Pawn Sacrifice

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Pawn Sacrifice
Theatrical release poster
Directed byEdward Zwick
Screenplay bySteven Knight
Story by
Produced by
CinematographyBradford Young
Edited bySteven Rosenblum
Music byJames Newton Howard
Distributed by
Release dates
  • September 11, 2014 (2014-09-11) (TIFF)
  • September 16, 2015 (2015-09-16) (United States)
Running time
115 minutes[3]
CountryUnited States
Budget$19 million[4]
Box office$5.6 million[5]

Pawn Sacrifice is a 2014 American biographical drama film about chess grandmaster and 11th world champion Bobby Fischer. It follows Fischer's challenge against top Soviet chess grandmasters during the Cold War and culminating in the World Chess Championship 1972 match versus Boris Spassky in Reykjavík, Iceland. It was directed by Edward Zwick and written by Steven Knight, and stars Tobey Maguire as Fischer, Liev Schreiber as Spassky, Lily Rabe as Joan Fischer, and Peter Sarsgaard as William Lombardy. It was released in the United States on September 16, 2015.[6]

The film received generally positive reviews, with many critics praising Maguire's performance, but grossed only $5 million worldwide against a budget of $19 million.


In 1972, Bobby Fischer tears apart his hotel room in a paranoid delusional state, believing he is being spied upon by the Soviet KGB.

Two decades earlier, in 1951 Brooklyn, Fischer's mother, a Soviet Jewish immigrant, explains to 8-year-old Bobby that the FBI has her under surveillance because she supports Marxist revolution in the U.S. She coaches Bobby on what to say to the FBI if he is ever approached.

Bobby immerses himself in chess and becomes an expert player. Despite her worries that chess is becoming an obsession, his mother takes him to an adult chess club, where he impresses the resident chess master and is accepted as a student. Bobby enters the world of professional chess championships and soon becomes the youngest grandmaster ever.

Bobby's hatred of distractions leads to frequent tantrums. He enters a team tournament in Varna, Bulgaria, where he realizes Soviet grandmasters are deliberately drawing games with the collusion of the World Chess Federation. Erupting in a rant that this system makes it impossible for a non-Soviet player to win the championship, Bobby quits the tournament and gives up chess.

When Bobby returns to the U.S., lawyer Paul Marshall offers to help him modify the tournament rules, working pro bono to give Fischer a fair chance to win future tournaments. Fischer re-enters professional chess and selects Father William Lombardy, a former World Junior Chess Champion and Roman Catholic priest, as his second. Lombardy struggles to calm Bobby's rock-star behavior and impossible demands.

As his demands are accepted, Bobby overcomes most grandmasters across the world and nears the world championship, becoming a hero to the American public. At the height of the Cold War, Soviet domination of the World Chess Championship is being exploited for propaganda as proof that the Communist system is superior to American democracy. U.S. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger closely monitor and encourage Bobby's progress.

During a tournament in Santa Monica, California, Bobby loses to Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky, the world champion. The next morning, an enraged Bobby approaches and berates Spassky on the beach. Privately, Lombardy tells Marshall that excessive focus on chess strategy has destroyed the sanity of the game's greatest players.

As he pursues the world championship, the pressure drives Bobby into paranoia and delusional psychosis. Meeting with Marshall, Bobby's sister Joan quotes from her brother's letters about how the Communists collude with International Jewry to destroy him. Joan explains that Bobby believes this despite being Jewish himself and pleads with Marshall to arrange for Bobby to receive psychiatric help. Marshall is dismissive, but as Bobby's breakdown escalates, he suggests to Lombardy that Bobby needs therapy and medication, which Lombardy rebuffs.

Reporters and fans from around the world assemble at Reykjavík, Iceland, to witness the historic World Chess Championship 1972 match between Bobby and Spassky. Bobby loses the first game and fails to appear for the second, losing it by forfeit. Bobby is easily distracted by small noises from the audience, rolling cameras, and the hard sound of the chessboard, which leads him to make extreme demands for silence and fewer distractions, which could cause another forfeit. Spassky, insulted by the possibility of maintaining his title by forfeit, orders the Soviet entourage to accede to Bobby's demands.

Bobby wins the third game by unconventional tactics. Game four is a draw, but Bobby wins game five after Spassky himself begins showing paranoia signs. Experts speculate the next game will determine the outcome of the match. In game six, Bobby uses an opening he has never played before, surprising the audience. His inspired play amazes Spassky, who resigns and leads a standing ovation of Bobby's victory.

A postscript reveals Bobby went on to win the match and that his sixth game against Spassky is still considered the greatest chess game ever played. However, his delusions worsened, and he went on to forfeit his title and died in 2008 as a fugitive from U.S. prosecution.


