American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer defeated Russian player Boris Spassky in a highly-publicized match that made him a world champion. Producer Gail Katz sought to bring this story to the big screen. That film became “Pawn Sacrifice,” directed by Edward Zwick and starring Tobey Maguire as the chess prodigy opposite Liev Schreiber as his famed opponent.
“To me, Bobby Fischer, at the time, was this great Jewish-American hero,” Katz said.
Fischer’s Jewish heritage was a draw to her as she is Jewish and her parents were Holocaust survivors. The times also fascinated her. Fischer’s major accomplishments took place during the Cold War era. Katz set out to make a Cold War thriller that just happens to take place in the world of chess.
Before his death in 2008, Bobby Fischer was the world’s youngest chess grandmaster. Grandmaster is the highest title a chess player can receive. He gained notoriety when he defeated Spassky of the Soviet Union in 1972, becoming the first native-born American to hold the title of world champion.
After the match, he went into seclusion. In 1975, he had lost his world championship title when he refused to adhere to the format of the match. Fischer was given time to reconsider, but never responded.
Fischer stayed out of the public eye for almost 20 years until 1992, when he played and won a privately organized rematch against Spassky.
When Katz began the project in 2004, Fischer was, at the time,detained in Japan after authorities discovered his U.S. passport was revoked.
“There were about four years when Bobby was still alive and still communicating to the world at large his anti-Semitism and anti-American remarks,” Katz said. “There was concern about doing a movie about him.”
Fischer died in 2008 in Reykjavík, Iceland, the city where his encounter with Spassky took place.
One of the goals of the filmmakers was to portray Fischer’s mental issues as accurately as possible. Katz consulted with several psychiatrists on what Fischer might have been dealing with.
Maxim Dlugy, a grandmaster and consultant on the film, said without Fischer, professional chess would not exist.
“Fischer was the first chess professional,” Dlugy said. “Chess players are extremely indebted to him because he created professional chess. He not only created it. He demanded it and he played using his rules.”
Dlugy was born in Moscow and knows Spassky well. Dlugy said Spassky had visited Fischer’s grave and wished to be buried next to him when he died. Katz said she had never heard that before.
After working out the story, Katz and the writers met with Maguire, who was on a list of actors she had,about playing Fischer.
“He didn’t have all the physical characteristics, but in certain pictures he looked a lot like Bobby,” Katz said.
Katz said Maguire was not as tall as Fischer, but he did have very long, elegant fingers. She described Fischer’s way of handling chess pieces unique, a quality Maguire could capture.
Maguire had all the qualities Katz wanted, the humor Fischer possessed and the ability to summon the fiery attitude and anger to portray Fischer.
From day one, Katz said she always had Schreiber in mind to play Spassky.
“I thought he was a doppelganger,” Katz said. “There was no question. A little bit of the hair and that was it. He had the perfect look and was an amazing actor.”
Katz said the film will speak to people who aren’t familiar with the game of chess because the film is not about chess.
“It’s a movie about a man who’s got amazing brilliance but amazing odds against him mentally,” Katz said.
“Pawn Sacrifice” will be released in theatres Sept. 18, 2015.
*Photo contributed by Bleecker Street