Rogoff on the Fischer movie "Pawn Sacrifice"

9/18/2015 – Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff is a world famous economist – and a chess grandmaster. He thinks that in the Hollywood movie actor Toby Maguire portrays Fischer with remarkable authenticity "indeed, pitch-perfect for those of us who met Bobby in his prime" (as Rogoff did). In his review Ken speculates how Fischer would not be Fischer in today's world.

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Bobby Fischer would not be Bobby Fischer in today’s world

By Kenneth Rogoff | September 15, 2015

Bobby Fischer (right) shook hands with the chief referee of the World Chess Championship
after learning that his opponent, Boris Spassky, resigned from the match.

The brilliant new Hollywood movie “Pawn Sacrifice” portrays the life of tormented chess genius Robert James Fischer from his early days as a prodigy to his historic 1972 match, at age 29, with Russian world champion Boris Spassky. Actor Toby Maguire portrays Fischer with remarkable authenticity — indeed, pitch-perfect for those of us who met Fischer in his prime. The film depicts a match that became a signature event in the Cold War between Russia and the United States. It also makes one wonder whether a creative genius like Fischer, deeply troubled yet supremely functional at the chessboard, would be able to exist in today’s unforgiving Internet world.

Read the original Sept 2, 1972 reports in the Boston Globe here

Fischer certainly got attention back then, but information was filtered very differently than today. Journalists used to lead the way, rather than slavishly follow the flow of superficial Internet traffic. The story of an erratic kid from Brooklyn taking on the Soviet empire in its national sport made good copy for journalists, who understood the significance of the event. The match garnered bold front page headlines in major newspapers from around the world on a daily basis for two months, with commentators giving live move-by-move analysis for up to five hours each day.

Back then, there were only a few channels. There were no DVD players or “on demand.” Still, that wasn’t the only reason people were glued to their TV sets to watch the match. The surreal environment, the amazing chess turns, and the Cold War backdrop made Fischer one of the most famous people in the world that summer. I won’t humor myself that it was the chess analysis that drew attention, although I was a commentator for public television on the pivotal 13th game.

For the American champion, the match was the consummation of two decades of chasing the title, starting from his days as a child prodigy. After a lifetime of living in relative poverty for a sports superstar (even though he frequently appeared on the cover of major magazines), Fischer finally found himself playing in a match with a $250,000 purse. Mind you, it was a pittance compared to the $2.5 million that each fighter was guaranteed in the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight. But Fischer recognized that US culture marginalizes any pursuit that does not produce big money, and viewed the six-figure cash prize as the ultimate symbol of advancement in his sport.

For Russia, this wasn’t about money, it was about hearts and minds. The chess world had long been the perfect battleground on which to prove the superiority of the Communist system. Although most Westerners today pretend that we always knew that Russian-style Communism would fail, it wasn’t so obvious back then. The leading introductory economic textbook of the time, that of Nobel Prize winner Paul Samuelson, was still predicting that Russia might overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. To be fair, Russian culture and people enormously valued chess, even if it did not produce a lot of income. It is not only sport but art. No wonder Fischer’s quixotic pursuit of the championship led American policy mastermind Henry Kissinger to call Fischer and urge him not to back out, as he had threatened to do.

Kenneth Rogoff's review in the broadsheet version of the Boston Globe

Whatever his status in the United States, Fischer was certainly the most beloved American in Russia. The majesty of his play transcended propaganda in a country where everyday people could appreciate and understand the innate beauty of chess. In the run-up to the championship, Fischer trounced two very good opponents with unheard of 6-0 scores, an astonishing result when so many grandmaster games end in draws. Russian fans were so excited by Fischer’s unprecedented achievement that they reportedly jammed Moscow telephone exchanges to get information. After a while, operators would simply pick up the line and say “six to zero” and then hang up. In the end, even Fischer’s Russian opponent Spassky paid the ultimate tribute to his genius, clapping along with the audience after Fischer’s inspired sixth game victory, as portrayed in the movie. The American might have been the uber chess genius, but the Russian was the class act.

Director Edward Zwick does not shirk from showing the demons that plagued Fischer. He was justly concerned that the Russians would go to great lengths to prevent him from being champion, but ultimately rational concerns tipped into paranoia, and Fischer started to turn on his closest friends and confidants. He became anti-Semitic despite being Jewish himself.

One suspects the paranoia and personal flaws would have tripped up Fischer in today’s Internet world, long before he became champion. After Fischer won the title, he simply stopped playing competitive chess, and his mental illness became much worse. Though no one can condone Fischer’s virulent rants and dark thoughts from later years (he died in 2008), it is a bit sad to realize that someone of such towering creativity and genius, who inspired so many people through his chess, might have had his career ended at a much earlier stage today. We live in a different world.

