first time and was filled with excitement! That was over a year and a half ago, with Pawn Sacrifice just now preparing for its theatrical debut. In any case, I digress.

For most of the time that the public has been aware of the existence of the movie, the only real promotional material available for it was a publicity photo showing Tobey McGuire and Liev Schreiber in their respective roles as Fischer and Spassky. Of course, the initial reviews of the movie from the premier festival have not been great although these days it is impossible to trust most movie reviews, especially the ones coming from independent film festivals. Yet, I still held on to my hope until the official poster for the film was finally revealed.

The Mind of Robert J. Fischer

At first, it struck me as a fairly standard piece of modern poster art. Earth tones are all the rage in Hollywood’s digital arts factories. I guess that it is because faded browns and grays increase the audience’s sense of the character’s pain and struggles. I also like the subtle complexities of the picture. There is much for the audience to discern from the look on Bobby Fischer’s face and the chess notations coming out of his head. For the people who knew, played with, and experienced the real Bobby Fischer, the notations coming out of his mind represent the whole of who he was as a human being and as a chess player. Bobby lived his life only to play chess. When he played, he was the best that the world had ever seen, but the darkness of his dichotomous existential paradigm eventually took him from the game, and eventually…sanity itself.

Just a hint of emotional struggle…
An Algebraic Quandary

I did not give the poster much thought until I started seeing the reactions from other chess players on Chess.com and on various Facebook chess groups. Where most people might decry a lack of creativity in Hollywood these days or the overemphasis on brown colors, but instead, chess players know exactly what is most important in life, and that is the accuracy of the chess!

You see, the chess notation coming out of Bobby’s head in the poster is historically inaccurate. Although Bobby might have annotated some of his games in algebraic notation (shown in the poster), it is a well known fact that he exclusively used descriptive notation when playing in tournaments. This might not seem like mich of a big deal to the casual observer, but to a chess community flustered and running out of patience with Hollywood’s inability to even set a board up correctly, it means everything in the world. I realized that I saw the commenta as petty and obnoxious mainly because I am a huge Bobby Fischer fan and I have been looking forward to the film for quite some time. However, after some introspection and examination of the poster, the trailer, and the comments from others within the chess community, I came to the conclusion that:

  • 1) It is historically inaccurate.
  • 2) It does not matter to 99% of the audience that will see the film.
  • 3) It does not change the film at all.
  • 4) It does matter to the remaining 1%, who are those of us that go to bed at night and solve tactical positions in our sleep.

I regret my initial impressions of the response to the poster in some sense. Yes, perhaps the complaints (if taken seriously) are a bit on the obnoxious side, but those comments represent the passion of a community that has dedicated itself to the game. For us, chess is not just a game…it is our game. At this point, I am willing to attribute the algebraic notation to simple human oversight since watching the trailer reveals that a key shot of the chessboard that actually reflects a position from the original tournament. Perhaps these small details will make up for the algebraic notation in the minds of most chess players, or perhaps it does not really matter at all. Even great historic films like Schindler’s List and Amadeus are filled with historical inaccuracies, but the small details did not effect the overall quality of the final product.

Despite the initial reviews, I am hopeful that Pawn Sacrifice will be an excellent re-telling of one of the Cold War’s defining moments. Tobey McGuire might be the best Bobby Fischer to ever hit the silver screen, or he might be the worst. The character of Bobby Fischer himself was so unique and so far off of the charts of what we would consider normal that I think it is practically impossible to find anyone who could play him in a way that truly expresses the torment he lived with.

Ultimately, any criticism of Pawn Sacrifice’s historical inaccuracies demonstrates that for those of us who live their lives in the world of chess, it will always be more than a game.

For some excellent analysis of the movie and some of the issues I discussed here, check out FM Mike Klein‘s awesome article on Chess.com. Pawn Sacrifice will be arriving in theaters this September. Check out the official trailer here.