Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice

PAWN SACRIFICE              C+                  
USA  (114 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Edward Zwick

It’s hard not to be completely overwhelmed by Bobby Fischer, a young American chess champion that became the youngest grandmaster ever in 1958 at age 15 (though more than 30 years later, 6 others have achieved this distinction at even younger ages) before becoming the number one ranked player in the world in 1971, advancing to the World Finals in 1972 where at the height of the Cold War in a match that was broadcast around the world he faced Russian champion Boris Spassky and beat the best of the Russians in a sport dominated by Russians since the end of World War II, who consider this their national sport subsidized by the State, receiving plenty of money and support along the way where the leading chess players are treated to the comforts of the highest standard of living available in the nation, where players have staffs of coaches to assist them in their preparations.  Fischer on the other hand was basically all on his own, a young Jewish kid raised by a single mom in Brooklyn, largely self-taught, having grown up playing chess against himself since he had no one else to play.  What was perhaps even more shocking was the convincing fashion in which he won, steamrolling his American contemporaries before dominating the Russians to an extent never seen before or since, where even today he is revered as the greatest player that ever lived (along with Garry Kasparov), becoming one of the strangest heroes this nation has ever seen.  Despite his brilliance, Fischer refused to defend his title and became a recluse, disappearing from the public eye, falling victim to psychological delusions, paranoid conspiracy theories, and self-hating anti-Semitism that clouded his judgment for the rest of his life, becoming a caricature of his former self.  While there have been other portraits of Fischer, this new addition is not among the better efforts, though it’s one of the few to provide insight into his early childhood years, but it grows more troublesome, losing the focus on chess and delving into the psychological idiosyncrasies (including those of Spassky) during the second half of the picture, becoming more like Ron Howard’s A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), struggling against his inner demons without any confirming medical diagnosis, where it’s unclear how he can be so focused on the game in some moments but so easily distracted, growing downright delirious in others, literally fizzling out by the end where the film doesn’t really have an ending.  Much better works would include Fischer’s own definitive book, My 60 Memorable Games (1969), Ralph Ginzburg’s journalistic essay from Harper's Magazine, January 1962, Portrait of a Genius As a Young Chess Master, Elie Agur's brilliant Bobby Fischer: His Approach to Chess (Cadogan Chess Books) , a much more convincing Liz Garbus documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), Frank Brady's classic biography of Fischer, Profile of a Prodigy, and his follow up Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness, provoking an exquisite piece written by Russian chess great Garry Kasparov, published in the New York Review of Books on March 10, 2011, The Bobby Fischer Defense, all of which provide unique insight into this troubled genius.  From Garry Kasparov:

Fischer returned from beating Spassky in Reykjavík—the Match of the Century—a world champion, a media star, and a decorated cold warrior. Unprecedented offers rolled in for millions of dollars in endorsement deals, exhibitions, basically anything he was willing to put his name or face to. With a few minor exceptions, he turned it all down.

Keep in mind that the chess world of the pre-Fischer era was laughably impoverished even by today’s modest standards. The Soviet stars were subsidized by the state, but elsewhere the idea of making a living solely from playing chess was a dream. When Fischer dominated the Stockholm tournament of 1962, a grueling five-week qualifier for the world championship cycle, his prize was $750.

Of course it was Fischer himself who changed this situation, and every chess player since must thank him for his tireless efforts to get chess the respect and compensation he felt it deserved. He earned the nickname Spassky gave him, “the honorary chairman of our trade union.” These efforts meant he was often an event organizer’s worst nightmare, but that was not Bobby’s concern. Ten years after Stockholm, the purse for the 1972 World Championship between Fischer and Spassky was an astronomical $250,000, plus side deals for a share of television rights.

