Pawn Sacrifice - the film

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Neville Twitchell
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Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Neville Twitchell » Sat May 16, 2020 3:41 pm

I have just watched the film "Pawn Sacrifice" shown on BBC2 yesterday evening, 16th May, and presumably still viewable on the BBC I player. I had not seen it before and was only vaguely aware of it, so was pleasantly surprised to find it being screened. To those unfamiliar with it I should say that it is a bio-pic of Bobby Fischer, centring chiefly on the 1972 Reykjavik match, and depicting his childhood and upbringing in New York and his growth as a player through the 1950s and 1960s. However, in common with most films and fictional representations of chess, it left a great deal to be desired. In fact I found it a horrible mess of a film. I wonder if others have seen it and what their impressions are?

For one thing Tobey Maguire seemed wrong for the part of Bobby Fischer, both phyically and otherwise, being too small and slight, and lacking the dominating presence and charisma of Fischer. We do not really get any sense of a great, if very wayward, intellect on display here, but merely a petulant and obsessive individual. There is no light or shade in his performance. Other characters are equally underdrawn. Bill Lombardy (American GM turned Catholic priest) gets a very large role, though surely greatly exaggerated, since he was a rather peripheral figure in Bobby's life and did not act as Bobby's second, certainly not in Rejkjavik as is suggested, whilst the other major character in the film, Paul Marshall, is so far as I am aware a complete invention, and it is never clear precisely what his role is. The portrayal of chess tournaments and the chess scene generally is predictably unrealistic, and goofs of one sort or another abound. So far, so predictable.

But more seriously the script is just all over the place and seems unable to settle on a theme or point of view. It sort of argues, reasonably enough, that Bobby's whole life had been geared to winning the world championship, and to challenge the Soviet hegemony which had been maintained, as he saw it by cheating, as at Curacao, but too many plotlines are taken up or hinted at but then discarded or discontinued. In the very first scene Bobby's mother appears to be talking of how she is the subject of FBI attentions because of her Communist associations, and I thought that this might be a thread running through the film, but it is never developed. His mother more or less disappears from the film therafter. His sister, Joan, suddenly emerges halfway through to take a more central role, particularly as regards Bobby's mental condition, but this too is not developed. The filmakers cannot seem to settle on whether Bobby is utterly deranged (which he was surely not at that stage of his life) or entirely rational albeit obsessed.

There is much prominence given throughout to Boris Spassky as his ultimate opponent, and though one can see this as a dramatic ploy (and Fischer did indeed foresee early in his career that Spassky would emerge as a great player) but too much weight is given to him. Spassky is depicted as a very glamorous figure, and identified as reigning champion long before he actually gained the title. There is no mention of Botvinnik or Petrosian or Tal, who loomed much larger in the chess world in the earlier part of Fischer's career. Of course the film understandably doesn't want to clutter the stage with too many characters but surely in a biopic one cannot ignore them completely. And the film stops abruptly with Fischer's victory at Reykjavik, with only some documentary footage of the older Fischer expounding on the game. No explanation of what happened after the match or why and how he went off the rails. Was it being suggested (as per the title) that he was being used by the American government to score a sporting victory against the Russians to try to offset American failures elsewhere, particularly in Vietnam, and was then discarded when he had served his purpose? But that is completely contradicted by what we know of Fischer as a man engaged in a personal quest, rejecting any sort of outside, governmental assistance. A much better film could surely have been made of this subject matter.

Nick Burrows
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Nick Burrows » Sat May 16, 2020 3:46 pm

I recently heard John Donaldson who has written several books on Fischer say that Lombardy was Fischers second in 1972.

Neville Twitchell
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Neville Twitchell » Sat May 16, 2020 3:52 pm

I stand corrected on that point. It seems that Lombardy was drafted in as his second in the Reykjavik match. Nonetheless I feel he has a degree of prominence in the film that is out of proportion.

Leonard Barden
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Leonard Barden » Sat May 16, 2020 4:23 pm

Neville Twitchell wrote:
Sat May 16, 2020 3:41 pm
. Bill Lombardy (American GM turned Catholic priest) gets a very large role, though surely greatly exaggerated, since he was a rather peripheral figure in Bobby's life and did not act as Bobby's second, certainly not in Rejkjavik as is suggested, whilst the other major character in the film, Paul Marshall, is so far as I am aware a complete invention,
Lombardy was Fischer's second for the first part of the match, but was effectively replaced by Lubomir Kavalek for the later games.

