Friday, February 5, 2021

Chess in movies

It is certain that the corona crisis has caused and will still bring a lot of misery. However, as with any crisis, you also have people who benefit rather than suffer. I certainly have nothing to complain about myself. The past year was a good year at work because more than ever there was a demand for extensions and improvements to the existing telecom networks. There was a big increase in internet traffic and that really benefited my sector. Moreover, I did not have to leave my house for this and I could therefore telework safely.

Financially, I do not (for the time being) feel any burden from this crisis. On the contrary, because besides well-filled days at work, I have never saved so much. Many thousands of euros which I normally spend annually at chess (see How much money do you spend at chess?) remained on the savings account. Even the many extras which we allowed ourselves hardly had any influence on this. So I certainly didn't forget to treat ourselves during the lockdowns.

For example, I bought more chess books than ever in recent months. At home I expanded our internet subscription so that we could now surf unlimited and at double the speed. However, perhaps the greatest gift we gave ourselves may have been a subscription to Netflix. Yes, I am one of the millions of new users that have been added in recent months.

For only 8 euros per month (so the cheapest subscription) you are offered a large range of films and series. Today I wonder why I waited so long with this. My daughter Evelien had long been asking for it, but I wasn't interested before because I don't watch much TV myself. By the way to be very honest, I don't even know if I would have ever joined without The Queen's Gambit. In any case, it was the many very positive messages about that series that in the end convinced me and I certainly don't regret.

Because for that series alone it was worth the money. It is without a doubt the best I have ever seen on TV about chess. On the other hand, I also have to admit that I haven't seen much chess in movies yet. I remember seeing Searching for Bobby Fischer a long time ago, but I think that's a very childish movie. A 6-year-old boy becomes interested at chess and improves quickly with the help of his own coach who is paid by his parents. The study-methods used are curious to say the least, and some of them are even totally unacceptable today.
Now I do understand why Netflix is offering this 1993 film again after the great success of the Queen's Gambit. There is certainly a demand for new movies about chess today. However Netflix was smart enough to rename the film: Innocent Moves because whom of the young people still knows Bobby Fischer? If you watch the entertaining What a year! on VTM then you immediately understand how little our youth knows about the past.

A more modern version of this film is Queen of Katwe from 2016. In that film we see how much our society has changed in the last 20 years. The rich white boy as the protagonist has been replaced by the poor black girl. The hard and often spartan lessons in the 1993 film has been transformed to very gentle advice of the teacher.
Anyway I do like this movie more than the one from 1993. The big problems besides chess for Madina Nalwanga make the story much richer. On the other hand, I would like to make a small comment about studying chess. Both stories are based on real characters. Phiona Mutesi from Uganda achieved  a maximum-elo of 1686 while Joshua Waitzkin from US made it much further with an international master's title and 2464 elo. Today there is a lot of discussion about our Flemish education that is in decline, but I think that you can indeed only achieve the best results by tightening the proverbial thumbscrews.

Now I agree that we can learn very little chess technically from films anyway. This is even the case with the Netflix series the Queen's Gambit. This was recently made explicitly clear to us in a separate mini-documentary of this series Creating The Queen's Gambit in which the directors and actors give their view on how the series were created and in which they explain certain details.
The very first sentence in this documentary begins about that the series are actually not about chess. Perhaps this is a shock for many chess fans, but if you listen to the explanation then you have to agree with them. It is primarily about the many problems that Beth experiences in her life and how she tries to overcome them very slowly. That's why I hear from many non-chess players that they really enjoyed the series too. You don't have to be able to play chess at all to follow the series. Even more, chess seems like an easy game and that may have triggered many viewers to try to play/ learn chess.

Magnus Carlsen also says in a recent interview that he did not know many games in the series. Now it is already very difficult to recognize a position from a game during a film. Without freezing the image, it is very unlikely. Moreover, the director Scott Frank also admits in Creating The Queen's Gambit that it is completely impossible to show something good chess-technical on television. The medium is simply not suitable for that. I myself could only recognize a chess position once in a movie. Also on Netflix nowadays you have the movie The Coldest Game. It is a movie about spies during the Cold War (for the young generation, before 1990 when we still had an Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union).
This 2019 film did not receive good reviews, not even from Chessbase, but it does contain some nice games of chess. One of those games drew my attention because in a flash I recognized the combination. I already mentioned in my previous article "Geometry" that the heart of chess is in recognizing patterns. Although I only saw part of the board for a mere second, I immediately remembered the story of Tim Krabbe Strangest coincidence ever or hoax. This is about an extraordinary combination that would have been played in different games twice in a just a couple of years. Until today it is still not known what is true or false. It is therefore no surprise that the Polish directors ultimately opt for the Polish combination.
[Event "Poznan"] [Site "Poznan POL"] [Date "1931.??.??"] [Round ""] [White "Tylkowski"] [Black "Antoni Wojciechowski"] [Result "0-1"] [Annotator "Kähler"] [PlyCount "80"] 1. f4 d5 2. e3 c5 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. Bb5 Bg4 5. O-O e6 6. d3 Be7 7. Nc3 d4 8. Nb1 Nf6 9. e4 O-O 10. Bxc6 bxc6 11. c3 dxc3 12. Nxc3 Bxf3 13. Rxf3 Ng4 14. Kh1 Qd4 15. Qg1 Qxg1+ 16. Kxg1 Bd8 17. Be3 Nxe3 18. Rxe3 Bb6 19. Rd1 h6 20. e5 f6 21. exf6 Rxf6 22. Rf3 c4+ 23. d4 c5 24. d5 exd5 25. Rxd5 Kh7 26. Rd7 Rd8 27. Rb7 Rg6 28. Rg3 Rxg3 29. hxg3 Rd2 30. Na4 {(Here starts the fantastic and famous combination.)} 30... Rxb2 31. Nxb2 c3 32. Rxb6 c4 33. Rb4 a5 34. Nxc4 c2 35. Nxa5 c1=Q+ 36. Kh2 Qc5 37. Rb2 Qxa5 38. g4 Qe1 39. g3 h5 40. gxh5 Kh6 0-1
In short, chess in films remains a difficult marriage. In most cases you will have more questions about chess after the movie than they are answered in the movie. That is why I have now published a faq (frequently asked questions) on the site of the Belgian online chessclub in 2 languages: Dutch and French. Many new chess players today have a lot of questions about the game. We have tried to answer those questions and bundled them into 2 categories: starting with chess and tips for club-players.

Comments and additions are of course welcome. The list will continue to grow as we receive new questions, but I think we already have a very wide range for now. So if you or your friends have questions about chess after watching a chess movie, this is certainly a good address to see if the answer is not there by chance. Finally, thanks Steven Keirse/ W84therook for the many hours of work on this faq.


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