Friday, September 18, 2015

"Pawn Sacrifice": Bio of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer maps his boorish behavior onto Cold War politics

Pawn Sacrifice” (2015, directed by Edward Zwick) is a biography of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, with a certain emphasis on the events leading up to the 1972 World Championship chess match in Iceland (link), including the way the US government (according to the film) politicized the match as a proxy for the Cold War, as if that explained all of Bobby’s eccentric, boorish behavior.

Tobey Maguire, now 40, seems a little soft physically compared to the real-life Fischer at the time, and his performance makes Fischer’s antics seem even more problematical. But even Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) pulled some antics of his own.

The movie does not generate real suspense, and the effect is to provoke a sense of hysteria, rather than real rooting interest, or real intrigue into the game itself.  But it is hard to present chess as a sport to a “mainstream” audience.

The chess in the actual match is remarkable. Fischer pitched a piece in a drawn ending in the first game with a beginner’s mistake, although he thought he saw a phantom way to extract the Bishop.  

The second game Bobby (making ridiculous complaints about playing conditions) forfeited, and then Spassky gave in to Fischer’s demands for political reasons and allowed the match to continue, after which Fischer relentlessly outplayed him, winning four times with the Black pieces, not always choosing the soundest openings.

In fact, Fischer had been known for a rather transparent view of the openings, preferring King’s Pawn for White, almost as a political statement against emerging Soviet theory favoring Queen pawn opening for White (especially in the 1960s, when I was entering the world of tournament chess myself) – predicated on the idea that many Queenside openings allow White to keep the tension in the center longer.  Game 6 was famous because Fischer pulled a surprise, playing a White side of a Queen’s Gambit, for which Spassky was not well prepared, and whereupon Spassky made a serious  error at the start of the middle game, leading to his being crushed positionally. This has been called one of the greatest games ever played, compared to a Yankee victory over the Red Sox to end the 1978 baseball season and secure a Yankee pennant as the greatest baseball game ever.

I’ve often written on social media that baseball and football managers, and especially pitchers and quarterbacks, should learn to play chess.  A few of the Washington Nationals players have read my comments.

Peter Sarsgaard is gentle as Father William Lombardy, Fischer’s coach and a popular grandmaster at the time, often analyzing games in the United States Chess Federation’s magazine.

I was particularly active myself in chess while in grad school and in the Army, and later in the early 1980s when living in Dallas.  The highest rating I ever got was short of 2000, as I was erratic, sometimes beating 2300 players but losing to 1400 players.  Upsets were common in my games, and Black won as often as White. Blunders happen, just as they do in major pro sports.

The film concludes with a quick synopsis of Fischer’s deterioration in his later years, including needing to seek asylum from the US and live in Iceland until his 2008 death after traveling illegally to play in a sanctioned country.

The official site is here

I saw the movie Friday afternoon at the Angelika Mosaic theater before a fair weekday audience.
A comparison film could be “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993) by Steven Zaillian (Paramount).


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