Tobey Maguire on Chess, Poker and ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014.

Tobey Maguire brings his usual coiled intensity to the role of American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer in “Pawn Sacrifice.” Directed by Edward Zwick, the movie takes us back to the days of the Cold War where Russia and America were constantly facing down one another. Having become a master at chess at such an early age, Bobby eventually becomes determined to beat the Soviet Empire at the game as they have dominated it for decades. This puts Bobby in the crosshairs of Soviet chess grandmaster Boris Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber), and they come to face each other in what became known as the “Match of the Century,” a 21-game competition held in Iceland back in 1972.

Maguire dropped by the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California to talk about his experience making “Pawn Sacrifice” and playing a real-life person. In addition to being an accomplished actor and producer, he is also known for being quite the poker player as he has played in various tournaments throughout the years and has won a lot of money. Front Row Features Managing Editor Angela Dawson asked him if he was able to utilize his knowledge of poker in this role.

Tobey Maguire: I think it doesn’t hurt. I mean it’s very different, and I think Bobby himself hated games if there was any element of chance. When he was six years old he would play some other games, but where there was any element of chance, whether it was cards or dice or something like that, he would get really frustrated because his skill would maybe gain him an advantage but then the chance element might take that advantage away. He almost felt that was unfair, so he no longer played games that have any element of chance and only wanted to play a strictly skilled based game which is essentially chess. He had all of the control and it was all skill, and the communication is very pure. He loved that there was this framework and essentially this pure communication with the person he was playing with. There’s no kind of manipulation or something else that could happen. It was like a safe place to communicate purely. 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.

Looking at both games, it seems like there’s a similarity between them because both games require a lot of mental energy as you constantly second guess your moves and the moves you think your opponent will make. Whether you are about to move a chess piece or put down a poker bet, there’s a lot to consider beforehand as a player has to be actively concerned about making a wrong move that will have them suffering a loss they could have avoided. I brought this up to Maguire who sees similarities between the games, but he was also quick to describe how they are different from one another.

Tobey Maguire: Yeah, although with cards you’re acting on current, partial information. You have cards that I don’t see, so I’m then kind of mostly looking at your historical behaviors as it relates to betting and less on tics and moves and stuff. I think that there’s way too much put on so-called tells of poker. I think it’s much more about patterns of betting. I think that’s much more reliable than behavioral tells. I do think it’s a huge differential because in chess there is no hidden information. On a chessboard all the information is right in front of you. There is nothing hidden. 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 and over and over again. He actually went and I believe, although I don’t have the proof of this but based on people I talk to, that he basically studied variations that he hadn’t played before and ended up using a different opening move in game six that was very unusual for Bobby. It’s possible that he was doing what you’re talking about, kind of not counting on but anticipating that they would not have prepared to open with that. So, in that way, that’s a comparison that I could draw in relation to what you asked.

Maguire is riveting as always in “Pawn Sacrifice,” and the movie is now available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

You can also check out my video interview with Tobey Maguire below which I conducted for We Got This Covered.

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