The story of Bobby Fischer and the epic game the 29 year old played against Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky at the 1972 World Chess Championship.
Pawn Sacrifice is a tense and gripping drama that focuses the spotlight on American chess phenomenon Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), who squares off against his Russian rival Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in the 1972 “Match of the Century” in Reykjavik, directed by Edward Zwick (Glory) from a crackling screenplay by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Locke). It is now available on DVD
Producer Gail Katz has a strong personal memory of the story of Bobby Fischer and the epic game the 29 year old played against Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky at the 1972 World Chess Championship.
“My dad owned a small coffee shop in Hollywood and I waitressed for him that summer,” explains Katz. “After work everyday, we’d turn on the car radio to find out what had happened in Reykjavik, Iceland. There were many important events going on that summer — McGovern was running, Vietnam, the Watergate break-in, but what everybody cared about most was the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky match.”
Katz wondered why nobody had made a movie about this iconic event that had focused the world’s attention so keenly on what was called “The Match of the Century”— the moment when a chess player became as famous as a heavyweight boxer or a rock star.
Katz set out to rectify the situation and tell the story of both the match and the man, Bobby Fischer. She pitched the idea to some writers she wanted to work with and approached Tobey Maguire. “We thought of him as a perfect Bobby Fischer,” says Katz.
Maguire was instantly drawn to the project. “He was a very complicated compelling character—this hero/anti-hero guy that I thought would be interesting to play.”
He accepted the role of Bobby Fischer and also came on board as a producer. “We’ve been involved in developing it for the last nine years,” explains Maguire.
“Gail Katz brought the idea of putting together a Bobby Fischer film and we talked about what it could be. We looked at Bobby’s life and I thought that having a sports movie structure would be a good way to structure the film. We see his beginnings and witness him fall in love with the game. We see his unusual rise at an early age and then ultimately going towards the world championship.”
“This movie was developed for many years at Sony Pictures,” explains Katz of PAWN SACRIFICE’s journey from her initial idea to the screen. “We were able to, with their blessing, take it in turnaround and set it up independently. That was a hard road. It took about a year to put together the financing, first having Lionsgate sell the foreign rights to the picture. Then, we were fortunate to find a great financial partner in MICA Entertainment, who showed their belief in the project by coming in and fully financing the project. The team did an amazing job to create a movie that we feel is a big picture. It spans three decades and it covers the planet. It has a lot of moving parts, a big cast and it should be a very big picture. We’re very proud of it.”
“This movie crosses several genres,” says Katz. “Of course it has elements of a biopic. It’s also a sports movie. Chess is a great competition and this has all the markings of a sports movie. It also has political intrigue, so it’s really a cross between all three. Ultimately it’s a portrait of a fascinating human being.”
Maguire agrees the story is about much more than chess. “The thing I’m interested in is studying people who are challenging for our society. I try to expand my own understanding and compassion of humanity by studying and portraying people who are not considered normal, down the middle, perfectly acceptable kind of people,” says Maguire. “I appreciate movies that are redefining what normal is. Now, Bobby is further afield than a lot of people and had his challenges and could be destructive. There’s danger in that and that needs to be taken seriously, but I also don’t think we should condemn people with problems.”
“It’s kind of a big concept thing,” says Weigert. “We’ve been spoon fed the same thing over and over again by our cinema. We should identify with and valorize the lone wolf, the guy who does it on his own, defies the odds, who wins and becomes famous. That’s our surrogate on screen always. This movie makes that a more complicated equation in a way that is good for an audience. You can’t escape from the fact that he’s also sick. There’s some sickness in the culture, because the culture so strongly promotes this. So I think the movie has a chance to wake us up a little bit. It’s more than a literal biopic of Bobby Fischer and there’s a lesson, a worthwhile one.”
Finding the writer
“Once the project stalled we decided we needed a new script,” says Katz. “We approached Steve Knight, who wrote a script about three years ago that knocked our socks off. It was at the top of the blacklist, which by Hollywood standards means it’s one of the most beloved scripts in town.”
