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Chess in Film

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Nice long chess scene in the 1944 Irene Dunne vehicle The White Cliffs of Dover on my beloved Turner Classic Movies right now. Two elderly players, one English, one American, argue about whether the variation they are playing originated with Blackburne or Pillsbury. "Blackburne played it in the Hastings Tournament of '95." "No, it was Pillsbury at Paris 1900!" They go as far as whether or not the lunge of a pawn was typical of Blackburne and whether or not Pillsbury could "play rings around any British player."

I'm not geek enough to freeze the board at different moments to reconstruct the position on the board, although they got the white square on the right. I'm impressed enough that the script included such knowledgeable chess conversation. (Both tournament references are correct.) Both authors of the movie were born in Austria-Hungary.

Coincidentally, I just watched Searching for Bobby Fischer on cable for the first time in a decade. Good film, funny to see Benjamin and others in the tournament scene. Some of the chess bits are annoying, but not as bad as The Luzhin Defense and its idiotic ending, far from the Nabokov book in every way.


This reminds me of a time I was surprised by a chess reference on a TV show. There was an episode of a 1980s crime show (I think it was "Quincy" or "Murder, She Wrote", though it could have been "Columbo"; one of those shows that gets frequently rerun on the A&E network) in which a bookseller character was an avid postal chess player and had a board set up in his shop. The detective hero visited the bookshop a couple of times and found the postalite struggling with positions from his games. The bookseller turned out to be the murderer IIRC. The chess reference wasn't so flattering: the intent seemed to be to portray the bookseller as a neurotic character.

The Luzhin Defense is a good movie, well acted and, as far as the game positions go, very well done by consultant Jonathan Speelman. Did you catch Rubinstein vs. Hromdka (sp?) on one of the boards? Also, the adjournment position over which Luzhin labors blindfold in the car is worthy of a GM's intense study and excitement when he finds the mate (that is, at least in the days before computers).

It's ridiculous tunnel vision of chessplayers to want a movie to conform to tournament chess rules--it's a MOVIE. Likewise, it's a bit silly for Nabakov fans to think that a movie should recreate faithfully a book. A movie is a completely different animal. And this movie is interesting, romantic, and well made.

Happy holidays. Your writing rocks!

Hello there, thanks for the kind words. It is a very pretty and well made film. I gave it a six at the IMDB. Turturro is one of my favorite actors and Watson is also very good. I'm aware of all the work that went into the chess side, but having the wife play out an adjournment and discover a win missed by the opponent (and the rest of the world) was silly even by Hollywood standards.

Films often, you might say usually, don't resemble the books or historical events they are based on. (Reminding me of my review of "Titanic" to my sister: "At least the boat sank.") But turning Nabakov's brilliant character study into a romance was hard to stomach even before the pseudo-feminist ending. As in most of these situations, I probably would have enjoyed it more had I never read the book, but that's not an exchange I would make.

Chess scenes (and boards for that matter) are often not portrayed realistically because the writers/directors/authors only think of the game as a symbol and assume the (American) audience is the same. So "check" is always dire, etc. They are probably right. Baseball movies, at least those not intended for kids, have to be more accurate because far more people would be aware of any liberties taken and would take umbrage. Artistic license is fine, but if something is blatantly unrealistic it distracts. Since few people know what is or isn't realistic with a chess, standards are very low in films and books. The director's desire for drama, however hackneyed, will always overcome the chess consultant's protests!

It does no harm for specialists in a niche activities to complain. That's one way things are improved. No one in Hollywood is going to change a scene because he's worried about ticking off those crazy chess nuts, but someone who cares might go out of their way to get an expert opinion. I've been consulted by several authors to "authenticate" chess references and scenes in books.

Whining about trivial errors is one thing. I'm more concerned about perpetuating false stereotypes or creating new ones.

In Searching For Bobby Fischer wasn't the climactic game played in a big room with no spectators? I'm sure Bobby would have liked that part.

I didn't read the book and based on Mig's comments, I'm glad I didn't read it first. Movies are almost never as good because of the missing details. I thought "The Luzhin's Defense" was an interesting movie and as far as chess movies go, near the top.

