Tobey Maguire’s latest role in the biopic Pawn Sacrifice sees him playing Bobby Fischer, the American chess champion who famously defeated Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky to become World Chess Champion in 1972.
Tobey, on the other hand, is known more for playing poker, so it was little surprise that he has been peppered with questions about how the two games relate to each other with the film’s theatrical release scheduled for later this month.
In an interview for Angela Dawson of the Examiner, Maguire said that he thought his poker background may have given him a little bit of insight when it came to portraying the enigmatic chess legend.
“I think it doesn’t hurt,” Maguire said of his poker experience. “I mean it’s very different, and I think Bobby himself hated games if there was any element of chance…but I also think it doesn’t hurt that I’ve played games and sort of battled with people over boards and across felt tables.”
There is undoubtedly overlap between the skills that it takes to play chess and poker at a high level. Both games require deep study to learn the theory necessary to compete with highly skilled players, and once at the table, both demand unwavering concentration from participants, as one mistake can ruin a day of good play.
Maguire pointed out one rather major difference between the two games, however. While poker is a game of partial information, there is nothing hidden in chess.
“On a chessboard all the information is right in front of you,” he said. “The only thing you are guessing or second-guessing is really in your preparation. Bobby Fischer was extremely consistent and would play the same opening move over and over and over and over again.”
Pawn Sacrifice tells the story of Fischer, the chess player who grew up in Brooklyn and became a grandmaster at the age of 15, at that time becoming the youngest to achieve that title in the history of chess.
During his career, Fischer achieved a number of remarkable successes, including winning the 1963-64 US Championship with a perfect score of 11 wins in 11 rounds. In 1970 and 1971, Fischer won two consecutive Candidates Matches (matches used to determine the challenger for the World Championship) in 6-0 sweeps, an astounding result in a game where draws are quite common, especially among elite players.
After winning the World Championship by defeating Spassky in their 1972 match, Fischer largely disappeared from the chess world, though he did play an unofficial rematch with Spassky 20 years later. In the later years of his life, Fischer became better known for his anti-American and anti-Semitic views. He died in Iceland in 2008.
Maguire has been promoting the film, which has naturally led to a lot of talk about game playing in general, and poker in particular. On Jimmy Kimmel Live, the actor was challenged to a game of Connect Four by the host (Maguire won), and mostly dodged questions about his history of playing in high-stakes underground poker games with other celebrities.
“I filed all my tax returns, I swear,” Maguire said.
Maguire was also one of the subjects discussed in the memoir written by poker hostess Molly Bloom. In her book, Bloom said that Maguire sometimes humiliated her in front of other players, and insisted that the games use a Shuffle Master device to shuffle the deck.