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Tobey Maguire vanquishes the difficulties of playing chess genius Bobby Fischer

It was one of the more memorable things ever said on late-night television. Toward the end of an uncommonly smart interview with a notoriously difficult man, Dick Cavett asked chess genius Bobby Fischer what, in chess, is the equivalent of a home run?

With a truly satanic chuckle, Fischer said of whatever chess opponent he faced “when you break his ego.”

Cavett, as startled by the frank savagery as much as the audience, said, “Really? When does that occur? When he sees that he’s finished?” To which Fischer replied, “Yeah, when he sees it coming and he breaks up a little inside.” That was followed by a hearty laugh.

Edward Zwick’s superb “Pawn Sacrifice” photoshops Tobey Maguire into part of that exchange with Cavett in the film which is about Fischer’s uphill and unremitting battle against all the necessary collusions that made for Russia’s chess dominance in the 1960s and ’70s.

Some actually thought that Fischer was fighting a side battle in the Cold War. The movie tells us President Nixon and Henry Kissinger repeatedly kept calling. (Bobby only occasionally answered.) Most now think he was a very disturbed freak who, thank heaven, battled with rooks, knights, queens and bishops, not knives, guns, bombs and airplanes.

It is, I think, impossible for anyone who knows anything about either Fischer or film acting to watch Zwick’s film and not have one basic question before seeing it: How on earth can a screen specialist in cinematic ineffectuality and immaturity (along with secret power) like Maguire get away with playing a lean, mean, rangy and slightly sinister outrider like Fischer?

Very well, thank you, very well indeed. Should you ever need an immediate example to point to in a discussion of how miraculous movie acting can be, just point to Maguire, of all people, as Fischer. He carries it off and then some, against gigantic odds.

But then Zwick has, on occasion, been one of the great directors, or at least something in that neighborhood (“Special Bulletin,” “Legends of the Fall,” “The Siege”). He starts right off in “Pawn Sacrifice” with Fischer in mid-paranoia, ripping apart a hotel room in Iceland looking for Russian bugging devices.

The movie makes no attempt to airbrush the less attractive aspects of Fischer’s mental derangements. Though his mother was Jewish (and, to boot, a quasi-communist), Fischer’s lunatic anti-Semitism set in at about the same time as his total paranoia about the Russians.

We spend the two hours of “Pawn Sacrifice” watching a deeply troubled man treating almost everyone else dreadfully. But we know, from that opening scene, that great allowances still have to be made for this freak.

We always make allowances for genius – and thank heaven we do. Never mind the ones who seem to have led robust and almost healthy lives (Shakespeare, Duke Ellington). We’d be idiots to expect anyone with individual abilities as developed from childhood as Fischer’s (and, say, Glenn Gould’s) to be perfectly ordinary folks we might encounter over breakfast pancakes.

Great writers, in fact, were telling us how crazy chess masters were years ago. The brief, psychotic life of American chess genius Paul Morphy contributed mightily. So did Vladimir Nabokov’s terrific 1920 novel “The Defense.” And Stefan Zweig’s 1941 novella “The Royal Game.”

A brain that can see almost infinite possibilities in 64 squares on a board and pieces in just two colors, is a brain so hypertrophied in one area that it can’t help being a little out of whack with the others – maybe grotesquely so.

Enter Fischer, a living, breathing illustration of that from the time he learned to play the game at 6 and started stomping on opponents two and three or four times his age and experience. Among the more fatuous things we like to say when confronted with such blanket exceptionalism is “he should get a life.” As if that were ever easy, or even possible, for Fischer.

So we’re confined to one story really here – the one we know about. We see this deeply disturbed chess prodigy who is handled by indulgent and reasonably benign men – one of whom wears a clerical collar (Peter Sarsgaard; Michael Stuhlbarg plays Fischer’s ever-exasperated manager).

As we follow Fischer’s maddening but largely legitimate efforts to overcome the odds against him, he is going after Russian world champion Boris Spassky.

And there, too, is one more of the credits to this film. As terrific as Maguire is at playing the coldly inspired (and deranged) Fischer, that’s how good Liev Schreiber is at playing a great Russian chess master in his era who, no matter what, loves the game so much that he wants to see what this appalling American prodigy will do across a table from him.

In a lot of ways, Spassky was a more interesting man than his near-mythical opponent Fischer. So, too was the post-championship freak Fischer who was a life dropout and whose genius turned him into a world-wanderer and often a near-derelict.

Who was that guy we might well ask. Can anyone make a film about him? They once made a film about a young prodigy who didn’t want to be anything like him and called it “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”

That later-life story is probably asking the impossible.

“Pawn Sacrifice” is the story that can be told in a movie, the one the world is reasonably sure of. It checkmates error at every turn.

It’s a winner all the way. And, as far as we in the audience can tell, no ego was crushed in the process of making it.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

PAWN SACRIFICE

3.5 stars

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lily Rabe, Peter Sarsgaard, Robin Weigert

Director: Edward Zwick

Running time: 114 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking.

The Lowdown: American chess genius Bobby Fischer challenges the historic chess dominance of the Russians, specifically champion Boris Spassky.

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