Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

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Neville Twitchell
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Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Neville Twitchell » Sun Mar 14, 2010 8:19 pm

Hello all,

This is my maiden posting on this site.

I was watching an episode of the (normally excellent) Monk on one of the cable channels recently and this episode concerned a professional chess player who planned to murder his wife, and indeed boasts to her that he is going to do so. (I should perhaps put a SPOILER ALERT here for the benefit of Monk fans but the plot is inconsequential to the point I am making.) The distraught wife approaches Monk to get him to protect her, but she is murdered nonetheless. Monk investigates the case and naturally proves the chess player guilty (though the denouement is very weak, it has to be said).

My point is that the player - who is characterised as a grandmaster of world championship calibre (though whether he actually is the world champion is a point about which the film is somewhat ambiguous) - is portrayed as highly educated, cultivated, well-dressed, debonair, well into middle age, living a life of rather ostentatious luxury, and in the habit of sprinkling witty aphorisms and classical quotations into his conversation. In other words about as far removed from a typical grandmaster, or indeed chess player of any status, that you could possibly imagine. The film moreover indulges in a lot of cheesy use of chess metaphor (which Monk himself deprecates in the film), and there is some familiar cod psychology about dominating the opponent etc etc derived from the grandmasters books - (maybe that bit isn't quite so far removed from the actual scribblings of at least one ex World Champion)

This is, I fear, standard mode for the portrayal of top-ranking chessplayers in film and television. I vaguely recall a thriller from a few years back in which the hero is a grandmaster playing in a tournament whilst trying to solve a murder case. Both he and his second (a blind man!) are hopelessly unconvincing, and the film was pretty dire as I recall. There have been other stabs at the "chess player as hero", though more often it is the "chess player as villain" in which his labyrinthine cunning is put to diabolical use (shades of Sherlock Holmes here). But almost invariably the characterisation of the player is hopelessly wide of the mark, and the realisation of chess playing scenes none too convincing either. I am not talking here about films about chess itself such as The Luzhin Defence based on Nabokov's novel (though here too the chess scenes failed to convince) but rather those in which the hero or villain, or other character happens to be a chess player.

Perhaps we should form a Campaign for the Realistic and Accurate Portrayal of Players, though the acronym may be unfortunate!

Alex Holowczak
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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Alex Holowczak » Sun Mar 14, 2010 8:46 pm

Perhaps we should campaign to get what we perceive to be an accurate perception of a chess player to be a character on a popular British soap?

Arshad Ali
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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Arshad Ali » Sun Mar 14, 2010 8:46 pm

How about the character "Kronsteen" in the film, "From Russia with Love?" By the way, McAdams must have been a real chump not to see the defence, 1. ... Ne6.

Leaving aside the arena of film and television, Anthony Glynn did author a book about forty years ago, titled "The Dragon Variation," which shows what a chess professional's life is really like. Much better than the later novel by Walter Tevis, "The Queen's Gambit," which is just plain silly.

John Philpott

Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by John Philpott » Sun Mar 14, 2010 11:35 pm

Neville Twitchell wrote
This is my maiden posting on this site.
Welcome to the Forum, Neville.

Geoff Chandler
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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Geoff Chandler » Sun Mar 14, 2010 11:37 pm

Hi Neville

The public have chess players pigeon holed, it's going
to take some real hard work to shift their perception.

There is a Fischer film just out.

http://www.themovieinsider.com/m7021/pawn-sacrifice/

Wonder how they will do this one.

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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Kevin Thurlow » Mon Mar 15, 2010 8:43 am

There was a Columbo, with Laurence Harvey as the World Champion, but he was so rattled by Columbo's questions during a simultaneous display that he played 1.f4 e6, 2.g4 ...