Title meaning[edit]

Director Edward Zwick explained the meaning of the film's title: "You have Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon calling Bobby Fischer; you have Brezhnev and the KGB agents following Boris Spassky. Both of these men were pawns of their nations."[7]


Principal photography began in early October 2013 in Reykjavík, Iceland.[8] In mid-October, the remaining 41 days of shooting began in Montreal, Canada, wrapping in Los Angeles on December 11, 2013.[9]


The film had its world premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2014.[10] On September 10, 2014, Bleecker Street acquired the U.S. distribution rights to the film, the company's first acquisition.[11] The film was originally set to be released in the United States on September 18, 2015; however, it was pushed up to September 16,[6][12] with wide releases in both America and Canada on September 25, 2015.[13]

Released on home media on December 22, 2015, the film made $1.1 million in DVD and Blu-ray sales over its first few months.[14]


Box office[edit]

Pawn Sacrifice has grossed $2.4 million in North America and $3.1 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $5.6 million,[5] against a budget of $19 million.[4]

The film grossed $1 million in the opening weekend of its wide release, finishing 12th at the box office.[5]

Critical response[edit]

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 72% based on 120 reviews, with an average rating of 6.41/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Anchored by a sensitive performance from Tobey Maguire, Pawn Sacrifice adds another solidly gripping drama to the list of films inspired by chess wiz Bobby Fischer."[15] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 65 out of 100, based on 29 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[16]

Spassky himself has called the film "weak" and said that it has "no intrigue"; he noted that the film misrepresents how and why he agreed to continue the match after Fischer failed to show up for the second game.[17]

Anatoly Karpov assessed the film negatively: “Maybe the film is not bad for the popularization of chess, but its content is terrible. There are many inaccuracies. The chess positions are simply idiotic. The film is quite budgetary, so take a chess consultant, pay him a fee, he will correct your position. And then there the diagonal from left to right is white. You are making a film about world champions, and such bloopers, for me as a professional, are terrible”.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Siegel, Tatiana (March 28, 2013). "Tobey Maguire's Material Pictures Expands with New Backer Onboard". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on September 1, 2023. Retrieved October 25, 2018.
  2. ^ D'Arcy, David (September 8, 2014). "Pawn Sacrifice". Screen International. Archived from the original on September 1, 2023. Retrieved October 4, 2021.
  3. ^ "PAWN SACRIFICE (12A)". British Board of Film Classification. September 3, 2015. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  4. ^ a b Dondis, Harold; Chase, Chris (September 27, 2015). "Chess Notes". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on September 30, 2015. Retrieved January 2, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c "Pawn Sacrifice (2015)". Box Office Mojo. Amazon. Archived from the original on September 1, 2023. Retrieved August 31, 2016.
  6. ^ a b Pedersen, Erik (February 4, 2015). "'I'll See You In My Dreams' and 'Pawn Sacrifice' Get Release Dates". Deadline Hollywood. Archived from the original on June 1, 2015. Retrieved May 30, 2015.
  7. ^ McCullough, Susannah Bragg (September 21, 2015). "How does the title of "Pawn Sacrifice" highlight the intense political stakes underlying 1970s chess?". Archived from the original on February 13, 2017. Retrieved February 12, 2017.
  8. ^ Siegel, Tatiana (October 23, 2013). "'Boardwalk Empire's' Michael Stuhlbarg Joins Bobby Fischer Chess Pic 'Pawn Sacrifice' (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on September 1, 2023. Retrieved May 30, 2015.
  9. ^ Kay, Jeremy (October 23, 2013). "Shooting underway on Pawn Sacrifice". Archived from the original on July 21, 2015. Retrieved May 30, 2015.
  10. ^ Punter, Jennie (July 22, 2014). "Toronto Film Festival Lineup Includes Denzel Washington's 'Equalizer,' Kate Winslet's 'A Little Chaos'". Variety. Archived from the original on July 23, 2014. Retrieved October 25, 2018.
  11. ^ Bernstein, Paula (September 11, 2014). "Bleecker Street Acquires Ed Zwick's Bobby Fischer Biopic". Indiewire. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved October 25, 2018.
  12. ^ "Pawn Sacrifice". Archived from the original on August 27, 2015. Retrieved September 7, 2015.
  13. ^ "Pawn Sacrifice". September 20, 2015. Archived from the original on September 20, 2015. Retrieved September 21, 2015.
  14. ^ "Pawn Sacrifice (2015)". The Numbers. Nash Information Services, LLC. Archived from the original on October 26, 2018. Retrieved October 25, 2018.
  15. ^ "Pawn Sacrifice (2015)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Archived from the original on August 5, 2020. Retrieved August 11, 2020.
  16. ^ "Pawn Sacrifice Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Archived from the original on September 29, 2015. Retrieved September 28, 2015.
  17. ^ McGourty, Colin (March 4, 2016). "Boris Spassky: "I'm waging a war"". Archived from the original on April 8, 2016. Retrieved October 25, 2018.
  18. ^ "Анатолий Карпов: Спартаковцы сделали мне много гадостей". Рамблер/спорт (in Russian). May 3, 2017. Archived from the original on December 18, 2021. Retrieved March 8, 2021.

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