Knight remembered the Fischer vs Spassky match well and was immediately interested.
“I remember the actual event and what a stir it caused. It was one of the first really global events that the media picked up on,” recalls Knight.
“It’s one of those incredible stories, and Bobby is also one of those characters, that fiction wouldn’t dare create. It gives you permission to do this wild story, which is fantastic.”
Knight knew that Tobey Maguire would play Bobby Fischer before he started working on the script.
“It really helps when you’re writing a script to know who the lead character is going to be because you can feel it better and tailor it to that person,” says Knight, who avoided reading earlier drafts.
“I love acting, I love actors,” says Maguire. “I go see a lot of theater myself and there are plenty of great actors who don’t do theater. But it just so happens that a lot of our main cast has come out of the theater. It’s such a good group, I would sit there with Ed and Gail, and we’d go, “Boy, did we get lucky!”
Knight enjoyed writing the role of Bobby for Maguire and thinks the actor nailed it. “I have a theory that when people are watching a movie on a screen, the most important place is the eyes of the lead actor,” says Knight. “Tobey’s eyes have that depth that you see in Bobby Fischer sometimes. You see that intensity. He’s a brilliant actor and uniquely able to rummage through the oddness and curiosities that were part of that character and bring them to life. He really does nail it.”
Instead he read biographies to better get to know Bobby and the story. After a few drafts, his script attracted a lot of attention from both talented actors and directors.
“The page and the film are always totally different things,” says Knight. “I would say routinely 50 percent of this stuff is different and the director will take it in a different direction. Edward has a fantastic eye, so it looks beautiful, but he’s also brilliant with allowing the actors to do what they need to do and finding the truth of the character.”
“It all came together when Ed Zwick signed on to direct,” says Katz. “He’s a great storyteller. It was important that somebody direct this movie who not only had great flair and style as a filmmaker but also had insight into the material and wanted to push the limits of how you can tell this story in a commercial and compelling way.”
Zwick was a friend of Knight’s. “My first connection with the story was through Steve Knight,” explains Edward Zwick, who had worked with Knight when he first came to the US. “I’d known about the script, and that it was something they were trying to get going but were having trouble doing. I would hear about it periodically. Then I finally read it and it was compelling in so many ways.”
Zwick and Knight got to work honing the script.
“The work that we did was getting to the chase, the nub, the story of what happened, and how this incredible young boy grew up to be somebody who changed the world,” explains Knight.
Each person who came on board contributed to the project and influenced the script according to Maguire.
“The layers kept getting added to the script as we went along and as I learned more, even throughout the shooting,” says the actor/producer. “The different people who become involved along the way add what they bring to it. Steve gave us something great, then when Ed came in we did more work based on his point of view and my own developing ideas about what to do. Within a few weeks of us really digging in, we found a great way to work together and became great partners.”
The David and Goliath elements of the story also appealed to Zwick.
“The idea of this kid from Brooklyn going up against the great Soviet Bear was thrilling on so many levels,” he explains. “It was irresistible in some basic way, almost as a sports movie. The idea that this underdog kid somehow manages to find his way toward the championship follows an almost genre-like structure, but at the same time it’s the story of someone seeking to win everything even as he’s fighting against losing his mind.”
“It’s one of those unusual cases when an individual can fight a war on his own and be recognized around the world as a victory for his culture and his nation,” explains Knight. “On his own, Bobby single handedly defeated the entire Soviet chess system. It was a formidable machine, financed by the government because they wanted Soviet chess to be the proof that their system was the best. He came along and dismantled it. It’s the story of one man representing an entire way of life.”
“In many ways it conforms to a lot of issues I’ve been interested in in movies, and in other ways departs from them,” explains Zwick. “The fact that it is contextually in this political moment of confrontation between East and West, which was such an interesting and rich moment dramatically, and even more because it was a complex character study. It addressed themes that I had always been interested in but hadn’t yet had an opportunity to portray. One of which is this odd, almost inevitable, relationship between genius and madness.”
