Pawn Sacrifice

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It was 1999. My host, having picked me up at the Reykjavik airport, was showing me around Iceland’s capital city.

“There”, he told me, “is the stadium where Reagan and Gorbachev signed the treaty that ended the Cold War.”

“That’s great,” I told him, “but I want to see the place where the real Cold War drama unfolded.”

No other word was spoken. My host drove, then parked. Together, we stared in awe at the building where Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in the 1972 world chess championship.

Fast forward to today (Saturday, February 13, 2016). Cheri and I just finished watching the movie Pawn Sacrifice starring Tobey Maguire as Fischer, the challenger; Liev Schreiber as Spassky, the then-reigning world champion; and Peter Sarsgaard as the chess grandmaster and priest, William Lombardy, who counseled and assisted Fischer throughout the match.

Fabulous movie. Five stars. (The movie ranking, I mean, as rated by Cheri and me.) There aren’t any words to describe the emotions this film can evoke in someone who lived through those tense days.

Throughout high school and most of college, I was a chess fanatic. I had largely given it up, though, well before the events of the movie.

But I followed the games, and watched the news, during the years leading up to Fischer’s triumph. A billion people watched the games with me. It was exhilarating to find myself in a world suddenly caught up in a sport I had always loved (and always will love).

Maguire nails Fischer in all his paranoid quirkiness. Schreiber comes across as the class act Spassky was in real life. And Sarsgaard is terrific as Lombardy.

How can I speak with confidence to this last point? Well, I had met Lombardy years before, when I played in a chess tournament in Atlanta. That doesn’t mean I played against him. Only the best could win enough games for a shot at anyone on his level — and I was far from the best.

We did, however, speak briefly when he passed my table, stopping to comment on my unorthodox opening moves. He struck me as generous, humble, and engaging.

Lombardy was, in short, the very model of stable sanity Fischer would later need to balance out his craziness. Although Lombardy’s character is central to the movie, I’m appalled to note that his last name is never actually mentioned! (Except in the credits, he is identified only as “Bill”.)

Nevertheless, Pawn Sacrifice is a terrific movie. Watching it with Cheri was the opening gambit of our three-day Valentine date. God willing, the date will extend through Monday when we take in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Happy Valentine’s Day, friends!

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