Hollywood chess: Where thrilling endgame trumps reality
It starts with the board in the wrong position, and ends with a sudden, dramatic, ‘Checkmate!’
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When documentary filmmaker Howard Burton started researching his new four-part series Through the Mirror of Chess: A Cultural Exploration, he found dozens of varieties of the game spread out over space and time.
Since the invention of “chaturanga” in sixth-century India, there have been regional and national variants. Local rules modified the way some pieces could move. In the 1200s, someone invented a 12-by-12 board with a menagerie of extra pieces — birds, crocodiles, giraffes, rhinos and lions. Even today you can find Chinese chess, Shogi (Japanese) chess, Janggi (Korean) chess, Thai and Cambodian chess too.
And then there’s Hollywood chess.
Hollywood chess isn’t a new board or a unique set of rules. Rather, it’s the practice of setting up the board the wrong way from the get-go, and then ignoring the rules altogether.
Even beginners will tell you that the left square facing each player is dark, and that the setup includes “queen on her colour.” But Burton uncovered more than a dozen films that got it wrong, including well known dramas such as The Great Escape and The Shawshank Redemption; comedies such as Austin Powers; and a short film called (wait for it) Checkmate.
Even The Seventh Seal, the Ingmar Bergman classic in which Max von Sydow faces off against Death himself at chess, places the board the wrong way before the match begins.
Burton says Hollywood’s problem is that it’s using chess as an easy metaphor. It hasn’t always been that way. Over the centuries, chess has been turned into political allegories for different systems of government, or ways to understand the rules of love, social obligations and hierarchies.
“People take the game of chess, what it represents, and they incorporate it within a cultural artifact,” says Burton. “Hollywood, they don’t do that. Because they’re not really looking at society, they’re not really producing a cultural artifact that’s representative of what we’re actually doing. They’re just looking in the mirror and copying themselves.”
Surprise, intelligence and genius
He continues: “What chess represents is what Hollywood thinks surprise should be. It’s what Hollywood thinks intelligence should be. It’s what Hollywood thinks genius should be. And not only is that wrong; it’s incestuous. So the next Hollywood film just builds on that, and because Hollywood has such impact, it becomes something that is not just a trope that people in Los Angeles believe. It’s a thing that people believe all over the world.”
If the way the board is set up is problematic, so too is the way the game ends. Through the Mirror of Chess finds more than 20 examples of the “sudden, unexpected checkmate” in television (Colombo, Get Smart, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The West Wing, Spin City, etc.) and movies as varied as Wuthering Heights, Blazing Saddles and Independence Day.
The documentary explains that out-of-left-field endgames do happen, but they tend to involve equally matched high-level players. Far more often, at any level of competition, chess games end in a draw or a defeat that both players can see coming.
All of which leads to the last and possibly most damaging tropes of Hollywood chess — that chess players are (A) natural geniuses whose intelligence spans all fields; or (B) savants who excel at the game from their first match. Through the Mirror of Chess even includes a quote from Scott Frank, co-creator of the popular Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, that his show is not about chess but rather “the cost of genius.”
Through the Mirror of Chess is, to be clear, more than a litany of complaints. With four episodes stretching over as many hours, it’s a fascinating stroll through the history of the game, pausing to examine its many (non-Hollywood) cultural connections to the world at large.
We learn in Part 2 that the basic pieces in the war game of chaturanga — royalty, foot soldiers, elephants, cavalry and chariots — have changed relatively little over the centuries. When the game spread from India into the Persian Empire, some of the new Arabic names like “rukh” remained unchanged for the next thousand years. Persia also gave us the phrase “shah mat,” or “the king is helpless,” which survives as “checkmate.”
Part 3 takes viewers from the 15th century to the present day, with a long stopover at the Café de la Régence, which opened in 1681 in Paris and was the centre of European chess society for more than 200 years. The 18th century presented an interesting chess/math crossover with the problem of “the Knight’s tour,” in which the horse piece is moved so that it lands on every square of the board exactly once.