“The Bobby Fischer story has so many different stories within it, it’s a question of choosing which bits of the story you are going to tell,” explains Knight. “It’s getting the voice right and getting his voice right, and finding out who this person is. It’s not a biopic but it’s a picture that’s dominated by one character and one person’s story. Getting him right means you get the film right.”
“It carries with it a very bittersweet almost melancholy tone even amidst the victory,” says Zwick. “We the audience know what became of him. Here was this halcyon moment in which he was able to accomplish everything that he’d always dreamed of, even given the obstacle of those demons he was already battling and able to keep at bay so as to win. It’s a truly marvelous, inspiring story. At the same time it anticipates something in popular culture. This was the beginning of the age of the media star.”
“In some way he was the first punk hero,” says Zwick. “He was kind of pre-punk, which is to say he was difficult, he was arrogant, he didn’t really give a damn what other people thought, he was demanding, and he was quite wild in some of the things that he did. Yet, he was able to carry it off because he was so great. There began in the culture a fascination with this kind of anti-hero, anti-authoritarian figure that everyone loved. Here is this rather socially awkward, heedless, genius who nonetheless captures our imagination.”
Zwick says this is not a conventional biopic and Bobby isn’t the only focus of Knight’s script. “It’s not reverential,” says Zwick. “Steve did wonderful homework and we all did our own research, even down to the nuance of the exact layouts of the boards, etc.” But Knight was just as interested in the inner lives of the people around Bobby. “Steve was just as interested in the inner life of Boris Spassky; his story, becomes a very important part of the movie. “The intention of a movie like this is to invest in the emotional journeys of the characters more than it is in teaching the audience how to play chess.”
As much as Pawn Sacrifice is centered on chess, it’s the players that make the game and define the story. The psychological details are as important as the physical ones. “To make sure events in Bobby’s life are accurately portrayed,” says Katz, “I consulted with psychologists and psychoanalysts talking about Bobby’s progression and what kind of affliction he might have had to make sure we portrayed it as best we could.”
Knight also did a lot of research to ensure the accuracy of the characters. “I spoke to people who had met him and knew him,” says Knight. “I read a lot about him. The most useful material were the interviews and archival footage of him talking about himself. Just getting the voice, the odd way that he talked. He was one of those people you would notice walking down the street and think ‘that is a curious person.’ Without his gift he could have ended up as a homeless person. Any of those fates awaited him, but he was just so gifted at chess that he was saved by it, and yet at the same time cursed by it. I did have a call in to Henry Kissinger but that never eventually came off, which was a shame.”
Though reality was sometimes bent to fit the dramatic narrative, they tried to stay true to the essence of the story. “You have to be mindful of the fact that you are making a movie rather than a documentary,” says Zwick. “There was already a wonderful documentary made by Liz Garbus called Bobby Fischer Against the World. So we really tried to pay heed to the facts of the story. But as in any film, conversations and relationships need to be imagined. You have to fill in. The filling in is legitimate as long as you are aware of your intent and purpose. That being said, Tobey is just a treasure trove of what Bobby said when, and how he behaved. He literally studied every utterance, and really devoted himself to understanding him.”
“The people I talked to who were with Bobby around that time said you rarely took a head-on tactic with Bobby. He needed to be given space and sort of coaxed along,” explains Maguire. “At times, we played it a bit differently than it actually happened. For instance, when he went missing before Iceland, Bobby ended up staying with a friend of his he knew, Anthony Saidy, in Saidy’s family home. Saidy isn’t a character in our film, so we played it with Paul Marshall accompanying him to the airport after Bobby had made a certain set of demands.”
“It was important to find Bobby as a child because he was a very curious boy,” explains Knight. “At the age of seven he was suddenly good at chess. He was more than good, he was a prodigy, but he was born into this very odd New York Jewish family. His mother was a Communist and he had a sister who looked after him. He had a very poor and strange upbringing. He was already a very strange boy but with this incredible gift. It was finding how he shaped the gift and really how the gift shaped him. He had no choice really. He was so good.”
