Chess as Metaphor

Is it just a coincidence that three new narrative films about chess have significant social and political dimensions? If you understand the origins of the game, the answer is obviously not. Invented in India between two and five hundred years after the birth of Christ, it was modeled on the military of those days: infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots. Eventually, the pieces evolved into pawns, knights, rooks, bishops, king and queen.

More importantly, the game has entered the parlance of political science as a metaphor for the Cold War and its lingering traces with Washington and Moscow pitted against each other. If you Google “Geopolitical Chess Game”, you will encounter 363,000 results. Not surprisingly, Michel Chossudovsky’s Global Research is at the top of the heap, a website that sees every struggle on earth as involving pieces moved about on the board. Pace Chussodovsky, can we say that the white pieces stand for Moscow and the black ones for Washington? It is impossible to determine why the game’s inventors allowed white to move first but a preference for that color springs to mind.

“Pawn Sacrifice”, a film that opened in September and that is playing at middle-brow theaters everywhere, is about as close to the geopolitical metaphor as you are going to get since it is based on the historic showdown between the 29-year old Bobby Fischer and the reigning world champion Boris Spassky, who was six years older. As the title of the film suggests, Fischer was a foot soldier in the Cold War at the time even though he was one with superpowers. Arguably the greatest chess player that ever lived, Fischer had a burning hatred of the Russians based more on their Bill Belichick bending of the rules than anything that mattered to policy-makers in Washington. Indeed, despite the fact that his mother was a Communist Party member, his hostility to her was based not so much on politics but on his generally contrary nature. In an early scene in the film, Fischer, who is in his early teens, throws his mother and her boyfriend out of the house because their lovemaking noises seeping through the thin bedroom walls did not allow him to concentrate on his game.

As is the case in all narrative films about chess, there is zero explanation of the moves Fischer and Spassky made. This is particularly egregious considering that game six was one of the greatest in chess history. Fischer’s game was so inspired that immediately after Spassky’s defeat, he rose to his feat and joined the audience in applauding his adversary. One imagines that screenwriters underestimate the intelligence of their audience in making the moves understandable when in reality it is their own intelligence that is in doubt.

The film is worth seeing but it has a number of serious flaws starting with the casting of apple-cheeked, boy-next-door Toby Maguire as Fischer. If there were a younger version of James Woods or Gary Oldman available, that would have worked much better but that would have not compensated for a clunky script by Steven Knight. It includes a scene where Fischer loses his virginity to a prostitute living in the Los Angeles apartment complex at which he was training before the showdown in Iceland with Spassky. Apparently this is based on an actual event that took place in Argentina. Whether true or false, it sticks out as a sore thumb–a fruitless effort to make Fischer more interesting in dramatic terms. But except for his chess mastery, there was very little that was interesting about the man. In fact, it was the absence of any more human aspects to his personality that goes hand in hand with his chess prowess. For anybody who has played the game, even a patzer like me, you will understand that excellence is pretty much a combination of innate genius and spending huge amounts of time memorizing entire games. Since I would rather write about films and politics, this means that I generally lose to my Macbook (but I was thrilled to beat it a few weeks ago.)

One thing that has been lost on anybody who has written or made movies about Fischer was exactly the war of the worlds aspect of his psyche that eventually led to his psychotic break. Like our friends at Global Research, Fischer was obsessed about Armageddon but lacked the political acumen and—frankly—the emotional health to understand the world analytically.

“Pawn Sacrifice” depicts Fischer lying in bed late at night listening to the radio broadcasts of Herbert Armstrong, a bible thumping cult leader who was obsessed with how WWIII would issue in the return of Christ. Like many on the left, Armstrong believed that Armageddon was around the corner but it was the Messiah rather than the proletariat that would wash away our sins.

This kind of millenarianism surely made a good match with Fischer’s anti-Soviet but not anti-Communist obsessions. Perhaps his victory over Spassky would be a good first step in welcoming in an eternity of peace and happiness. As we know, however, the post-1972 evolution of Fischer that is not dramatized in the film was anything but peaceful and happy. Mental illness overtook him and reduced him to penury–so much so that he became a homeless vagrant for a while in his later years.

His last encounter with fame (or infamy) took place after the NATO destruction of Yugoslavia. At this point in his life, Fischer had become a crazed anti-Semite and Russophile, making outrageous statements to whoever would listen about how “the Jews” were starting wars everywhere. Defying sanctions imposed by the West, Fischer faced arrest for playing in a 1992 chess tournament in Yugoslavia. He ranted against former New York mayor Ed Koch, both Presidents Bush, and the Times Mirror Corporation—as “Jews, secret Jews, or CIA rats who work for the Jews.” I can go along with him on everything there except the business about “the Jews”.

