The brilliant new Hollywood movie “Pawn Sacrifice” portrays the life of tormented chess genius Robert James Fischer from his early days as a prodigy to his historic 1972 match, at age 29, with Russian world champion Boris Spassky. Actor Toby Maguire portrays Fischer with remarkable authenticity — indeed, pitch-perfect for those of us who met Fischer in his prime. The film depicts a match that became a signature event in the Cold War between Russia and the United States. It also makes one wonder whether a creative genius like Fischer, deeply troubled yet supremely functional at the chessboard, would be able to exist in today’s unforgiving Internet world.
Fischer certainly got attention back then, but information was filtered very differently than today. Journalists used to lead the way, rather than slavishly follow the flow of superficial Internet traffic. The story of an erratic kid from Brooklyn taking on the Soviet empire in its national sport made good copy for journalists, who understood the significance of the event. The match garnered bold front page headlines in major newspapers from around the world on a daily basis for two months, with commentators giving live move-by-move analysis for up to five hours each day.
Back then, there were only a few channels. There were no DVD players or “on demand.” Still, that wasn’t the only reason people were glued to their TV sets to watch the match. The surreal environment, the amazing chess turns, and the Cold War backdrop made Fischer one of the most famous people in the world that summer. I won’t humor myself that it was the chess analysis that drew attention, although I was a commentator for public television on the pivotal 13th game.
For the American champion, the match was the consummation of two decades of chasing the title, starting from his days as a child prodigy. After a lifetime of living in relative poverty for a sports superstar (even though he frequently appeared on the cover of major magazines), Fischer finally found himself playing in a match with a $250,000 purse. Mind you, it was a pittance compared to the $2.5 million that each fighter was guaranteed in the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight. But Fischer recognized that US culture marginalizes any pursuit that does not produce big money, and viewed the six-figure cash prize as the ultimate symbol of advancement in his sport.
For Russia, this wasn’t about money, it was about hearts and minds. The chess world had long been the perfect battleground on which to prove the superiority of the Communist system. Although most Westerners today pretend that we always knew that Russian-style Communism would fail, it wasn’t so obvious back then. The leading introductory economic textbook of the time, that of Nobel Prize winner Paul Samuelson, was still predicting that Russia might overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. To be fair, Russian culture and people enormously valued chess, even if it did not produce a lot of income. It is not only sport but art. No wonder Fischer’s quixotic pursuit of the championship led American policy mastermind Henry Kissinger to call Fischer and urge him not to back out, as he had threatened to do.
Whatever his status in the United States, Fischer was certainly the most beloved American in Russia. The majesty of his play transcended propaganda in a country where everyday people could appreciate and understand the innate beauty of chess. In the run-up to the championship, Fischer trounced two very good opponents with unheard of 6-0 scores, an astonishing result when so many grandmaster games end in draws. Russian fans were so excited by Fischer’s unprecedented achievement that they reportedly jammed Moscow telephone exchanges to get information. After a while, operators would simply pick up the line and say “six to zero” and then hang up. In the end, even Fischer’s Russian opponent Spassky paid the ultimate tribute to his genius, clapping along with the audience after Fischer’s inspired sixth game victory, as portrayed in the movie. The American might have been the uber chess genius, but the Russian was the class act.
Director Edward Zwick does not shirk from showing the demons that plagued Fischer. He was justly concerned that the Russians would go to great lengths to prevent him from being champion, but ultimately rational concerns tipped into paranoia, and Fischer started to turn on his closest friends and confidants. He became anti-Semitic despite being Jewish himself.
One suspects the paranoia and personal flaws would have tripped up Fischer in today’s Internet world, long before he became champion. After Fischer won the title, he simply stopped playing competitive chess, and his mental illness became much worse. Though no one can condone Fischer’s virulent rants and dark thoughts from later years (he died in 2008), it is a bit sad to realize that someone of such towering creativity and genius, who inspired so many people through his chess, might have had his career ended at a much earlier stage today. We live in a different world.
Kenneth Rogoff is a professor public policy and economics at Harvard University and a chess grandmaster.