It’s barely an exaggeration to say that Fischer’s impact on the chess world was as great financially as it was on the board. The world championship became a hot commodity and as we know, money talks. Chess tournaments and chess players acquired a new respectability, although it did not all outlast Fischer himself. My epic series of matches against Anatoly Karpov from 1985 to 1990 fanned the sponsorship flames into a blaze—we were not going to play only for the greater Soviet glory now that we knew there were millions of dollars to be had. We had learned more from Fischer than just chess. Last year’s world championship match, in which Viswanathan Anand of India defended his title against Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria in Sofia, had a prize fund of nearly $3 million despite receiving no real publicity outside of the chess world. In spite of corrupt federations and no coherent organization among themselves, the top players today do quite well without having to also teach classes or write books while trying to work on their own chess at the same time.

Early on there are poignant images of a kid growing up by himself, alone in his room with his chessboard, often hearing voices at the door which may be real or imagined, where Bobby grows so obsessed with chess that his mother eventually takes him as a 9-year old child prodigy to play an adult grandmaster, which begins his journey into the official hierarchy of the chess world.  Without revealing much about his mother Regina Fischer (Robin Weigert), a fiery spirit who spoke 8 languages, had previously lived in Moscow during the McCarthy era and was involved with Leftist political activities, she was a poor single mother trying to pursue a master’s degree in nursing education at New York University while moving her family from place to place and her unfocused young son from school to school—all while being investigated by the FBI as a potential Communist agent.  Bobby’s older sister Joan bought him an inexpensive chess set from a candy store when he was age 6, where together they learned the moves, but initially he showed no real interest.  A lover of games and puzzles, he scored a genius IQ of 180, but never adjusted to the New York public school system, expelled from one school for kicking the principal and eventually dropped out of high school in his junior year at age 15 when he became a grandmaster, literally consumed with learning chess, seen visiting Russian bookstores for the latest news on the best players, studying all their moves.  Regina Fischer had ambivalent feelings toward her son’s chess career, encouraging him to broaden his interests and develop social relations, but when it became apparent that chess was his passion, she supported him fully and was often involved with protests and demonstrations, including picketing the White House when the State Department refused to allow the national chess team to play in the 1960 Chess Olympiad in East Germany.  Bobby and his mother, however, butted heads throughout his entire life, both intensely individualistic, where together they remained combative, argumentative and unhappy, which contributed to his social isolation and his obsession with chess, as there was literally no one he confided in or could trust, where his inner turmoil and frustration would at times erupt into violence.  Despite his lack of social skills, he was a genius on the chessboard, devoting fourteen hours a day to studying chess, playing matches against himself that lasted for days, where nothing interested him except the sport, rising through the Junior chess championships to the U.S. tournament almost simultaneously, where at the age of thirteen and fourteen respectively he dominated both tournaments, the youngest to ever do so, winning 8 U.S. championship titles in the process.  He didn’t just beat people, he annihilated them, where he was once quoted in a Dick Cavett interview, “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.”    

