Meet The Chess Champion Behind 'Pawn Sacrifice'

For a moment in the midst of the Cold War, it looked a little bit like chess would take over the world — or at least politics. In 1972, an emblematic Soviet and underdog American battled it out on an eight-by-eight grid with the brunt of their nations' political baggage behind them. The match, a championship in Reykjavik, Iceland, was broadcast around the world, but these players' lives went on out of the public eye, both before and after the Reykjavik match. Director Edward Zwick and star Tobey Maguire have brought the match to screen, following American Bobby Fischer's (Maguire) upbringing being raised by a single communist mother, and continuing past Reykjavik (whose name has now become shorthand for this match) into his decline into disrepute and ultimately his death. So if you're wondering if Pawn Sacrifice is based on a true story, then your answer is yes — and it's a great one.

Pawn Sacrifice is based on Bobby Fischer's lived experience, right down to some of its chess moves. Though chess didn't have a lasting pop-cultural impact, the film has a shot at bringing the pivotal Soviet-American face-off back into the limelight. Fischer is still likely one of the most recognizable figures of the Cold War, and a rare mainstream chess celebrity. (How many other iconic chess players can you name?) The film focuses on how Fischer's upbringing contributed to his rampant paranoia (he was convinced he was under constant surveillance at the height of his career) and his eventual breakdown, exploring lesser-known elements of Fischer's life. The filmmakers — including screenwriter Steven Knight — put in an enormous amount of energy to researching and devising a plausible narrative for Fischer's character development, creating a compelling drama while remaining faithful to the facts of the match and his life.

Pawn Sacrifice succeeds in tracing the psychological narrative from childhood to success to obsession and breakdown, but in finding an angle to pursue, it doesn't quite capture all the eccentricities of Fischer's life. (Nor should it — it would be impossible to cram an individual's entire life into a two-hour odyssey.) Not all the research that has been done on Fischer's life (and there has been a lot of it, including several previous documentaries) can fit into the narrative, so I've collected a few of the most intriguing facts about Fischer that you might not take away from Pawn Sacrifice.

He Had A Surprising Fear

According to screenwriter Steven Knight, Fischer had a debilitating fear of maraschino cherries. Not just distaste — an actual fear.

His Incredible Intellect Extended Beyond Chess

Not only was Fischer a chess prodigy from a young age (he achieved grandmaster status at age 15), but he also had an IQ in the 180s and a photographic memory, according to Chessimo. His smarts weren't limited to him being a chess savant, by any means. Even so, he dropped out of school at age 16 (considering it to be a waste of time).

He Was The First Chess Pin-Up

Fischer graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and appeared on talk shows such as those of Dick Cavett and Bob Hope at the pinnacle of his American popularity.

The FBI Placed Him Under Constant Surveillance

Pawn Sacrifice reveals that there was some foundation to Fischer's paranoia — he was watched by the FBI from a young age because his mother was a communist, and then into his chess career because of his constant travels to Eastern Europe and matches against the Soviets. But it doesn't quite get at the extent to which he was under constant suspicion. The FBI file on him was 900 pages long by the time of his death.

He Reinvented The Game Of Chess

Fischer complained that chess relied too heavily on memorization of certain moves and combinations of opening patterns. To combat this, he invented a semi-randomized version called Chess960, named for the number of possible starting patterns. He began work on Chess960 shortly after his rematch with Boris Spassky in 1992, and he debuted a fully-fledged set of rules of play in Argentina in 1996.

His Chess Matches Were A Pretty Lucrative Enterprise

In his rematch against Spassky, Fischer came out on top once again, receiving over $3 million in prize money (and earning an arrest warrant in the United States for violating an embargo against Yugoslavia).

He Retired From Chess To Join A Cult

After his match with Spassky, Fischer didn't play a public match for about 20 years. But he moved to Pasadena, California, where he joined a cult — the Worldwide Church of God, whose founder promised Jesus Christ would return in 1975. After that failed to happen, though, Fischer left the church.

He Helped Mainstream Chess

In addition to his media appearances, Fischer's celebrity helped mainstream the game of chess. During the height of his fame, membership in U.S. Chess Federation doubled in the period from 1972 to 1974.

Some elements of Fischer's life — especially those that didn't make the cut for the biopic — fit the "stranger than fiction" adage. Yet he was a very real person who carried the weight of American expectations at the height of the Cold War at the most taut moment of his career. The research that went into Pawn Sacrifice offers a small window into a life that wasn't entirely Fischer's own.

Images: Bleecker Street (9); Wikimedia Commons