The Bobby Fischer biopic Pawn Sacrifice debuted this week in theaters across the United States. The film stars Tobey Maguire as the venerable chess prodigy Bobby Fischer and Liev Schreiber as the pillar of Soviet Cold War chess dominance Boris Spassky. A couple of years ago when I heard that Zwick, Maguire, and Schreiber were working on a film based on Bobby and the 1972 World Chess Championship I was very excited to see chess returning to the silver screen. Although I had high hopes for the film I was skeptical that it could usurp my favorite chess movie of all time: Searching for Bobby Fischer. The story of Pawn Sacrifice‘s production is almost as dramatic as the story it tells. For the entire production and a long time after its conclusion there were only two promotional photos made available online to promote the film. When it was completed, there was a time when the film rode into festivals without a major distributor. However, Bleecker Street Media picked up the film and distributed it to audiences around the United States starting on September 24th of this year following a special presentation in Saint Louis after the conclusion of the Sinquefield Cup.
Robert James Fischer was one of the most electrifying personalities in 20th century chess. He taught himself to play chess when his mother left him alone for hours on end in their Brooklyn apartment overlooking Ebbets Field. At age 15 he became the youngest grandmaster in the history of the game and the youngest candidate to ever emerge for the World Chess Championship. The young boy from Brooklyn quickly took the chess world by storm and soon started winning the hearts of people outside the chess world for the way that he not only destroyed his opponents on the board, but also for the psychological damages he often caused. Bobby Fischer played chess at a time when the Soviet Union poured a significant amount of its national budget and effort into producing some of the world’s top grandmasters. Chess was seen as proof of Soviet intellectual superiority over the United States and its allies and the results of countless Chess Olympiads and World Championships seemed to validate that claim. However, Bobby’s emergence brought to light what had been known in secret for many years: the Soviet Union had been intentionally drawing games to stack the deck against players from other countries. The result was that key Soviet grandmasters were virtually assured a shot at the FIDE World Championship title, which was often played against another Soviet grandmaster. The player who had the most favor with the state at the time was allowed to win the title and hold it as long as it was beneficial for the sake of the Soviet system.
Bobby’s distate for the Soviet chess machine was put on prominent display in his now famous Sports Illustrated article in 1962, The Russians Have Fixed World Chess. If he was not a target of the red chess machine and the KGB, this article propelled him into the international spotlight and aired the dirty secrets of Soviet chess for the entire world. The rest of the story is pretty well known. Bobby went on to defeat some of the most powerful grandmasters of the day and win a chance to challenge Russian World Champion Boris Spassky in the 1972 championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. Yet, throughout the tournament and in the years leading up to it Bobby was plagued by a growing sense of paranoia and mania. He was obsessed with the Russians and convinced that they were tracking his every move. While its true that the KGB was keeping close tabs on Bobby, the fear and paranoia he was experiencing grew out of control and damaged practically every relationship he had. When the match was over Bobby emerged victorious over Spassky and the Soviet chess machine. After that he disappeared and was largely unheard from until his 1992 rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia.
Pawn Sacrifice covers much of Bobby’s life from his adolescence through some of his prominent chess appearances up to the 1972 World Championship match. For much of the film the chess takes a backstage to Bobby’s growing paranoia and personal struggles. When it begins, the World Championship match in Reykjavik is a powerful backdrop for what is often seen as Bobby’s final battle to maintain his own sanity. Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of Bobby as the self-confident Da Vinci of modern chess is a perfect recreation of the man that many watched throughout the years on television and in tournaments around the world. In contrast Liev Schreiber is a silent, towering man who more closely resembles a football star than a chess champion. There is a heavy sense of Bobby’s personal desire to beat Spassky than of Spassky’s desire to beat Bobby. At least, until Bobby fails to show for the 2nd game of the match and risks losing the championship to Spassky by forfeit. Spassky agrees to play Bobby in the back room away from the audience because winning the match by forfeit would rob him of a true victory against Bobby. The film’s climax comes in game 6, which is widely known as the best game of the match and one of the greatest chess games ever played.
There is a lot to love about Pawn Sacrifice for chess and non-chess fans alike. For the non-chess fan, the acting in the film is superb and the way in which it portrays Bobby’s descent into paranoia is well done. Some have complained that Bobby spent much of his time in the film yelling at people around him and this is certainly not what is portrayed in much of the archival footage of him. However, this is consistent with the testimonies of his friends and family. Bobby Fischer drove away pretty much everyone that ever stepped forward to care for him. The paranoia, which was grounded in truth, simply became too much for him to handle. Even the greatest chess player in history had a breaking point.
Although the chess itself takes a backseat to the story of Bobby and his struggles again himself and the Soviet chess machine, I was deeply impressed by the quality of the chess presentation. The producers painstakingly recreated the 1972 World Chess Championship with precision right down to the design of the Reykjavik chess set used in the match. In addition, the film does a great job of creating an authentic look and feel of the late 1960s and early 1970s without overdoing it with excessive hippies and peace symbols.
Just as there is a lot to love, there is a lot to dismiss, loathe, or simply forgive and forget about the film. Obviously I have already discussed the use of incorrect notation in an earlier post. In addition to this, there was the general choppiness in the first half of the film as the producers struggled to fit so much of the story into such a little block of time. Given the depth of material I think that the producers did a decent job providing the audience with enough information to follow the nuances of the story without becoming overwhelmed by minutia. However, there were some elements that were unusual and seemed out of place given the pace and direction of the film narrative. The biggest example I can think of is Bobby’s brief obsession with the Worldwide Church of God in which he listened to countless recorded sermons prophesying the end of the world. Bobby became disillusioned with the church and it was a major portion of his life, but the focus of Pawn Sacrifice made Bobby’s brief time spent listening to the sermons seem out of place. There was never a noticeable change in his behavior, whether verbal or nonverbal, that would have enabled the hint of his religiosity to benefit the story.
I also could not help but notice that Michael Stuhlbarg who played Bobby’s friend Paul Marshall in the film was wearing a standard issue US Air Force blue overcoat during much of the movie.
Finally, I could not help but laugh when my wife poked me in the side at the end of the film as Bobby rode away in his car from the tournament at Reykjavik. When he has cleared the crowd of people he reaches into his pocket and unzips a pocket chess set. And, this is not just any chess set…its a Chessmate Wallet! My wife recognized it because its from the same company that makes the Chessmate Ultima that I reviewed back when I first started this site.
The Final Verdict
Pawn Sacrifice is a solid psychological drama and a great historical pic about one of the greatest moments in chess history. Despite its few flaws and creative liberties taken by its creators, it stands on its own as a powerful representation of the tormented world of Robert James Fischer who, despite having his ELO eclipsed by other chess players, remains the greatest and most influential chess player in history.