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'Pawn Sacrifice' Examines Genius Of Chess Champion Bobby Fischer


In the summer of 1972, the world's attention was improbably focused on chess. Some television stations had regular reports and analyses of the action in Reykjavik, Iceland. That's where the American Bobby Fischer challenged and ultimately defeated the Russian world champion, Boris Spassky. That match and the character of Bobby Fischer are the subject of a new movie called "Pawn Sacrifice." Tobey Maguire plays Bobby Fischer.


PETER SARSGAARD: (As Father Bill Lombardy) This game, it's a rabbit hole. After only four moves, there's more than 300 billion options to consider. It can take you very close to the edge.

SIEGEL: "Pawn Sacrifice" puts the match very much in the context of its Cold War setting. We wanted to get a sense of how the movie looks to someone who really knows chess, so we're calling on Andy Soltis. He's a chess grandmaster and a chess writer. He has long written about chess and reported on other stories for the New York Post. Welcome to the program.

ANDY SOLTIS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: First, this movie is very much about Bobby Fischer. It's about his brilliance at the game and also his paranoia. You played against him. Does "Pawn Sacrifice" convey a good sense of Fischer?

SOLTIS: I think it does, and that's one of the problems with the movie. Bobby was not a very likable person. And this is a movie about a man cracking up. That works as entertainment if the subject is, say, John Nash and the movie is "A Beautiful Mind." But you have to be sympathetic to the character, and you can't do that really well with Bobby Fischer.

SIEGEL: I have to confess. Even knowing the outcome, I was actually rooting for Spassky there for a couple of minutes.

SOLTIS: That's the other problem. This is a sporting movie. This is another "Rocky," another "Karate Kid" or "A League Of Their Own" except the subject is chess. And you're building up to the final thing, and you really - you have to have a rooting interest. But it's really hard to be in Fischer's camp by the time that the final credits roll.

SIEGEL: Are there moments in the chess scenes in "Pawn Sacrifice" when you say, they really nailed that one or, this one is a real howler?

SOLTIS: Oh, yeah, sure. There are both types. A lot of the mannerisms that Fischer did over the board when he was adjusting his pieces or looking at it with the side of his head, Maguire did that well. The actual moves of that match are the moves that you'll see in the movie. But a lot of the movie, people just stand back and look at Fischer and say, that's incredible. Wow. He played this first move that he's never played before. And they're in awe of this, which is ridiculous.

SIEGEL: Ridiculous - why do you say that?

SOLTIS: Because these moves are not that remarkable. The film ends when they're calling this game he played the greatest ever, and everybody supposedly acknowledges it. But in fact, it wasn't that great a game. It wasn't the best game even played in that match. And chess players can probably figure that out, but the general public will enjoy it.

SIEGEL: For members of the general public like me, Bobby Fischer always represented a very intriguing mix of a certain kind of genius that was mental, who was logical, who was kind of mathematical, but it seemed to be limited to exactly one thing - chess. I mean, was there a more useful or more interesting side to his intelligence that you knew of?

SOLTIS: Bobby was smart, but he was uneducated. He taught himself all sorts of languages. Bobby just didn't apply himself in a lot of different ways and fortunately, chess was able to occupy his mind because he could've ended up very badly otherwise.

SIEGEL: The Cold War theme of the movie "Pawn Sacrifice," for me, actually feels a little bit more like 1962 and Cuban Missile Crisis time than 1972 when Richard Nixon had negotiated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow. He'd been to China. Remind me. I mean, was the match in Reykjavik that cloaked in Cold War competition?

SOLTIS: I think there were overtones like that. But one of the things that the movie gets wrong is that they try to make - I mean, Bobby is the pawn, the sacrifice. The idea is here that forces in the United States government were maneuvering him into this propaganda victory.

SIEGEL: That's the theme of the movie.

SOLTIS: Yes, that's it.

SOLTIS: The funny thing is that the man who became his business agent, representative, lawyer - Paul Marshall is it by name - actually got to meet Fischer through one of Paul's clients who was David Frost. And it wasn't - he wasn't put up to it by Richard Nixon as the movie sort of implies.

There's a pivotal scene where Fischer gets a phone call, and it's Kissinger. And you hear this dramatic voice saying that this is the worst chess player in the world addressing the best one. And the movie suggests, you know, that's Nixon getting him to make this call and get Fischer to, you know, get over to Iceland.

In point of fact, Paul Marshall had called David Frost in Acapulco. And Frost then called Kissinger and suggested look; here's what we have to do. We have to call this guy and Kissinger replied, you know, I get all the nutty jobs around here. Sure, I'll do it.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) It is remarked somewhere in the movie "Pawn Sacrifice" that Fischer's not so much afraid of losing as afraid of winning.


SIEGEL: Is that - you buy that?

SOLTIS: I think that's basically true. There was a guy named Reuben Fine who was one of the best chess players in the world in the 1930s, a New Yorker. And he eventually gave up chess for psychology. And he said chess was the best therapy for Fischer. And if it hadn't been for chess, he would've done - one of, you know, Fischer's colleagues said he could have been a dangerous psychopath, and those were his words. And that's basically how the movie ends, that he's reached his greatest achievement and, what am I going to do now? I don't have chess to occupy - in fact, he didn't play chess against a 20 years.

SIEGEL: In some sports - I'm including chess as a sport - we just assume that today's competitors, given whatever training tools they have or whatever instruments they have - what kind of tennis racket, what kind of golf club - they're all better today than the people who played the game 30 years ago. Does one assume that the quality of chess players grows in that sense, or if Fischer came back tomorrow, could he take on all the guys who are playing the game right now?

SOLTIS: He would need some time to catch up, catch up on the opening theory and that type of stuff. And he would also have to get used to working with computers because that's - the computers are just so much better than chess players nowadays. There's a world championship chess tournament going on right now that hardly anybody pays attention to in the chess world because all the players in it are computers, and they're far much - far better than we are. They make moves that we just don't understand.

SIEGEL: Chess writer Andy Soltis talking with us about the new movie "Pawn Sacrifice" about Bobby Fischer. Thanks for talking with us.

SOLTIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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