“He played other games as a kid as well but gave up all games with any element of chance because he would get really frustrated when he had put himself in a good position to win and an element of chance would then intervene and cause a loss,” explains Maguire, giving insight into Bobby’s deep need for control. “He would get extremely frustrated and wanted something that didn’t have any chance. For him chess was a search for truth.”
Bobby’s relationship with his mother was difficult and his father was probably not who his mother claimed. His birth certificate listed his father as Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist. “He didn’t really know who his father was. It’s commonly thought that his real father is someone other than the person he knew as his father,” explains Maguire. “There’s a 900 page FBI report on Regina Fischer, and based on a lot of evidence in there it would seem that Paul Nemenyi was actually Bobby’s father.”
Paul Felix Nemenyi, a Hungarian mathematician and physicist specializing in continuum mechanics, is generally considered to be Bobby Fischer’s biological father. Government documents show that Hans-Gerhardt Fischer never entered the United States, having been refused admission by U.S. immigration officials because of alleged Communist sympathies. Not only were Regina and Nemenyi reported to have had an affair in 1942, but Paul Nemenyi made monthly child support payments to Regina. Nemenyi paid for Bobby’s schooling until his own death in 1952. Additionally, Nemenyi lodged complaints with social workers, saying he was concerned about the way that Regina was raising Bobby, to the point that, on at least one occasion, Nemenyi broke down in tears. Later on Bobby told the Hungarian chess player Zita Rajcsanyi that Paul Nemenyi would sometimes show up at the family’s Brooklyn apartment and take him on outings. After Paul Nemenyi died, in 1952, Regina Fischer wrote a letter to Paul Nemenyi’s first son, asking if Paul had left money for Bobby in his will.
“His mother did leave him, when he was 15, 16 years old, to look after himself effectively,” recounts Maguire. “He was very resentful of that and at the same time wanted to impress his mother, always wanted to show her that he was worth something. You had the personal and the political tied together in this tight knot, he’s getting his revenge on his mother by getting his revenge on Russia, because he hated Russia at the time and he hated the Soviets.”
“Bobby’s mother comes from a very particular strain of political consciousness in the United States in the 1950s,” explains Zwick, “the Jewish Communists in Brooklyn who marched against the Rosenbergs and the bomb. What we found out is that there was in fact a thousand page file on Regina Fischer, and then on Bobby as he would travel to these Eastern European countries. He was very much an object of attention and focus to the FBI. The idea that somebody who was surveilled even as a kid and was aware of it, and would be told by his parents how to deal with it, the idea that that would become the currency of paranoia later on, was this additional strain to put into the movie, because it wasn’t only him but it was also Boris Spassky who was coming out as the gladiator for this system, in which he too was in some sense a prisoner and surveilled.”
Bobby’s paranoia and fear of being spied upon may have had roots in his childhood and the very real political tensions surrounding his match with the USSR, but Schreiber suspects that the very nature of high-level chess encourages a certain kind of paranoia. “There was a documentary about this match and in particular about Fischer’s paranoia,” says Schreiber. “One of his mentors said, ‘Imagine that you become accustomed to thinking 150 moves ahead all of the time and that cognitive process goes into your normal life. Perhaps you might be a little paranoid too.”
“As he developed,” explains Knight, “and people realized that he could be a contender, all of those burning issues of the day were laid on his shoulders. It was America vs. Russia. He realized it, he knew the weight of expectation, but he was such a fragile human being. The fact that he carried that weight and won is one of the most remarkable stories of the century.” Sarsgaard thinks part of Fischer’s popularity was his daring playing style. “He tried an opening that he had never done before in competition, it’s not an opening that is very common,” says Sarsgaard. “People are very attracted to that with Bobby Fischer. He didn’t just win in a normal way, he won by throwing convention out the window. That makes him an attractive character.”