‘The province of intellect alone’
And we are introduced to the Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton constructed in 1770 that could challenge and often win against a human opponent. But it was all a hoax — the machine’s cabinet concealed its own human chess master inside.
In a strange historical confluence, scientist Charles Babbage once played a game against the Mechanical Turk and lost. He suspected a hoax, but he also disagreed with his contemporary Robert Willis, who argued that “mere mechanism … cannot usurp and exercise the faculties of mind … this is the province of intellect alone.”
Babbage thought a real chess-playing machine would one day be possible. Indeed, it was Deep Blue, a descendent of his “difference engine” (essentially a mechanical computer), that bested reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. By that time, chess had also long been equated with Cold War politics. American-versus-Soviet morphed into human-versus-machine.
Through the Mirror of Chess isn’t Burton’s first foray into documentary. His production company, Ideas Roadshow, was founded by Burton and his wife, Irena, in 2012. She has a law background, and is senior editor of all content. He holds an MA in philosophy and a PhD in theoretical physics, and was the founding executive director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, a position he held from 1999 to 2007.
The company has created hundreds of short videos and podcasts on a variety of scientific and cultural topics, featuring interviews with experts from around the world. Tantalizing titles include Mysteries of Physics, Language & Thought, Dark Energy, Invented or Discovered? (about mathematics), Black Holes, The Science of Sound & Music, etc. Recently, it released Pandemic Perspectives, examining the COVID-19 era through discussions with experts in epidemiology, neuroscience, law, economics and more.
Burton’s interest in chess came from a personal place; a companion book to Through the Mirror, titled Chessays, opens with the words: “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to play chess.” But for all its impact and influence, the game is not even the most striking example of its type. Yes, it is ancient, complex, pure warlike strategy without an element of chance — but the game of Go meets or exceeds all those qualities as well.
Still, as the documentary’s fourth episode shows, chess has had a huge impact in the social realm. Educators have used the game to reach troubled and at-risk children. Prisons have found it useful for teaching inmates about planning skills. And the game’s ubiquity and low barriers to entry mean that anyone can pick it up. Through the Mirror relates the story of Tani Adewumi, an eight-year-old Nigerian refugee living in a homeless shelter in the United States who several years ago became the New York State champion in his age group.
Adewumi got good at the game the way most people get good at anything — practice. Burton thinks this is important to remember. “One of the things that drives me crazy about The Queen’s Gambit was it perpetuates this idea of the chess genius,” he says. “The wonderful, remarkable individual who could just show up and destroy everybody.”
‘It’s a level playing field’
He continues: “It’s a skill that requires a tremendous amount of work and dedication. And basically anybody can get to a good level. It’s not the case that anybody can get to a great level, and I’m not suggesting that there’s no such thing as talent. But what makes chess such an incredibly valuable tool for social impact, particularly in the developing world and among people where there is social inequality, is that it is a skill that has a tremendous amount of status associated with it, it’s internationally recognized, and anybody can do it. It’s a level playing field.”
The Queen’s Gambit may therefore be good entertainment, but it’s not the best representation of chess. “The stereotype of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) as this chess genius who occasionally looks at a book, but basically she’s popping pills and showing up and beating people is, I think, not helpful,” he says.
“I think it misses the real point of what chess is. And that’s why I use the clip of Scott Frank. He said it’s not about a game, it’s about genius. And that’s just bullshit, because it’s not that at all. It’s about work and development and achievement and pride and self-confidence. And there’s not one person who’s a really good chess player who hasn’t worked damn hard at it.”
But at least they put the board in the right place.
Through the Mirror of Chess: A Cultural Exploration can be rented or purchased through the Ideas Roadshow app, available on Google Play or the App Store, and through Vimeo on demand. Ideas Roadshow videos are also available through library website kanopy.com. Visit ideasroadshow.com for more information.
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