Kenneth Rogoff
is a professor public policy and economics at Harvard University and a chess grandmaster. The original review of the movie appeared in Boston Globe, Sept. 15, 2015.

We reproduce the review with kind permission of the Globe and the author.

The review has also appeared in Project Syndicate, Sept. 16, 2015,
where the text now appears in ten different languages.

Here's the review as it appeared in the Brazilian newspaper O Globo [scan submitted by Albert Silver]

Pawn Sacrifice Official Trailer #1 (2015) - Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber Movie HD

Previous ChessBase articles on "Pawn Sacrifice"

Pawn Sacrifice - movie of the 1972 match
6/11/2015 – Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky are coming to a theater near you in a film based on the life of the recluse genius and his epic 1972 showdown for the world title. Whatever one may think of it, the all-star cast leaves nothing to be desired, with Edward Zwick, director of The Last Samurai, and Tobey Maguire who championed the project for ten years.

Watch Fischer enact his mental chess match
8/20/2015 – Pawn Sacrifice, the 2015 American biographical thriller film directed by Edward Zwick and starring Tobey Maguire (whom we remember as Spiderman, or more fondly from Seabiscuit) as Bobby Fischer, is set to be released in the US on September 18, 2015. Huffington Post has posted an exclusive featurette, to which we have added some clips from the past. Happy viewing.

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foxbat foxbat 6/30/2016 09:05
dumb article.
tunabeach tunabeach 12/14/2015 10:27
I think he would be happy in this world, because internet provides alternative news, which sustain some of his opinions. More and more people start to wake up in this fake world, where some happy few have everything in their hands and want to keep it that way (among others by hypnotizing/enslaving the ordinary people, you and me, via their ms medi). Rather said, Fischer was a pioneer, in some aspects also paranoia, but certainly not lunatic as the msm want to depict him. The last sentence in the movie (spoken out by the old real Fischer) says it all: "I am looking for the truth, nothing else". I consider this movie as an attempt to rehabilitate Fischer. I already found him the best chess player ever and my admiration for him has grown even more, after having seen the movie yesterday.
naoturise naoturise 9/22/2015 01:27
@ Rybka2-Beater

The point is that "could" applies to someone with an IQ of 100 as much or more as it does to someone with an IQ like Fischer's.

"However, the ability to realise that the above is the case" ... "type of test should also increase."

It seems the problem is that the right knowledge and methods of analysis guarantee nothing. Biases still take effect. Research has shown that even self-awareness regarding biases doesn't allow people to overcome them. Personally, I find this a bit disturbing. It's like we're screwed no matter what.
Rybka2-Beater Rybka2-Beater 9/22/2015 05:48
@ naoturise

You make several valid points. Anticipating the first one, I'd used "could" rather than "would" in:

"But a 175-185'er like Bobby could have filtered out the nonsense"

As to your second point - that the ability to find explanations or fits, including spurious ones, will typically increase with intelligence - you are right. I've often made the same observation.

However, the ability to realise that the above is the case, and therefore the recognition of the need to perform a "is this really a pattern/explanation I've found, or is this attributable to chance?" type of test should also increase.

It does in me, at least, and has been since I was little; I don't claim to be smarter than Bobby.

Circularity beckons if we go deeper into this.
Reynaud Reynaud 9/22/2015 05:09
clkauto v Webster's Dictionary

Words are defined by usage, not theories or etymologies. The stuff about Arabs being Semites is common knowledge and doesn't affect the use of the word anti-Semitic. Words change meanings all the time - "meat" used to refer to all food, now it just means... well, meat. When the ancestors of modern English heard the Adam and Eve myth they talked about the forbidden "apple", because at that time "apple" referred to any fruit. Language evolves, that's why dictionaries and academics follow usage, not etymological theories of origin etc... So, not surprisingly, the entire professional writing class of the English world got this one right, and random internet guy got it wrong: "anti-Semitism" refers to "hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group" [Merriam-Webster].

clkauto v clkauto
"Fischer was clearly not a Jew ... his mother was Jewish"
The defense rests.
naoturise naoturise 9/21/2015 06:37
@ Rybka2-Beater

"But a 175-185'er like Bobby could have filtered out the nonsense"

People gravitate toward sources that agree with them, and studies on group polarization show that when you put like minded people together, their opinions on average become more extreme. Nothing has ever fed into these things more than the internet. Also, research has shown that smarter people are actually more opinionated because, among other things, they're better at coming up with arguments to support what they believe. Fischer's high IQ would not have helped him. What he needed was a healthier emotional life.
Rybka2-Beater Rybka2-Beater 9/21/2015 02:48


Sure, I was being just a little tongue-in-cheek.

