Downfall of a chess prodigy

Tobey Maguire plays Bobby Fischer.
Tobey Maguire plays Bobby Fischer. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

REVIEW / DRAMA

PAWN SACRIFICE (PG13)

115 minutes/Opens tomorrow/ 3.5/5 STARS

The story: Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) is the great American hope of chess at a time when the Cold War with the Soviet Union is in full freeze. The prodigy faces off against reigning world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in Iceland in 1972, a heavily hyped match with high personal and political stakes. Can Fischer keep his increasingly eccentric behaviour in check, or will chess consume him?

The cerebral game of chess had its rock star in the 1960s and early 1970s - the firebrand grandmaster Bobby Fischer.

He was a prodigy from Brooklyn who loved mouthing off brash pronouncements which made for great headlines. Like a selfabsorbed rocker, he would also make all kinds of outrageous demands before he would play - even the purr of a recording camera was deemed to be too loud and distracting.

Maguire, who co-produced the film, is a compelling presence as the electrifying chess genius who could not wait to be No. 1 and then became increasingly psychologically fragile as that possibility drew nearer.

The tragedy was that Fischer ultimately crashed and burnt. The interesting thing is that director Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, 2006) and scriptwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, 2007) suggest chess is both his downfall and his salvation.

As a child of a Russian emigrant mother and an absent father, chess gave him focus, purpose and a sense of control.

When Fischer gets frustrated, his chess companion and perhaps lone friend, priest William Lombardy (a grounded Peter Sarsgaard), calms him down by rattling off chess moves.

At the same time, Lombardy also recognises that "the game is a rabbit hole that takes you very close to the edge".

When the game becomes inextricably bound with Cold War politics, the rabbit hole opens up.

Fischer listens to rants on conspiracy theories and comes to believe that he is being bugged. In fairness, his Soviet opponent Spassky has similar suspicions.

Zwick captures that fraught era, whose climate encouraged paranoia, through the drama surrounding the games.

He also makes the historic matches come to life, such that even non-players will appreciate the gripping excitement and intellectual rigour to be found in the battle of wits that is chess.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2015, with the headline 'Downfall of a chess prodigy'. Print Edition | Subscribe