Fischer was very much the underdog and at a general disadvantage against the Soviets, who had a whole state apparatus supporting them. “The Russians generally had seconds, thirds, and fourths,” says Katz. “They had many great chess players to advise them and plan strategy with during the match. Bobby had just Bill Lombardy. That was his team, Bill and a lawyer, Paul Marshall.”
Zwick says the beach scene is where the analogy to the fight movie is most pronounced. “The idea that this kid is given his shot that he loses. He loses for all sorts of reasons, some of which are just himself as his own worst enemy. The fact that it sets up a situation where he has to triumph over himself so as to win is very strong.” Zwick continues. “It’s strong dramatically, it also happened to be true. That moment at the beach is a moment of real soul searching and confrontation in which he finds the same will and fire that he had as a kid, and vows to come back. And indeed he does come back.”
There is the symbolic battle between America and the USSR, but it is two men who are fighting to win the chessboard. “They’re combatants that have a mutual respect for each other but at the same time are trying to vanquish each other,” says Maguire. “I think they understand each other. They’re in a very elite group of chess players and therefore they have a certain kind of understanding of one another.”
The force of a player’s personality, as well as his intellect, is a large part of chess. “It’s about the intellectual domination,” explains Zwick. “It’s about the force of personality, concentration, focus, and unwavering aggression even that gets expressed in the most microcosmic form.” Maguire understood the dance between Fischer’s aggressive ambition and fragile psyche. “Bobby was a very aggressive chess player, he played for wins, he didn’t like to play for draws,” explains Maguire. “He loses in Santa Monica to Spassky and he’s angry about it. He does not like losing. He’s a serious competitor. He loses and it shakes him up.”
Fischer’s competitiveness was only matched by his anxiety and need to control his environment, which led to a stringent list of demands about the arena of play. “I think Bobby was going to go no matter what,” says Maguire of Fischer’s legendary match in Iceland and notorious list of demands. “He was often in the midst of negotiating the terms and conditions under which he would play and this was no exception. I’m sure that his anxiety played into how far he was going in his negotiating.”
Zwick thinks there’s another motivation too. “Bobby was legendarily contentious about the conditions for tournaments and about the money that he deserved,” he explains. “He felt that chess was always treated as a poor stepchild. At the same time, one could suggest that he was resisting his destiny and this moment of final confrontation with Boris Spassky,” says Zwick. “Having worked as hard as he had to get to this moment it’s quite another thing to then have to face it. After he faced it he never played chess again. He did briefly but he never defended his title. This victory was the beginning of his downward spiral.”
“It’s a tragic story after this moment,” continues Zwick, “and we don’t shy away from it. Those things that did him in are present, and yet managed somehow by him and by others during this period. I think what happened after he won is that they began to have greater sway over him and his personality. Within several years he was homeless and at times delusional. He believed himself to be victimized so he began to make even more scurrilous statements where he applauded 9/11.”
“Any kind of mental or emotional troubles he had, those were congenital, they were going to come out to some degree,” says Zwick. “The form that they take, the currency of them, that’s influenced by your circumstance. This notion of paranoia, of being surveilled, communism and politics being conspiratorial, that’s the currency of his life. I don’t believe that he does something to please his mother or to search for this absent unknown father, and yet all of these things conspire to make him more vulnerable to the psychological problems that all of us face, and less able to deal with them.”
“The manifestation of his mental disease grew worse and worse,” explains Katz. “He became highly anti-Semitic, which is ironic and hard to believe because he was Jewish. He also ultimately became very anti-American. In 1992, he and Boris Spassky decided to play a rematch as an exhibition in Yugoslavia. The United States had sanctions against Yugoslavia and he was warned that if he went he wouldn’t be able to return to the United States without being prosecuted. Ultimately, he won the match but he never returned to the United States. He lived in exile for the rest of his life. He ultimately ended up in a jail in Japan for trying to use a passport that had been expired, and the only country in the world that would give him political asylum was Iceland. He returned to Iceland and that’s where he died in 2008.” Zwick adds, “He is buried there in Iceland where he had his greatest triumph.”