However, the internet -does- provide good information, admittedly with poor and worsening S/N. But a 175-185'er like Bobby could have filtered out the nonsense and seen the irrefutable proof of, say, the Jewish Holocaust. Note - "could".

"Morphy and the shoes, Steinitz talking to god, various people peeing, naked, drunk etc, showers of gold coins"

:) I'm more than familiar with all these stories, and many more (as you probably are, too) and how they came to be.

For example, Alekhine was accused (in his case, after he's died, and by the less than wholly reliable raconteur, Reuben Fine) of public micturation. Who else, whether OTB or otherwise? I don't know whether the stories of an IM with initials "M.S." or of a Canadian championship are true. Google suggests a humbly ranked player with initials L.L. did it in an elevator.

I've just seen a (lousy) 1973 fiction book, "Tactics of Conquest" by Barry N. Malzberg, which rehashes and enlarges the salacious Alekhine gossip (flowers, floors, tables, opponents are all claimed to have been recipients), but, worse, misattributes the Steinitz ("Steinmetz" in the novel) fairy-tale to Anderssen (which he spells "Andersson"). Mr Winter's task is never-ending, but then this book is an account of Overlords arriving on earth when Bobby took to the shadows in '73.

As for myself, I'm told I routinely piss off my opponents. But only as the rules permit.
garycgibson garycgibson 9/20/2015 09:39
Fischer's 185 IQ would have been discovered in youth if he were an American today and he would have been trained for a real job in science one would think, to the loss of the chess world.
naoturise naoturise 9/20/2015 03:24

The photo's aren't conclusive by themselves, but are very strong evidence in light of other facts. Here are some of them.

Nemenyi was highly interested in Bobby's welfare, and took him on outings. He provided child support payments to Bobby's mother. Nemenyi had an older son by another woman who spoke of Bobby as his half-brother. A document relating to Nemenyi's estate describes Bobby as Nemenyi's and Bobby's mother's son out-of-wedlock (something highly stigmatizing in those days, giving reason to arrange a false birth certificate). The FBI, who investigated Bobby's mother because of her activism, concluded Nemenyi was Bobby's father; this was even noted in a letter written by J. Edgar Hoover. Bobby himself once altered a document saying Gerhardt was his father to say instead that Gerhardt was listed on his birth certificate as his father. There's more, if you want to investigate.

As for antisemitism, dictionaries define it as prejudice against Jews. If it ever meant something else historically, well so did a great many other words. We can only reasonably use current definitions.

It seems your criticism of Mr. Rogoff's scholarship is unwarranted.
yesenadam yesenadam 9/19/2015 02:00
clkauto and Truffaut, you are both being childish and rude, on top of saying some loose/incorrect things. Not impressive. 0-0 (That's no points each, not castling..)

"Had Bobby been born later, and so the internet had been available to him at an early age, he would not have obtained the incorrect information which allowed him to misanalyse certain aspects of world history as badly as he did. In real life, at some time garbage got imbibed.." - yes R-Beater, thank goodness we have today the internet, full as it is with accurate information hehe. But seriously, I guesstimate that a vastly higher proportion of available information is nonsense these days, at best. And there are plenty of crazy sites catering for and exacerbating whatever kind of madness one is predisposed to.