I believe what makes this movie great is the depth of the characters portrayed. We certainly can see many players in history fitting the Luzhin persona. I thought the ending was rather interesting and felt that the wife honoring her husband at the end provided dignity in a very tragic situation. I don't know how else they could've ended the movie. With Turati winning by default? The FIDE mess would have begun 70 years earlier. (smile)

Certainly, the scene was set in the 1920s, so adjournments look pretty silly now (in the day of databases and digital clocks). My favorite scene was the tension in the Luzhin-Turati match. The board shots were great! How about him asking Natalia to marry him? That was the funniest thing!

Here was a review I did some time ago:


I think Mig missed a crucial point in the plot of Luzhin. After the climactic game is adjourned and Luzhin is in the car, he is working out the position blindfolded and writing down notes. He has a Eureka moment when he discovers the mate and writes it down. Later, his notes came into the possession of his wife. She is simply following Luzhin's ideas when she plays out the adjournment. Indeed, it would be laughable if she herself discovered the mate. But she was only being Luzhin's hands and eyes as it were, moving the pieces and punching the clock.

I was disheartened by the reaction in the chess press of philistine grandmasters and journalists who denigrated the movie because the wife is allowed to play out the adjournment, in apparent violation of the International Arbiter's Rule Book or something equally lame. Guys, get a life.

The position at adjournment is a wonderful problem by a composer whose name escapes me. He is well known, however. I was so taken by the beauty of the position that I stayed for the credits after the movie, saw that the chess consultant was Jonathan Speelman, and later messaged him on ICC. He told me the source of the position (the problem by the composer whose name I forget) and explained that he (Speelman) worked backwards from the position to create a game that would lead to it. I think that Larry Evans or someone, in the attack leveled on the movie by chess journalists, complained that the game thus created was not of a grandmaster level, which is true. But, please, give me a break. Speelman did a great job, as did the director for insisting on a high-level of technical authenticity. The position at adjournment is such that a genius player like Luzhin would sweat it out a bit, but be able to discover the solution blindfold, and be very excited about the discovery.

Hey, how about at the end of X-Men, when Xavier and Magneto are playing chess! It's a realistic mate! I emailed Ian McKellan about that, via his Web site, and he replied that he could not remember any specifics, but that the director did his homework to stage a realistic game.

It is apparent from the energy and passion that I invest in movie chess-episodes, that I, like the grandmasters and journalists who criticized the Luzhin Defense, need to get a life.

I agree with the lady who wrote this. The movie was pretty close to showing the time periods chess cafe life style. The props were also right on. GM .Jon Speelman did a good job on this movie.

Ok, the spouse playing out the game and parts of the story were absurd, all in all a good chess film.

The reason the rm.e-mailer is getting down on you chess masters out there is she thinks "whats the big deal" Itís a film guys! 99.99.9% of the audience does not know you got to have a white square in your right hand corner! Speelman does.

Enough said!!

Cheers Medears!

Sure, so there are some movies, like "Fresh" (Samuel L. Jackson), where the chess board follows the plot, or there is some other motivation for the chess game. Seriously, though, I think Hollywood can afford to create legitimate chess games for their scenes.

I love the X-files, but it really did disappoint me when in the 5th season finale "The End", the chess game was completely bogus, and definitely was not a game played at the grandmaster level, let alone a real game.

There is always going to be a chess stereotype: the nerd, the eccentric, the park hustler, but I, unlike comment poster Mig, am less concerned with the player's character portrayal than I am the authenticity of the game, regardless of the intended audience.

Yes, the audience loves to see a "check" even if we as chess players know that a "check" doesn't necessarily mean anything, and the audience loves the announced "checkmate", too, but I think the degree of artistic variance should correlate with what types of games are being played.

If two kids are playing, like "Searching for Bobby Fischer", then sure, let them talk to each other. Kids do that all the time in K-12 tournaments. Come on, though, there is no reason to have master chess players "checking" each other all over the board for the sake of a scene. I think there are other creative ways to deliver the same message in a film.

There is certainly no need to have an incorrectly set board, illogical or illegal moves made, or the like, especially for no reason.

Concerning the "Luzhin Defence" has nobody noticed that Luzhin "wins" his penultimate game against Goldman withan illegal move ?
He cannot play Rd1-d8 as shown because his rook is pinned against his king at h1 by black's rook at c1 !

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on December 20, 2004 6:28 PM.

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