Chess is a game that requires patience and utmost preparation. I have neither; neither the patience nor the inclination to prepare thoroughly for a board game that supposedly teaches strategy. I, however, do have the greatest admiration for chess wizards and their dedication to the sport, the art, and their understanding of its intricacies. I consider it a waste of time to be seated across a board where in most cases you’re just waiting for the other player to commit a glaring error, rather than going all out for victory. When even a silly miscue means that you lose the game is not something that appeals to me specifically when I’m a person who simply hates to lose. I’m disinclined to play any game I’m ill-prepared for. I guess, you could term me a sore loser.
‘Pawn Sacrifice’ directed by Edward Zwick and co-produced by Tobey Maguire is a must-see for chess buffs and for those who’d like to know what life was like at the height of the Cold War. Else, the movie might leave you cold unless you’re a huge fan of Maguire.
Tobey Maguire enacts Bobby Fischer with insouciant nonchalance, his hooded eyes betraying his age and which he uses to judicious effect while portraying the brooding protagonist.
Liev Schrieber plays the American genius’ acclaimed opponent Boris Spassky in an understated way. That’s understandable given that most of his dialogues are in Russian and he alternates between looking like a gangster with his dark glasses and decidedly bemused at enacting such a sterling role.
Peter Sarsgard has by far the most interesting role in the film.
He is William Lombardy, a Catholic priest who is Fischer’s second for his acrimonious title match in Reykjavík,Iceland. He defeated Spassky and Fischer when he was much younger but readily admits that they have since left him behind.
Having a priest as a second is quite surprising. That reads like a page out of a novel. Truth certainly is stranger than fiction. Lombardy is believed to have coached Fischer since he was 11-and-a-half till the World Championship.
The movie begins by Fischer failing to turn up for the second game of the title match handing his opponent a 2-0 lead. The chess world is bewildered at the young eccentric’s chutzpah and his demands that the match be moved to a ping-pong room in the basement.
The film then flashbacks to Bobby’s childhood and how he hates losing on the chessboard.
Throughout his progression to the title match, Bobby displays immense self-belief in his powers and his destiny to be the best player in the world.
Fischer is aggressive on the chessboard preferring to go for a win than play for a draw—the reason for his losses to Spassky in his initial bouts.
Tobey Maguire is intense when seated across the board. His attempts at displaying Fischer’s paranoia and obsessive delusions seem overdone though. It is not convincing enough and is a side-story in the bigger picture which is about a David taking on the Goliaths of the chess world. The story is not just about a battle on the board but a battle of ideas, cultures, and economic systems.
Fischer, as played by Maguire, comes across as one-dimensional yet likable. The confidence and arrogance with which he takes on the Soviets and beats them is at odds with his fearful and suspicious nature when closeted in his room checking for bugs and listening devices in his phone. He is also not comfortable with changes be it not having a wooden table for the title match or the sound of whirring cameras.
He’s not the only one afflicted so. Spassky has his chair x-rayed and the hall combed only to discover two dead flies in the light bulb fixture.
While Fischer’s demands appear extreme, the reasoning can hardly be faulted by Spassky and that is probably the reason he accedes besides not wishing to win by default. Machismo is on display and the clash of egos makes for interesting watching.
Fischer is the face of capitalism with his stipulations for more money. The young man is quite aware of his drawing power and wants his share of the pie. Chess transforms into a spectator sport, with the drama followed all over the world.
The biopic does not delve into the chess itself but the personality of Bobby Fischer, his state of mind and the run-up to his greatest triumph. It would have helped if the other actor’s characters were etched out as well. Their roles are much too sketchy.
Bobby Fischer , to the Russians, with his tantrums is the embodiment of capitalism and the ‘we want it and we want it right now‘ culture of the Western world.
The willingness of the Russians to embrace the paraphernalia of the west such as limousines, dark glasses and bask in the sunshine of California beaches underscores the lure of its hedonistic culture and is the reason so many Soviet and east European athletes, diplomats and writers would emigrate when they visited the West. The right to express oneself freely, right to the pursuit of happiness and the right to privacy are not to be factored into the equation, right?
The movie skims over the use of psychologists and hypnotists as part of mental warfare waged by chess players and their entourages. It is a mental game where even the slightest disturbance can derail one’s train of thought and a hurried or casual move can end in disaster on the board.
(Viktor Korchnoi, the third-ranked player at that time, later defected to the West. When he played Anatoly Karpov for the world title, he complained about a hypnotist among Karpov’s supporters present only to mesmerize him into losing. )
Michael Stuhlbarg plays Paul Marshall, the patriotic lawyer who makes the title match happen, hustling and pulling strings behind the scenes.
Bobby Fischer’s overriding wish was to become the world champion and then he had nothing else to prove. That could explain why he lost the desire to dominate the board game aside from his psychological problems. Luckily for the west, they soon found a darling in Garry Kasparov, the outspoken and debonair product of the Soviet system.
Bobby Fischer ended up a crackpot and a recluse ending his days in Iceland, the site of his ascent to glory.
The decadent West made him a vagrant and had him ignore their sanctions when he played Boris Spassky again in trying to relive the glory days. Nostalgia in him was not matched in them. Their disapproving eyes disowned him making him a wanderer from country to country.
For the protagonists, the match is less about politics than about proving themselves to be the supreme players of their time. They are seekers of excellence on the chessboard. Spassky’s hotel room scene where he agrees to Fischer’s demands underlines the omniscient eye of the KGB. The Soviet State was a mistrustful regime where one in two persons was an informer to the government. That was the harsh reality of those times. You could not trust your neighbors.
Fischer is shown to be a genius who continually learns from his mistakes on the board. Alas, not so with his life.
Another scene from the movie where Fischer frequents the Russian embassy bookshop to learn the latest games of his opponents is interesting. The woman proprietor remarks, “You don’t like us Russians but you admire our brilliance.” Or something to that effect. How true. Respect transcends borders.
An infuriated Bobby Fischer storming out of the World Chess qualifiers , his ambition of becoming the world’s youngest chess champion thwarted by the gaming of the tourney by USSR players is captured brilliantly. Fischer’s arrogant confidence is matched by his aspiration for fair play. This marks the beginning of his disillusionment with the existing chess set-up, specifically the Soviets. Fischer petulantly states that he’s quitting chess.
Lombardy, in conversation with Marshall, is prescient when he warns the lawyer that if Fischer’s fragile mental state is not addressed, he could end up reprising another historic American chess player of the 19th century, Paul Morphy. Morphy, a chess prodigy, was the unofficial World Champion of his era. Though he never beat the reigning European champion Howard Staunton, Morphy was considered a superior player. Morphy retired from chess to to begin a law career that never really took off. He was twenty one when he quit. Morphy considered chess to be amateurish and not a serious profession. Chess players , in those days, were considered no more than professional gamblers.
Catch the movie if you’re a fan of chess history but don’t expect fireworks. The movie, though not cerebral, works if you’re aware of the back story else you might as well stay at home.