Fischer-Spassky chess match fuels Cold War thriller

Liev Schreiber (left) stars as Boris Spassky and Tobey Maguire (right) stars as Bobby Fischer in Edward Zwick’s ‘Pawn Sacrifice.’

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“Pawn Sacrifice” is about the Cold War-era showdown between Jewish American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer and Russian champion Boris Spassky that was billed as the Match of the Century and covered with all the hype of the Olympics.

The film stars Tobey Maguire as Fischer and Israeli-American actor Liev Schreiber as Spassky and is directed by Ed Zwick, who is Jewish and also helmed “Defiance,” about Jewish resistance fighters in World War II Poland. 

Producer Gail Katz, the spark behind making “Pawn Sacrifice,” said during a recent visit to St. Louis that the Fischer story struck her as one that was important to tell on film. 

“Bobby Fischer was this great Jewish American hero,” said Katz, who lives in Los Angeles. “I’m Jewish, my parents are Holocaust survivors, so it was something I took great pride in. So I decided to do a movie on him, even knowing what had happened to him over the years. But I just recall that summer (as) the most remarkable summer, the importance again in terms of a chess game just captivating the world.”

Many people shared Katz’s sense of pride when a poor Jewish boy from Brooklyn first emerged as a chess prodigy defeating the Russians who had dominated the game for so long. Young Fischer captured the public imagination and launched a chess craze that reached across America, changing the game into a professional sport. 

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However, Katz said, the movie is not about chess. 

“I never said, ‘Oh, I’m working on a chess movie,’ ” she said “It was always ‘I’m working on a Cold War thriller’ and it happens to be set in the world of chess.”

The film covers Fischer’s early life, his difficult relationship with his mother, his close relationship with his older sister and with his first chess teacher, as well as his eccentric personality. It also follows his rise as a worldwide star, up through his 1972 match against Spassky. Maguire does a fantastic job as Fischer, as does Schreiber as Spassky, in this taut political thriller. 

While Fischer instilled pride in Jewish Americans as he rose to fame, he became a problematic figure as he embraced a conspiracy theory that was anti-Russian and anti-Semitic, an obsession that dominated his later life.

Katz said that after the 1972 tournament against Spassky, Fischer’s already deteriorating mental state became “much, much worse.” The film quickly recaps what happened to him after that, when he became better known for his offensive remarks and erratic behavior than his chess playing.

The film’s title comes from a move in chess, in which a pawn is sacrificed to gain a better position on the board. But it also describes how the United States and the Soviet Union fought a proxy war through the chess match and may have sacrificed Fischer’s fragile mental health in the process.  

Katz spoke with several psychiatrists and experts to try and understand Fischer’s mental illness. She also consulted with a rabbi because, while she wanted to present an accurate warts-and-all  portrait, she did not want to appear to be condoning Fischer’s anti-Semitic remarks.

“The fact [is] that he was Jewish, his mother was Jewish and his biological father was Jewish as well, so the question is where did this come from?” she said. “The movie doesn’t really answer that, because I don’t think anybody really knows, but it raises a lot of interesting questions and discussion.”