Yesterday afternoon, Susie and I went to see the indie movie Pawn Sacrifice, about Bobby Fischer and his 1972 world chess championship match with Boris Spassky. Fischer is played by Spiderman [which is to say, Tobey Maguire], and though Maguire does his best to communicate Fischer's intensity, brilliance, and all-round nuttiness, he is simply too nice a young man to bring it off successfully. Spassky is played by Liev Schreiber, who comes across as the grownup in the affair.
The 1972 match was a turning point in my life as a parent. I was living then in Northampton, MA with my first wife and our two sons, four year old Patrick and two year old Toby [as he was then called.] I was no sort of chess player at all, but my father had taught me the moves, and for the fun of it, I hauled out my set and played along as the moves were announced on a public TV show devoted to the match. The host of the show was Shelby Lyman, a cheerful young man who was only a chess Master [very low level in the big league chess world] but an enthusiastic promoter of chess. Since there was no direct TV feed, Lyman set up a wall mounted chess board in the studio and put the moves up as they came in over the teletype. He had assembled a little group of serious chess players -- International Grandmasters and International Masters [a totally different thing entirely], who analyzed each move during the long waits between teletype messages.
Although I did not realize it at the time, four year old Patrick took note of Daddy's fascination with the game. The next year, during an open house at his pre-school, Patrick dragged me into a room in which the teachers had laid out a variety of board games. Pointing to the chess board, he asked me to teach him how to play. I demurred suggesting Checkers instead, but Patrick insisted, so I taught him the moves.
The rest, as they say, is history. Patrick went on to become an International Grandmaster, twice United States chess champion, one of the strongest players American produced after the Fischer era. I spent a good deal of his boyhood ferrying him to and from chess matches.
The pivotal moment in the movie [spoiler alert] comes almost at the end. After blundering away the first game and forfeiting the second by not showing up, Fischer goes on to equalize in the 24 game match at two and a half, two and a half. In the sixth game, he departs from his signature e4 opening and beats Spassky in what is widely considered one of the most brilliant games ever played. When Fischer makes the move that crushes Spassky, Spassky looks at the board, smiles, laughs, and then stands and applauds Fischer. It is an act of exquisite grace and pure sportsmanship, and it makes Spassky, who was after all far and away the second best chess player in the world, look like a real mensch. I freely admit that tears came to my eyes.