While the film doesn’t delineate between his early successes, certainly one of the more intriguing aspects comes when the director infuses Rockabilly and Surf music with 50’s and 60’s archival footage from the times, linking the rise of Bobby Fischer to a combustible force, becoming America’s greatest propaganda weapon against the Soviet empire, as he was the one American who could actually beat the Russians at their own game, where this is expressed with a surge of energy from period music like the Spencer Davis Group, Spencer Davis Group - I'm a Man - YouTube (2:47).  By doing this, Bobby Fischer becomes part of the social landscape of the times, like the select group of astronauts who orbited the earth or the first man on the moon, where his feats were equally indescribable.  Fischer didn’t just win a lot of games, what separated him from others was his utter contempt with playing for draws.  At the highest levels of competitive chess, players are already so familiar with how each other plays, having studied all their previous tournaments, where the opening moves usually go according to script, even with Fischer, whose emergence onto the world stage was noticed at the highest levels, as he was always on the attack.  While the young American upstart was fearless, the Russians called him nyekulturni or uncultured, especially after he accused the Russians of plotting against him by prearranging draws in tournament play, allowing their players easy games to preserve their stamina for the later more difficult matches.  This is where the film starts losing its focus, as Fischer is a much more fascinating figure than this film portrays, starting with the vanilla casting of Tobey Maguire as Fischer, a baby-faced, All-American guy synonymous with comic book heroism, hardly the attributes worthy of Fischer, who is a guy so admittedly strange that part of his legend is surmising what dark spirits were swirling around in his head, as he refused all medical treatment or psychological diagnosis, much like a Christian Scientist, disavowing all traces of his Jewish heritage, becoming a rabid anti-Semite, where he seemed most affected by the mistrust and paranoia of the times, driving a wedge between himself and the rest of the world.  Into his life walks Michael Stuhlbarg as Paul Marshall, an attorney connected to the music industry who volunteers to work on his behalf, perhaps an FBI mole having deep connections to the inner workings of the White House, where he comes across a bit like John Du Pont in Foxcatcher (2014), a so-called patriot with private philanthropic motives, a man who wants to see America crush the Russians.  Beyond that, we haven’t a clue who he is or why the skeptical and always overly alarmed Fischer should trust him, but he does so unwaveringly, as it is through his negotiations that Fischer accomplishes nearly all of his demands.  Even after the movie is over, the audiences is left wondering:  who is this guy?  Similarly, Peter Sarsgaard is Father Bill Lombardy, a chess playing priest that Fischer supposedly respects because at some point in his life he beat the child prodigy, something Fischer never forgot.  These two characters are featured prominently in the film, the ones comprising his inner circle, as they are the only two guys that remain by his side every step of the way as he approaches the World Championship, yet throughout it all, we haven’t a clue who they are. 

Admittedly, a movie about two guys sitting across from one another at a chessboard does not make for great theater, although Liev Schreiber as the placidly unruffled Boris Spassky is a treat, so while there is this momentous chess match going on, the film foregoes any interest in the game of chess and instead focuses all its attention on the psychological eccentricities of the two men, creating a bewildering sideshow that becomes more prominent than the spectacle itself taking place on the world stage.  While the film is purportedly a true story, so much of this is pure conjecture, especially how a film projects one’s state of mind, which is certainly open to interpretation, and despite the myriad of mental health issues associated with Bobby Fischer, the truth is we don’t really know what was going on inside his head, yet this film presents itself as a definitive version of what happened.  In doing so, it fails miserably.  Maguire is nothing like Fischer, as he’s always too nice a guy, the kind of person that likes to be the center of attention, while what Fischer craved, more than anything, more than the millions in endorsement deals that he turned down, was his anonymity where he could be left alone.  We never get that feeling from watching this film, which offers surprisingly little new insight into his character and is afraid to reveal just how shockingly disturbing his condition had become.  As riveting as the first half is, the second half dwells on the ponderous nature of some unknown force that simply can’t be explained, becoming a frustrating viewing experience that at best feels incomplete, presenting an all too simplistic, black and white view of the world where the Russians come across as gangsters and thugs, eventually feeling more like a condensed, PG rated version that leaves out many pertinent details about his life, where winning the World Championship actually feels anti-climactic, as the film literally stops after an early turning point in his match with Spassky.  What happens afterwards is a downward spiral into oblivion that is left for each of us to surmise, as without the game of chess to focus upon, his condition erodes and deteriorates further, with Fischer becoming an exile, an outcast wandering the globe alone, spewing his venom wherever he goes. 

Rene Chun from The Atlantic, December 2002, Bobby Fischer's Pathetic Endgame - The Atlantic:

Bobby Fischer was singing the blues. As he wailed along with a 1965 recording by Jackie (“Mr. Excitement”) Wilson, his voice—a gravelly baritone ravaged by age but steeled by anger—rumbled through the microphone like a broken-down freight train on rusty wheels: “You go walking down Broadway, watchin’ people catch the subway! Take it from me, don’t ask for a helping hand, mmm, ‘cause no one will understand!” With each note he became increasingly strident. “Bright lights will find you, and they will mess you around! Let me tell you, millions will watch you! Have mercy now, as you sink right down to the ground!” Even if you knew nothing about Bobby Fischer, listening to him sing this song would tell you all you needed to know. “There just ain’t no pity. No, no, no, in the naked city, yeah—New York City.”