If you go to see “Pawn Sacrifice” with modest expectations, you won’t be disappointed. But my recommendation is to see the documentary “Bobby Fischer Against the World” that is online at . And if you are an avid chess player like me, I strongly recommend Frank Brady’s biography “End Game”. Brady was a chess master and is tremendous writer. I reviewed the documentary and the biography here.

Opening on September 25th in Los Angeles and New York, “Endgame” is a low budget family drama about Opening on September 25th in Los Angeles and New York, “Endgame” is a low budget family drama about Jose (Rico Rodriquez), a young Mexican-American chess player in Brownsville, Texas who finds a fulfillment in chess that is difficult to find at home.

Nerdy, overweight and less of a chess master than his older brother Miguel, Jose is brimming with resentment at his sibling and his single mother who favors Miguel. His only real friend is Dani, the daughter of undocumented workers and an avid chess player herself.

In a moment of pique, Jose destroys a trophy his brother had won that was on prominent display in the hallway of their school. Put on detention, he is offered a way out: join the chess club. Since chess has become a bad vibe for him, Jose almost decides to stick with detention. But Dani persuades him to join the club, a relatively easy task since she is a member. Fans of “Napoleon Dynamite” will appreciate the casting of Efren Ramirez as the chess club instructor–Napoleon’s pal Pedro who was elected class president.

In many ways, the film evokes those after-school TV specials that the Disney Corporation used to churn out decades ago. It is sentimental, predictable and with pedestrian dialogue. What makes it worth seeing is the final 15 minutes or so when the kids from Brownsville come close to defeating the wealthier and whiter kids from Dallas. As it turns out, the Brownsville Royal Knights chess club is the real deal, winning many tournaments over the years.

Finally, there is “Dark Horse”, a New Zealand film with an all-Maori cast that opens in December and that is guaranteed to be one of the five films I nominate for best of 2015.

Like “Endgame”, this is a film about underdogs playing against wealthier and whiter tournament participants but what makes it extraordinary is its ability to mesh this story with a larger one about Maori oppression.

It stars Cliff Curtis, who is of Maori descent, as Genesis Potoni, a physically imposing but gentle middle aged man who we meet in the first minute of the film wandering the streets of an unnamed New Zealand city in the driving rain. When his eyes spot a chess store, he makes a beeline toward it, walks in and begins moving pieces about on a board with a sureness of hand that belies the word salad coming out of his mouth. It turns out that Genesis is a mental patient suffering from bipolar disorder on an outing in the city who is about to be picked up by his caregivers and returned to the institution.

The hospital authorities have decided that if a relative is willing to look after him, he will be released into his or her custody and allowed to be on his own as long as he takes his meds and stays out of trouble. Genesis’s only relative is his older brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi) who would prefer not to bother with him but finally relents when Genesis tells him what he already knows. There is nobody else who would accept him.

Ariki’s house looks like the last place in the world where Genesis can make a full mental recovery. Despite the fact that Ariki was an even better chess player than Genesis, he has become a heavily tattooed member of a Maori biker gang (although it is not clear that they actually own any) that lends a menacing presence to the household. Early on, Genesis has a confrontation with the bikers in Ariki’s absence. As they sit around a table menacing Mana (James Rolleston), Ariki’s 15-year old son, Genesis basically tells them to pick on someone their own size and age.

But the film is not about physical confrontations. It is about psychological ones that pit Genesis against Ariki who is determined to have Mana initiated into the biker gang when he turns 16. But that will occur on the same weekend that Genesis is escorting a team of young chess players to Auckland where they will participate in a junior chess tournament, including Mana who prefers chess to macho violence.

It turns out that the film is based on a real Maori chess instructor named Genesis Potini who died in 2011 at the age of 48 after battling bipolar disorder his entire life. As was the case with the Brownsville kids, the Maori youth Potoni trained in the Eastern Knights club became legendary masters of the game.

Written and directed by James Napier Robertson, a 33-year-old New Zealander who has never made a feature film before, it is a complete triumph. The three lead actors deliver memorable performances that obviously draw from the wellsprings of the Maori experience. The film contains many references to Maori culture and makes clear the challenges facing an indigenous society that is fraying at the edges, as is the case across the planet. As someone who has spent time on Blackfoot reservations in Montana and Alberta, you can see the same malaise that I saw: drugs, alcoholism, petty crime and anomie. Probably the salvation for American Indians and Maori lies in a combination of restoring traditional values that preceded capitalism alongside the abolition of the system that robbed such powerful peoples of such values in the first place.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.