“Pawn Sacrifice” Is Cold War Chess
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Forgive my boasting, but I once beat the chess champion of Pensacola, Florida. He fell for the Fool’s Mate, the shortest possible chess game ending in mate (1.f3 e5 2.g4 Qh4#). I learned this move by
reading a book called “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.”
As Fischer advised, “In chess so much depends on opening theory.” As it happened, my opponent was thinking so far ahead he didn’t recognize this simple opening gambit.
Robert James “Bobby” Fischer is considered to be the greatest chess player of all time. But as he saw it, he was “an all around genius who just happens to play chess,”
At 13 he won the so-called Game of the Century. By 20 he won the US Championship with 11-11, the only perfect score in the history of the tournament.
In 1972 he captured the World Chess Championship from USSR grandmaster Boris Spassky. The event was trumpeted as a Cold War confrontation between Russia and the US.
That’s the subject of “Pawn Sacrifice,” the new biopic playing at Tropic Cinema. It stars Tobey Maguire (“Spider-Man”) as Fischer and Liev Schrieber (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) as Spassky.
Directed by Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond,” “Love & Other Drugs”), Maguire gives a convincing portrayal of this chess prodigy caught between two superpowers, barely able to keep his own madness in check.
It’s that old trope about the thin line between madness and genius.
The Soviets had held a monopoly on the World Chess Championship since 1948. According to Victor Baturinsky, head of Soviet Chess Sports Committee, at the time the Soviet leadership had only one goal: How to stop Fischer from becoming World Champion.
The American government saw this as a national challenge. The pressure to win was enormous. Their attempted manipulations fed into Bobby Fischer’s growing paranoia. It took a phone call from Henry Kissinger to talk him into playing.
Already showing signs of mental instability, Fischer set forth rigid conditions on everything from TV cameras to special lighting to the chair cushions. He showed up in Iceland for the match only hours short of forfeiture. After a rocky start, Fischer prevailed to become the 11th World Chess Champion.
As Spassky admits, “I was the strongest from 1964 to 1970, but in 1971 Fischer was already stronger.”
Afterwards, Fischer became a recluse, refusing to defend his title.
Oddly enough, he and Boris Spassky became friends and exchanged letters. In 1992, they met in an unofficial rematch and Fischer won again. As Spassky put it, “When you play Bobby, it is not a question if you win or lose. It is a question if you survive.”
Fischer’s participation in this rematch violated a US embargo. To avoid a charge of tax evasion, he lived in Hungary, Germany, the Philippines, and other countries. With his American passport revoked, he was detained for over eight months in Japan, until Iceland granted him citizenship.
Slipping deeper into mental illness, Fischer became vocally anti-Semitic (although his mother was in fact Jewish). And he continued to rail against the US, saying, “The white people should go back to Europe, and the country should be returned to the American Indians.” He hated ready-made suits and button-down collars. He feared his chess opponents were trying to poison him. He applauded 9/11 and hoped a military coup in the US would lead to the closing of Jewish synagogues. Crazy stuff.
As a result, the US Chess Federation expelled him.
Although probably suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, Bobby Fischer never engaged in psychotherapy with any mental health professional. “I don’t believe in psychology,” the troubled genius defended his position.
Bobby Fischer died in 2004.
Now 78 years old, Boris Spassky says, “I still speak to Bobby in my dreams.”