This unlikely duet, featuring Jackie Wilson and the world’s first and only chess grand master fugitive from justice, was broadcast live, on July 6, 2001, by DZSR Sports Radio, a Manila-based AM station that has embraced Fischer as a ratings booster. In exchange for these rare interviews (Fischer hasn't given a magazine or TV interview in thirty years), Sports Radio management has happily provided Fischer with hours of free airtime to spin his classic R&B records and to lash out at his enemies, both real and imagined. Fischer categorizes these enemies—including the former New York mayor Ed Koch, both Presidents Bush, and the Times Mirror Corporation—as “Jews, secret Jews, or CIA rats who work for the Jews.”

This radio broadcast was Fischer’s seventeenth in the Philippines. The bizarre karaoke interlude was a departure of sorts, but otherwise the broadcast was no different from the previous sixteen. Fischer’s talking points never vary.

·         Bobby Fischer is being persecuted by world Jewry.
·         The United States government is a “brutal, evil dictatorship” that has falsely accused Bobby Fischer of a crime and forced him to live in exile.
·         Bobby Fischer has been swindled out of a “vast fortune” in royalties by book publishers, movie studios, and clock manufacturers (yes, clock manufacturers), who have brazenly pilfered his brand name, patents, and copyrights.
·         The Jews are a “filthy, lying bastard people” bent on world domination through such insidious schemes as the Holocaust (“a money-making invention”), the mass murder of Christian children (“their blood is used for black-magic ceremonies”), and junk food (William Rosenberg, the founder of Dunkin’ Donuts, is singled out as a culprit).

For chess buffs who tune in for some shoptalk from the game's most revered icon, there is this:

·         Chess is nothing more than “mental masturbation.” Not only is the game dead, it’s fixed. Gary Kasparov, the world’s top-rated player, is a “crook” and a former KGB spy who hasn’t played a match in his life in which the outcome wasn’t prearranged.

The No. 1 transgression, however, the thing that has devastated Fischer, embittered him, and made him screech at night, alone in his apartment, is the “Bekins heist.”

·         Millions of dollars’ worth of personal memorabilia, painstakingly collected and stockpiled by Bobby Fischer in a ten-by-ten-foot Bekins storage room in Pasadena, California, has been stolen from him in a secret plot involving the Rothschilds (Jews), Bill Clinton (a secret Jew), and unnamed Bekins executives (CIA rats who work for the Jews).

The international chess community, which tracks Fischer’s downward spiral the way astronomers track the orbit of a dying comet, has been monitoring his radio interviews since the first one aired, back in January of 1999. For the most part chess people have for years downplayed the importance of his outlandish outbursts, explaining that Fischer’s raging anti-Semitism, acute paranoia, and tenuous grasp on reality are hyped by the media and misunderstood by the public. In the early 1990s Fischer’s girlfriend at the time said, “He’s like a child. Very, very simple.” A friend who spent a lot of time with him in the 1990s says, “Aside from his controversial views, as a person Bobby is very kind, very nice, and very human.” Another friend, asked how he could stand by someone so blatantly anti-Semitic, replies, “A lot of people wouldn’t care if Michael Jordan was an anti-Semite if they could play a game of Horse with him.”

Many Fischer apologists argue that Bobby Fischer is in fact deranged, and that as such he deserves not public castigation but psychiatric help. They are quick to point out that he was raised in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, has had close friends who were Jewish, and in fact had a Jewish mother (information he has gone to great lengths to deny). It seems hard to imagine that his hate-filled rhetoric isn’t an unfortunate manifestation of some underlying illness.

But even the Fischer apologists had to throw up their hands when he took to the Philippine airwaves on September 11, 2001. In an interview broadcast this time by Bombo Radyo, a small public-radio station in Baguio City, Fischer revealed views so loathsome that it was impossible to indulge him any longer. Just hours after the most devastating attack on the United States in history, in which thousands had died, Fischer could barely contain his delight. “This is all wonderful news,” he announced. “I applaud the act. The U.S. and Israel have been slaughtering the Palestinians, just slaughtering them for years. Robbing them and slaughtering them. Nobody gave a shit. Now it’s coming back to the U.S. Fuck the U.S. I want to see the U.S. wiped out.”