Strange article. Oh well, one should be glad about any appearance of chess in a movie that's more than the perfunctory [someone makes a move at a chessboard then] 'Checkmate!'. Fischer/Spassky has been beat thoroughly to death though.. How about uh... the story of the Polgars?! Now THAT would be a movie! Controversy a-plenty. Or uh.. 'The Story of Chess' entirely made of things that didnt happen (screenplay: Edward Winter) - Morphy and the shoes, Steinitz talking to god, various people peeing, naked, drunk etc, showers of gold coins.. Even a well-made documentary about the current top players and their lives of travelling and clashing with each other would be fascinating for a non-chess audience, I think.
clkauto clkauto 9/19/2015 12:50
So let me see, Truffaut, you do not want facts but prefer to lean on resemblance between people. Nice one, though not sufficient event for a chit-chat between two teenage girls.
Let’s extrapolate your “theory” of resemblance to Magnus Carlsen. Take a look at his picture, especially his face…then take a look at his father Henrik. It looks as if they never even met each other in their whole life, yet I have no problem believing Henrik was his father. However, if we discard the birth certificate as a proof (your preferred method of simply ignoring the facts), and use your “theory” of resemblance, then looking at the way Magnus and Hulk Hogan looks (lose the Hulk's mustashes, of course), I am sure you would safely conclude that there is a high degree of certainty of Hulk being Magnus' father. Well they "look" like each other, no?
But okay, you did make me laugh a bit, that is my take out from all this. Since you offer no facts whatsoever, any further discussion in this matter would be a waste of time. Cheers.
Maturner Maturner 9/19/2015 01:36
Fischer's father was not German. His father was obviously Paul Nemenyi, a Hungarian physicist. Just look at the pictures of the two of them. There's no doubt. He obviously benefited from the genes of his parents who were both brilliant themselves but unfortunately also inherited the paranoia and other idiosyncracies. Ken Rogoff was a very strong grand master in the 1970s whom I actually worked a wallboard for in a tournament-Paoli-Rogoff 1974(?) I'm glad he has retained his interest in chess.
Rybka2-Beater Rybka2-Beater 9/19/2015 12:50
Bobby's mother, and probably* his biological father, were "jewish", in the sense that this unscientific term is usually employed. But we're in the 21st century now, and IMO this isn't even a fit subject for sensible discussion. What the ---- does it matter, except for voyeurism or conjecturing about the source of the poor guy's demons?

* To settle arguments for those fixated on these things, look at:
If (and only if) there was a binary choice between HGF and PN being Bobby's father, the conclusion can only be PN.

Besides appearance, PN was, from information available, probably (even) smarter than HGF. Intelligence is somewhat more to do with nature than with nurture.

More interestingly, Ken R had conjectured: "One suspects the paranoia and personal flaws would have tripped up Fischer in today’s Internet world, long before he became champion. After Fischer won the title, he simply stopped playing competitive chess, and his mental illness became much worse. Though no one can condone Fischer’s virulent rants and dark thoughts from later years (he died in 2008), it is a bit sad to realize that someone of such towering creativity and genius, who inspired so many people through his chess, might have had his career ended at a much earlier stage today. We live in a different world."

Of course, this is well into "what-if" territory, as Mr Rogoff knew. :)

An alternative "what-if" scenario is this: Had Bobby been born later, and so the internet had been available to him at an early age, he would not have obtained the incorrect information which allowed him to misanalyse certain aspects of world history as badly as he did. In real life, at some time garbage got imbibed, and he was apparently disinclined or unable to challenge this. Then, GIGO. By the time rational, well-informed, highly intelligent people attempted to correct things, Bobby was dismissive and cut them out of his contradiction-filled life.

I concur that chess kept Bobby relatively sane. As he gave it up, his inner demons gained almost complete control. Such a tragedy, such a waste. On the evidence, in terms of sheer native intelligence, and with all respect to Garry, Magnus, Morphy, Capablanca and others, I believe Bobby had the edge.
Truffaut Truffaut 9/19/2015 12:15
@ clkauto If you were a real scientist you would do your research. You put your full faith in a birth certificate? Women who are married and have an illegitimate child often put the name of their husband on the birth certificate. That is what Bobby Fischer's mother did. If you continue to blindly accept a document as your "proof" then at least stop calling yourself a scientist out of respect for real scientists.

If you want the truth you might start by comparing photographs of Hans-Gerhardt Fischer and Paul Nemenyi to Bobby Fischer. Then do some research.
Rybka2-Beater Rybka2-Beater 9/18/2015 11:44
Rogoff points to the Fischer article he archived at

Bobby's 1969 analysis of Rogoff's game is badly wrong in the second column of the document. Here is the offending variation:

1. e4 g6 2. d4 Bg7 3. Nc3 c6 4. Bc4 (Bobby's suggested alternative to 4. Nf3 as played) d5 5. exd5 b5 6. Bb3 b4 7. dxc6"!!" (Bobby gave those double exclamation marks) bxc3 8. Qf3

Bobby wrote: "with two separate threats" 9. Qxf7# and 9. c7 "opening up on the queen and queen rook. This is a very difficult spot for black to get out of."

Sadly, Bobby overlooked 8 ...e6, winning, after which white has nothing better than 9. bxc3 Ne7 10. Nh3 Nbxc6 11. 0-0 -+ .

