Pawn Sacrifice


When I took my grandkids to “The Man from U.N.C.L.E,” they were confused by the context. The Cold War era is apparently not discussed much in elementary schools. Maybe not in secondary schools, either, but that unique context is even more important in order to understand “Pawn Sacrifice.”
Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) grew up in the 1950's in Brooklyn. His mother, Regina (Robin Weigert) was a bona fide, self-avowed Communist, and as such, was apparently on the watch list of some unnamed government agency. (I wonder if the FBI has ever confirmed this?) Bobby had a much older sister, Joan (Lily Rabe), and an absent father, and, according to this film, a precoccupied mother. So when he discovered chess, he became obsessed. He played against anyone he could find, including strangers on park benches (well, it is kind of a thing in New York City). He beat everybody. His mother apprently recognized his unique talent, and brought her boy to a legitimate chess grand master, who was suitably impressed enough to encourage the prodigy to compete in tournaments, and to study the other grand masters. Bobby rolled through the opposition like an unstoppable force. He could not only think several moves ahead, he could create combinations that apparerently didn't occur to anyone else. A true genius.
Why is it that true genius seems to be inevitably accompanied by madness? The shotmaking in the film seems to imply that Fischer was tremendously A.D.D., bothered by noises like ticking clocks, and distracted by almost any random sound, even a chair scraping on the floor. True, his mental exertions required enormous concentration, but he couldn't expect to live in a soundproof bubble. In fact, he lived in an urban walk-up, where he spent most of his time in his room. (The movie does not deal with his schooling or his school work.) Though seemingly socially awkward, he apparently acquires quite an ego as he marches upward through the chess rankings. He becomes convinced that nobody can beat him, and sets out to prove just that. When he catapults to national promience by winning the U.S. Championship, he acquires a lawyer-agent, and has all of one friend, a priest (Peter Sarsgaard), himself a former chess competitor. That's his inner circle. He's now estranged from his Mom, and rarely speaks to his sister. As his isolation increases, so do his demands.
He quits an international competition in disgust when he concludes that the Chess Federation's point system was set up to favor the Russian team. But the world has suddenly taken notice of Fisher's genius, and is eager to see this kind of Cold War confrontation between Bobby Fischer and the Russian champion, Boris Spassky.
It's not easy to set up; not only does Fischer have to beat everybody else first (which he does), when they finally establish the big showdown match, in Reykjavik, Iceland, Fischer finds a way to be upset with everything from accomodations to travel arrangements to press interviews (he hates them) to the bothersome camera crews filming every move. Yes, he's become an insufferable prima donna, and somewhat delusional, and even paranoid about the Communist Threat (ironic, given his mother's upbringing). But finally, the match is set up, and, literally, the world is watching.
Except Fischer gets distracted by outside noise in Game One, and loses the first match. He doesn't show up for the second match, demanding changes in the room arrangements, and so he loses that one by forfeit. Spassky, thinking he now has an insurmountable lead, agrees to Fischer's demands, but then the genius begins to emerge, causing Spassky, at one point, to just stand up and applaud his opponent, unheard of in international competition. Fischer uses tactics he's never employed before, which completely flummoxes Spassky, who's spent so much time studying Fischer's previous tendencies. Fischer triumphs, and somehow the sentiment is like the U.S. Olympic hockey team beating the Russians eight years later, in 1980: the Great Russian Bear is somehow vulnerable.
Well, a decade later, of course, that become very apparent. But for the time, this was big for American pride. Fischer, for his part, continued to descend into his own inner madness, but his tournmanent play is still being studied by grand masters today. And probably will be for centuries to come. Which is an ironic immortality for someone so crazy-smart.

Questions For Discussion:
  1. Have you known someone truly brilliant who was also a little odd?
  2. Chess is one of the few games that involves no luck; only skill. How good are you at it?
  3. Bobby Fischer appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Should chess be considered a sport?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Kaufman, Texas