Fischer added that the events of September 11 provided the ideal opportunity to stage a long-overdue coup d’état. He envisioned, he said, a “Seven Days in May scenario,” with the country taken over by the military; he also hoped to see all its synagogues closed, and hundreds of thousands of Jews executed. “Ultimately the white man should leave the United States and the black people should go back to Africa,” he said. “The white people should go back to Europe, and the country should be returned to the American Indians. This is the future I would like to see for the so-called United States.” Before signing off Fischer cried out, “Death to the U.S.!”

The United States Chess Federation had always been willing to ignore Fischer’s public antics, no matter how embarrassing. He was, after all, Bobby Fischer—the greatest player in the history of the game. But this was too much. On October 28 of last year the USCF unanimously passed a motion denouncing Fischer’s incendiary broadcast. “Bobby has driven some more nails in his coffin,” Frank Camaratta Jr., a USCF board member, says. The backlash has reached all the way to grassroots chess clubs. “It’s because of Fischer that I’m involved in chess,” says Larry Tamarkin, a manager at the Marshall Chess Club, a legendary New York parlor frequented by Fischer in his teens. “But I can’t help feeling a sense of betrayal, anger, and sadness. You devote your entire life to one player and find out he’s completely off his rocker. It ruins everything. He’s an embarrassment.” Asked about the possibility of a Fischer comeback, Tamarkin can’t conceal his disgust. “We prefer that he doesn’t come back. Because if he does, it will destroy the last vestige of magic.”

In reality the magic has been gone for some thirty years. That’s how long it has been since Fischer played his first and only world-championship match. Why he stopped playing tournaments, and how his life unraveled so pathetically, is a story one can learn only by seeking out those who actually know Fischer. There are surprisingly few such people—and fewer yet are willing to talk. Fischer doesn’t tolerate friends who give interviews. His address book is a graveyard of crossed-out names of people who have been quoted in articles about him. 

But some formerly loyal Fischer associates, appalled at his recent behavior, are finally talking about him. They reveal that Fischer’s story doesn't follow the usual celebrity-gone-to-seed arc. He has not been brought low by drugs or alcohol, by sex scandals or profligate spending. Instead he is a victim of his own mind—and of the inordinate attention that the world has given it. Fischer’s paranoia, rage, and hubris have been enough to transform him into an enemy of the state; they have been enough to sabotage a brilliant career and turn a confident, charismatic figure into a dithering recluse; and, sadly, they have been enough to make us forget that when Bobby Fischer played chess, it was absolutely riveting theater, even for those who didn’t play the game.


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  2. This is a dissertation of overwhelming proportions. Thank you. It stirred just a couple of points in my mind.

    Not yet having seen - and discouraged by you to see - the film, doesn't this bare all the trademarks of a "Hollywood white-washing" of a supposedly heroic topic? If indeed the film ends in Iceland, it's a real shame. Also, whatever happened to Edward Zwick after the supposedly great Glory?

    And finally, it would be nice if, going backwards in history, the history of chess didn't end at Fischer. For example, the dominance of Russian players had less to do with Kreml than a certain individual, namely Alexander Aljechin (1892-1946), an extraordinary person in his own right. This World Champion and weird, weird guy should still at least be considered when choosing the greatest chess player of all time. A biopic about him would inevitably tell more about the evolution of the game than e.g. Fischer's story.

    Have a great week!

    1. Hey Anton, I wouldn't wish to dissuade you from seeing the film, as the first half could even be considered inspiring, especially the use of period music.

      When considering historical white-washing, Zwick did the same with Blood Diamond, and it's not altogether different from a few recent releases, like Zhang Yimou's Coming Home, which I'll review next. Glory had the services of Shelby Foote, which apparently kept him more authentic.