If instead white does what Bobby implied he should, which is to play 9. c7 here, white is smashed by 9 ...Qxc7 10. Ba4+ (10. Qxa8 Nc6 -+ ) Kf8 -+

So Bobby's suggested 7. dxc6 should not be a "!!" but instead a "??". Instead, the pedestrian 7. Na4 or 7. Nce2 leave white with a small but persistent advantage.

The whole line suggested by Bobby is a little suspect, though I do agree that after 4. Bc4, ...d6 is probably best. I think Rogoff found and played the best move, 4. Nf3.

I looked for the game at chessgames; there it is reported with a transposition between black's 2nd and 4th moves, therefore this variation can't occur and wasn't discussed. I'm happy to see age hasn't robbed me of all my abilities quite yet.

I remain a dedicated Bobby fan. But the Great One erred too, so there's hope for all of us.
clkauto clkauto 9/18/2015 11:44
I am a scientist, so I stick to the facts. That is what I will do: I will stick to the fact (birth certificate), and leave you in the realm of gossips, rumors and conspiracy theories.
Truffaut Truffaut 9/18/2015 11:29
Nope, his father was Paul Nemenyi who was Jewish.
clkauto clkauto 9/18/2015 10:00
His father was Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist. Search internet for Bobby's birth certificate.
Unless you would challenge even his birth certificate - not a surprise in the country where even president Obama's birth certificate is still being challenged, from where he was born to what religion he belongs to.
Truffaut Truffaut 9/18/2015 06:42
@ clkauto

Fischer's father and mother were both Jewish. Do some research.
Rybka2-Beater Rybka2-Beater 9/18/2015 05:37
90% of Fischer's commentary on and analysis of politics and history was correct and sensible - though (deliberately?) couched in language which was seized upon by a controversy-hungry press, and by his detractors, some of whom were motivated by envy.
Alas, 5% of this output was misguided at best, and plain wrong, and some of it spectacularly so. For example, denying the Jewish Holocaust, or suggesting it was justified.
For a person of his undoubted IQ, that he could apparently fail to see counterbalancing viewpoints and ignore refutations was tragic. This came about partly because of the paranoia - some of which was understandable given his accomplishments and experiences.
A flawed super-genius. The world treats such people cruelly, making rehabilitation impossible.
Rybka2-Beater Rybka2-Beater 9/18/2015 05:23
Here was the FEN for the start position:

Perhaps you did not see the white bishop in the low-quality PDF copy of the original article.
Rybka2-Beater Rybka2-Beater 9/18/2015 05:22
@rubinsteinak - You are mistaken. Here it is.
1.Qg6+ Kxe7 (1...Kd7 2.e8=Q+ Kc7 3.Qgc6#) 2.Ba5 Kf8 (2...Kd7 3. Qe6#) 3.Bb4#
rubinsteinak rubinsteinak 9/18/2015 03:55
In the link to the Fischer article covering one of Rogoff's games from 1969, there is chess problem at the end of the article that Fischer provides with the teaser that if you can find the mate in 3 for white, he will send the first 10 people with the correct answer an autographed photo. The funny thing is, there is no mate in 3 from that position! So, was Bobby being clever or is this a misprint?
hserusk hserusk 9/18/2015 02:11
Why is it pertinent what Fischer's life would be like if he was to live in our times?
One doesn't choose the epoch when he/she exist. What matters is what he/she does with the time given.
Fischer was a colorful person in an interesting time in history and his books, games and anecdotes will live forever.
What he would be like with internet and social media around etc is just impertinent - imho.
Catastrophe Catastrophe 9/18/2015 01:17
"He became anti-Semitic despite being Jewish himself."

I would have left out this sentence, for multiple reasons.
Karbuncle Karbuncle 9/18/2015 12:53
Have to disagree with Rogoff about Fischer not surviving in today's social media world. His radical views would be praised as further genius by the insanity of the modern world we live in.
hserusk hserusk 9/18/2015 11:39
No idea why the author keeps going on about Fischer in "today’s unforgiving Internet world".
clkauto clkauto 9/18/2015 10:53
I an not clear where Mr. Rogoff gets his information from, but Fischer was clearly not a Jew. His father was German and his mother was Jewish, when he clearly stated how he feels about himself, i.e. German genes clearly prevailing.
Furthermore, the bare using of word "anti-Semitic" is wrong, but it seems everybody are using it, simply being ignorant. Semite people are the ones descending from Shem, father of Aram, Ashur and Arphaxad, who are biblical ancestors of the Arabs, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hebrews, Canaanites and using the term "anti-Semitic" means you hate all these people, which is simply wrong. But yes, he hated Jews, that much is clear.
One would expect from a Harvard University professor to know his facts before publishing an article.