Paul Marshall a complete invention? Nonsense! Marshall was Bobby's lawyer, and I personally spoke to him several times in 1972, the first occasion immediately after Jim Slater had doubled the prize fund.
Last edited by Leonard Barden on Sat May 16, 2020 4:54 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Neville Twitchell
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Neville Twitchell » Sat May 16, 2020 4:27 pm

I stand corrected again. I confess I had not heard of him at all, but I wonder did he play such a prominent role in Bobby's life from about 1966 as is suggested?

Geoff Chandler
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Geoff Chandler » Sat May 16, 2020 4:43 pm

Think we chess players are too close (in the know) to the subject matter for us to be too critical and without prejudice.

It could have been better historically and chess wise but it could have been a lot lot worse.
Last edited by Geoff Chandler on Sat May 16, 2020 4:59 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Leonard Barden
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Leonard Barden » Sat May 16, 2020 4:55 pm

Geoff Chandler wrote:
Sat May 16, 2020 4:43 pm

(did Kavalek not replace Lombardy - Bobby sacced Lombardy round about game 13)
Quite right! Senior moment, apologies, now edited above.

Geoff Chandler
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Geoff Chandler » Sat May 16, 2020 5:02 pm

Thought I was having my own senior moment (all to frequent these days ) - have removed my query.

Nick Grey
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Nick Grey » Sat May 16, 2020 7:37 pm

It was ok. The Tv has been ok for 8 weeks.

Nick Ivell
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Nick Ivell » Sun May 17, 2020 11:23 am

Far be it for me to dissent from the general opinion that, from a player's point of view, the film is trash.

Factual inaccuracies are legion. Who the hell was Ivanovich, allegedly world number 4?

On a brighter note, the moves were correct. Bxh2 in game 1. Nh5 in game 3.

If I were to play devil's advocate, I might ask the following question: how did chess become world news in 1972, in a way it never will again?

I thought the film answered that question quite well.

Roger de Coverly
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Roger de Coverly » Sun May 17, 2020 11:33 am

Nick Ivell wrote:
Sun May 17, 2020 11:23 am
On a brighter note, the moves were correct. Bxh2 in game 1. Nh5 in game 3.
The English in game 6 as well , even if they did misname it the Sicilian. Move 3 in that game was the real shocker, transposing to a Queen's Gambit in total contradiction to Fischer's often expressed view that 1. P-K4 was "best by test".

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MJMcCready
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by MJMcCready » Sun May 17, 2020 11:47 am

Will we ever see a film about Paul Morphy I wonder?

Nick Ivell
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Nick Ivell » Sun May 17, 2020 11:57 am

I think Boris felt confident enough in his QGD not to do any preparation.Bobby didn't produce anything new; it was only new 'for him'. Indeed, I think Geller had even told Boris the right way to play...

But he had become lazy, and forgot Geller's advice.

Bobby was not only the stronger player, but the harder working. And, I believe, not as mentally ill in 1972 as the film made out - no doubt for justifiable cinematic reasons.

Nick Ivell
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Nick Ivell » Sun May 17, 2020 1:16 pm

Actually. I've always thought game 6 is over-rated. Spassky's play was just too weak - a feature of the first half of the match generally.

For me, the jewel in the crown is game 13. Even though Boris lost a pawn for almost nothing.

I remember, at 10 years old, marvelling at Bobby's ...Rh8. Surely a rook is worth more than a bishop? It opened up a world of wonderful possibilities.

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Matt Mackenzie
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Re: Pawn Sacrifice - the film

Post by Matt Mackenzie » Sun May 17, 2020 1:25 pm

The sixth game was indeed played almost perfectly by Fischer - but to a significant extent only because Spassky let him.

("one person plays, the other applauds" - as has been said about a number of early "classic" games)

There weren't so many decisive games in the second half of the match, but it was much more of a contest and thus arguably more interesting.
"Set up your attacks so that when the fire is out, it isn't out!" (H N Pillsbury)

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