A King’s Gambit: Bobby Fischer and Cold War Chess

Tobey Maguire is well known for letting loose every now and then, subduing roles beneath the force of his manic energy. As chess champion Bobby Fischer in Edward Zwick’s historical drama Pawn Sacrifice, Maguire does just that—he’s a delusional paranoiac prone to flustered outbursts and the occasional fit of rage. His character’s genius is temperamental with a capital “T”: in between breathtaking defeats of internationally-ranked players, he runs out of airports, screams obscenities on a near-deserted beach, and tears apart his hotel room looking for bugging equipment.

The movie’s historical context is as compelling as Fischer’s antics. Its focus is the historic 1972 matchup between Fischer and Boris Spassky, a Soviet grandmaster and then-world champion. The contrast between their characters is stark. Maguire’s Fischer struts around screaming in a suit, stays at cheap motels, and is perpetually accompanied by a lawyer and a priest–a distinctly American entourage. Spassky (played by a superb Liev Schreiber) looks like he could moonlight as a member of the Russian mafia; his heavyset jaw, dark glasses, and quiet arrogance make him the perfect Cold War antagonist. They represent two ideologies in fundamental opposition to one another, and it is perhaps fitting that they should face off across a chessboard, playing a game that is one of the purest simulations of political conflict in existence.

Although Pawn Sacrifice is first and foremost a psychological portrait of Bobby Fischer and a study of his attachment to chess, it does make an effort to illuminate the broader significance of his story. Every 15 minutes or so, the film cuts to period newsreels–some real, some constructed–that give us a very faint sketch of the world in which Fischer and Spassky lived. We see Khrushchev banging his shoe, nuclear missiles being carted through Soviet streets, and American troops running through the jungles of Vietnam. And as the tournament picks up steam, we are presented with footage of ordinary Americans flocking to their neighborhood chess clubs, while a commentator excitedly proclaims that a “chess craze” has been sweeping the nation in the wake of Fischer’s ascendancy.

Using archival footage as a crutch instead of channeling historical context through performance is admittedly a little lazy. But for a Hollywood picture, the film actually displays a remarkably nuanced understanding of Cold War politics. Fischer and Spassky may come off as representatives of two different camps, but neither Zwick nor the movie’s protagonists fail to realize the propagandistic elements of this characterization. In one of the most memorable lines, Fischer’s lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) describes the match as “a war of perception: the poor kid from Brooklyn against the whole Soviet empire.” This is a moment of great self-awareness, and the movie should be commended for not indulging in the facile “us-against-them” narratives that were so pervasive at the time.

But there are a few areas in which the film falls short. After the victory over Spassky, the screen almost immediately cuts to black, with short blurbs detailing Fischer’s subsequent mental deterioration and a few clips of him in his old age. As someone who watched this movie with very little prior knowledge of the subject matter, I was left wondering about the political and cultural consequences of the 1972 tournament—something the movie only touched upon briefly, if at all. In order to learn more, I contacted David Shenk, a correspondent for The Atlantic and author of The Immortal Game: A History of Chess (2006), and Frank Brady, a professor at St. John’s University and author of Endgame: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Bobby Fischer (2011).

As I soon found out, the “war of perception” was much more multifaceted than the movie let on—winning it was also a profound act of American cultural defiance. For the Soviets, who had long enjoyed near-total domination of the international chess leaderboard, the prospect that a rough-around-the-edges, uneducated, and inferior American could beat their best player was unthinkable–and for the international community, it forced a recalibration of how the US was perceived. “We weren’t just prizefighters and football players,” Brady says. “We beat the Soviets, who had decades and decades of vested interest in this cultural pursuit called chess, and we were just as good as they were.”

And news clips notwithstanding, Pawn Sacrifice greatly understated and glossed over the ways in which chess has evolved since Fischer’s era. Victory over Spassky elevated the game to a greater cultural prominence in the US than it had ever previously enjoyed, and the tactical knowledge of its players has continued to accumulate in the years since. “The greatest players of today could crush the greatest players of the early ‘70s,” Shenk says, comparing their respective levels of knowledge to those of Ancient Greek scientists and modern lab researchers. “We’re in an era now that’s much more nuanced. I don’t think that someone like Bobby Fischer, with his character of play, would go very far in today’s day and age.”

In other words, that bit at the end where the decisive matchup is described as the “greatest chess game ever played”? Not entirely accurate.

But diplomatically speaking, the game has lost quite a bit of its prowess. Globalization, the lifting of the iron curtain, and the fragmentation of world order have dramatically shifted the international balance of power, making it much more difficult for any one country to monopolize a particular endeavor. The age of dramatic, one-on-one rivalry is over, Shenk reminds me. “We don’t live in a bipolar world anymore–chess is fragmented the way the world is fragmented.”

Chess prodigies come from anywhere these days. And unlike Fischer and Spassky, they probably won’t all have Brooklyn accents or Soviet support crews.

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