Chess master's neuroses explored

Tobey Maguire (left) as Bobby Fischer, with Peter Sarsgaard (far left) as William Lombardy, a priest and chess grandmaster, in Pawn Sacrifice.
Tobey Maguire (right) as Bobby Fischer, with Peter Sarsgaard (left) as William Lombardy, a priest and chess grandmaster, in Pawn Sacrifice.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

In Pawn Sacrifice, Tobey Maguire plays grandmaster Bobby Fischer, who was brilliant and paranoid

These days, it may be hard to imagine a chess player with the status of a rock star, but that is exactly how Bobby Fischer was treated in the 1970s, when "Fischermania" swept the United States, turning ordinary people into chess fans who watched every big match he played.

The era is recreated in the new biopic Pawn Sacrifice, with Tobey Maguire playing the late chess great in a portrayal that also delves into Fischer's arrogance, neuroses and self-destructive behaviour.

The 40-year-old actor, who starred in the Spider-Man trilogy from 2002 to 2007, tells Life he had grave misgivings about making the new movie because of Fischer's controversial history and extreme views, particularly his endorse- ment of the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

Fischer, who died in 2008 at age 64, was a recluse living abroad when he broke years of silence to come out in support of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.

Maguire says: "I had listened to some of that stuff before and it was pretty off-putting. I did really con- sider if I wanted to move forward after hearing that."

Yet he decided to take the plunge because Fischer was compelling as a character. "It's pretty awful," he says of Fischer's views. "But it does not negate the fact that he's fascinating and complicated and was the best chess player in the world.

"I dug into his story and you start asking yourself, why would somebody get to the point where he's talking like that or having those kinds of feelings?"

The film focuses on the lead-up to the nail-biting 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland, where Fischer faced off with Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky. That match is still viewed by many as the greatest ever game of chess played and one that changed how those at the highest levels approach it.

Thus the decision to end the film there, giving it "a sort of sports-film structure, with a character study within that", Maguire says.

Pawn Sacrifice alludes to the fact that some of Fischer's actions may have been the result of a serious mental disorder.

Maguire says: "Joseph Ponterotto wrote a book, The Psychobiography Of Bobby Fischer, where he speculates that Bobby would have been diagnosed with paranoid personality disorder.

"The book says that this is highly speculative and based on the latest understanding of mental health. It's not as clear-cut as saying you're mentally unwell or not, you have this disease or you don't. It's how far you are from the norm of society."

He adds that he and director Ed Zwick (The Last Samurai, 2003) did not want to whitewash Fischer's character and decided the film needed to show him making some of the anti-Semitic statements he was known for.

They left out the comments about Sept 11 as those were made well after the World Chess Championship, which is the end point of the film and the start of Fischer's mental decline and retreat from society.

While chess enthusiasts disagree over how much of Fischer's odd behaviour during tournaments was a deliberate attempt to unsettle his opponents - which was the effect it had on rivals such as Spassky - Maguire believes it was involuntary.

"I don't think it was a way to throw off his opponents. That's not to say he was never conscious of that. But he really loved the purity of the game, so that would be really contradictory to his character and he had respect for other chess players, to a degree."

The fact that Fischer would often aggressively negotiate higher fees for his appearance at competitions, where he would make obsessive demands about the conditions of play, was partly about him "understanding the leverage he had because he had became really famous".

Yet Maguire does not think fame was something Fischer ever sought for its own sake. "He was so focused on the game that I think he just collected it as data more than anything else. He understood from that fame that he had more leverage to negotiate with, so I think that's how it served him.

"It's pretty interesting to watch his talk-show interviews. He's really funny and cocky - he talks about how he's so much better than everybody else and how he's going to destroy them. He loves breaking his opponents down and watching them fall apart. And he kind of uses it because he knows the audience."

In fact, Fischer was often uncomfortable with fame, as it is shown in a scene in the film where he puts a paper bag over his head while facing a scrum of reporters.

Maguire - who became a star after the Spider-Man films and also had lead roles in The Cider House Rules (1999), Wonder Boys (2000) and The Great Gatsby (2013) - says he can relate to that impulse.

"I've yet to wear the paper bag," he says with a laugh. ''But I understand when you're not really doing something to get a bunch of attention, and then that comes and you have to deal with it."

Ultimately, Fischer was all about the chess, he says, adding that he is in awe of the grandmaster's extra- ordinary intellect and dedication to the game, even more so after the research he did for the film.

While Maguire took lessons to improve his game, he says it would have taken him years of training - and memorisation of countless chess moves - to become even a half-decent player.

The sport in which he comes closest to being able to compete at a high level is poker - the actor has won prize money at tournaments.

He says: "In terms of playing a game with an opponent and getting a sense of their level and your own, and how that affects your confidence and sense of control, they are maybe similar."

But he is the first to admit there is no comparison between that and what chess grandmasters do.

"Poker does have some element of skill, but there's a lot of chance. There's no chance in chess, it's a game of pure skill," he adds.

"And the stakes and the level of concentration in chess, I think, are pretty tremendous.''

•Pawn Sacrifice is showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2015, with the headline 'Chess master's neuroses explored'. Print Edition | Subscribe