Brow Beat

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Pawn Sacrifice

Liev Schreiber (left) stars as Boris Spassky and Tobey Maguire (right) stars as Bobby Fischer in Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice.

Photo by Takashi Seida/Bleecker Street Media

Writing a good screenplay about chess is almost as tough as beating Bobby Fischer in his prime. Tournament games are slow, quiet, arcane little battles, not easily translated on screen to a general audience. And the amount of exposition required to make the game understandable to neophytes can turn off experienced viewers. So chess folk can forgive a little historical fudging in Pawn Sacrifice, the new movie opening this week about the 1972 World Championship Match, if it helps hustle the narrative of Edward Zwick’s film along.

Indeed, screenwriter Steven Knight (!) took a few liberties in building up Fischer rival Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), for instance. Midway through the film, Spassky is announced in a voiceover as the World Champion at a 1966 tournament in California, where he edged out Fischer for first place. But Spassky didn’t actually win that title until three years later; the actual champ in 1966 was the other Soviet at that tournament, Tigran Petrosian. But moviegoers can’t be expected to keep too many Soviet chessplayers straight in their heads at once, so this is an understandable j’adoube.

Nearly all of the technical details in the film are correct. I didn’t spot a single board set up with an incorrect position; Fischer and his coach, William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) speak and write using descriptive chess notation instead of the modern algebraic notation, which is what Fischer used in the match; and the general look and feel of the various tournaments and matches the film portrays all convey the proper ambience of major tournaments in the 1950s and 1960s.  

I caught only one major error that was clearly not part of smoothing out the story line, and it was pretty funny: During one of the match games, Fischer’s coach is seen following the game on a board in the press room along with the Soviet coaches. They make Fischer and Spassky’s moves on their own board as they’re made in the playing hall, which is normal, but they also have a chess clock running next to the board and hit it after each move, which is inane. They themselves aren’t playing a game, just analyzing a game in progress, so hitting the clock after each move has absolutely no point; to a chess player, the scene looks like an absurdist Monty Python sketch.

So the movie takes care to present its chess as realistically as possible. How about its chess players? Tobey Maguire’s version of Bobby Fischer is a bit overwrought; Bobby was a little crazy, but not that crazy. Maguire’s portrayal has him at two speeds: either freaking out about something, or getting ready to freak out about something, and usually with a serial killer look in his eyes.

Fischer had some wild episodes and beliefs, but his chess demands—mostly having to do with fair playing conditions, money, and that the Soviets behave—were far from being completely stupid. One allegation portrayed prominently in the film—that Soviet players were pre-arranging quick draws with each other to gain tactical advantage over him at the 1962 Candidates Tournament in Curacao— is still debated today, but likely to be at least partly true.

Spassky is as complex a person as Fischer was, and the film captures this very well. It was surely tempting to paint Spassky as a cold, faceless member of the Soviet juggernaut, a chess version of Ivan Drago from Rocky IV—and indeed, the first half of the movie makes him out to be mostly just that. But Spassky is known in the chess world as a droll, worldly, pleasant, and thoughtful person, and Schreiber subtly captures this as his character opens up in the second half of the film. The filmmakers played this one just right, and Schreiber’s performance is the best part of the movie.

The final 30 minutes of Pawn Sacrifice dramatize the 1972 World Championship match in which Fischer convincingly won the title from Spassky. Serious newscasters explaining the match in various languages provide the Cold War backdrop, and the call from Kissinger pleading with Bobby to win the match for his country really did take place.*

Some of the match details get the Hollywood treatment, however. Game 1 was drifting toward a boring draw when Fischer suddenly electrified the position with a rash pawn grab, 29…Bh2. Spassky responded with 30.g3, trapping the rogue bishop, and in the film, Maguire’s Fischer immediately looks thunderstruck. After a moment of shock (and with that super-crazy look in his eyes), he resigns the game without making another move, then hurries off the stage.

But the real Fischer didn’t overlook Spassky’s obvious pawn move, and didn’t resign the game in response to it. The struggle lasted another 26 moves, and was in fact adjourned (as was customary after five hours of play at that time) and not completed until the following day. Fischer’s 29…Bh2 was certainly a bad move; he was trying too hard to win the first game of the match, when a draw with the black pieces would have been a perfectly satisfactory result for him (as the movie’s dialogue notes). But he overpressed and lost instead.  

One of the best scenes in the film comes after Fischer wins Game 6 of the match, taking for the first time a lead he would never relinquish. Showing his admiration for Fischer’s impressive play, Spassky began applauding along with the audience after shaking the American’s hand to indicate his resignation.

This really happened; as grandmaster Svetozar Gligoric writes in his contemporary book on the match: “With thousands of spectators applauding Fischer’s classical style win in the sixth game, Spassky did the same. … In order not to be touched by his opponent’s gracious behavior, ‘I had to go away’ said Fischer to friends afterwards,” a moment also portrayed accurately in the film.

It’s at the conclusion of this game that the film tips its hand just a bit, overstating the dramatic nature of the extremely dramatic story it just told. In a title displayed near film’s end, the film claims that “Game 6 is still considered the greatest game of chess ever played.” By whom, you might ask. “One of the greatest”? Sure. Game 6 was a highly elegant positional squeeze punctuated with a clinical kingside attack. It’s generally considered the best game of this match.

But it wasn’t the best game of all time. It wasn’t even Fischer’s greatest game—that honor goes to a spectacular queen sacrifice played against Donald Byrne in 1956. It’s been dubbed “The Game of the Century,” and is especially impressive since Fischer was just 13 when he played it. And many games played by others, both before and since Fischer-Spassky, could reasonably lay claim to being the greatest of all time, such as this amazing 1999 display from Garry Kasparov.

How much accuracy, then, did Pawn Sacrifice sacrifice to tell its tale? In chess a player judges a sacrifice by the “compensation” received for it—attacking chances, active pieces, nebulous things of that nature. The compensation here for sacrificing a little historical accuracy is generally worth it, and the specific sacrifices were well-chosen. If you didn’t know much about the Fischer-Spassky match, this movie gives you a credible and intriguing look at both its participants and the context in which they did battle. And if you already knew a lot about Fischer-Spassky, it’s still fascinating to see these events and their backstory dramatized on-screen.

There’s little chance of this film unseating 1993’s magnificent Searching for Bobby Fischer as the greatest Hollywood chess movie of all time. Where the hero of that film—not Bobby Fischer but a young chess prodigy who views Fischer’s career as a cautionary tale of sorts—was beautifully written and subtly portrayed by the child actor Max Pomeranc, Maguire’s version of Fischer is too shouty and crazy for viewers to truly get to know. But for accuracy and content I’ll give Pawn Sacrifice itself a rating of “!?”—a notation put on chess moves that are interesting, but not clearly good or bad. Much like Bobby Fischer himself.  

*Correction, Sept. 16, 2015: Due to an editing error, this post originally misstated that Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon called Bobby Fischer before the 1972 World Championship in Pawn Sacrifice. Only Kissinger called before the match.