"Black and White Like Day and Night" (made in Germany) was a pretty decent film, and I saw a fragment of a film made in the early part of last century, where the plot was that a woman held men hostage as slaves but they could play her at chess to gain their freedom, if they won. The film showed one game where the slave was looking good, and the woman unleashed a terrific ten (or so) move combination which won. The chess looked good, and the acting was good as well. I have now forgotten the name of the film but it will come back to me. (I think it was L'Atlantides??). The Thomas Crown Affair (Steve McQueen/Faye Dunaway version - not the awful remake) had an entertaining chess sequence, but it's best to watch the players, not the game, which doesn't make sense.
"Kevin was the arbiter and was very patient. " Nick Grey

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Jon Mahony
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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Jon Mahony » Mon Mar 15, 2010 12:36 pm

Arshad Ali wrote:How about the character "Kronsteen" in the film, "From Russia with Love?" By the way, McAdams must have been a real chump not to see the defence, 1. ... Ne6.
That has to be the best Chess scene of all time - the character of Kronsteen is beautifully played by little known actor Vladek Sheybal. Kronsteen was actually in the novel quite a bit longer than in the film (and wasn’t killed at the end). I would have loved to have seen him get a bigger part on-screen, but for none Chess players/fans it would have slowed down the plot.

When asked if his plan for killing Bond is fool proof he replies: “Yes it is, because I have anticipated every variation of counter-move…” - a classic line.

The game between Kronsteen and MacAdams is based on a beautiful King’s Gambit between Spassky and Bronstein (Leningrad 1960) the only difference between the real game and the film was that Spassky playing white had two extra pawns - the director decided to remove them from the position in the film because they “cluttered things up” - unfortunately this was a bit of a mistake because the pawns in question were preventing black from playing Ne6 blocking the check - and so yes MacAdams made a terrible blunder - as it happens Bronstein did the same thing, but because of whites pawns in the real game he had less options (though he could have drawn).
Leaving aside the arena of film and television, Anthony Glynn did author a book about forty years ago, titled "The Dragon Variation," which shows what a chess professional's life is really like. Much better than the later novel by Walter Tevis, "The Queen's Gambit," which is just plain silly.
I disagree about the Queen’s Gambit, I personally love it - okay its written by an average wood pusher, so some of Beth’s (the main character) ideas and mannerisms do come across as a bit unrealistic. But come on, it’s basically the Hustler of Chess! Quite an uplifting story, and one of my favourite novels. The late Heath Ledger (an avid player) was planning to direct a film of it before he died.

It does seem to be like Marmite among Chess players though - love it or hate it :lol:
"When you see a good move, look for a better one!" - Lasker

Arshad Ali
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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Arshad Ali » Mon Mar 15, 2010 1:23 pm

Jon Mahony wrote:I disagree about the Queen’s Gambit, I personally love it - okay its written by an average wood pusher, so some of Beth’s (the main character) ideas and mannerisms do come across as a bit unrealistic.
The book is a right riveting read, I concede: I finished it in a single afternoon back in the summer of '87. But c'mon, gimme a break: it's as unrealistic as can be. Beth goes through her opponents like a knife through butter. She has no experience of club or tournament chess but wins the Kentucky Open, beating three players rated over 1800 in the process. That ain't gonna happen. Tevis himself was rated around 1400-1500 USCF. Glyn, on the other hand, was a more serious player and a more serious writer. The way he describes a GM playing against an Iranian talent: "the GM had strong pressure that never quite materialised into an attack." This is a chessplayer writing, and writing about professional chess. The sorrow and failure of chess come out so poignantly. "Chess has ruined my life" say two of the book's central characters. To date this is the best novel I know of (on chess).

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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Geoff Chandler » Mon Mar 15, 2010 1:51 pm

Hi Jon,

Re the missing pawns in From Russia with Love.

It's a moot point but:

John Henderson, writing in The Scotsman, stated on Tuesday 12th December 2006.
That the producers thought there was copyright on chess games so they removed
two pawns to make the positional original.

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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Geoff Chandler » Mon Mar 15, 2010 2:21 pm

Staying on copywright.

One thing that always annoyed me is that when a player produces
a masterpiece that is it.

Me or any other clown can put that game in a book and get paid for it.

If it was a pencil squiggle on a piece of paper or a one note tune then it
would be copyright and players would be entitled to some payment.

I know the arguments against are insurmountable and legally the players
are stumped but it just seems totally unfair that...

Random choice: That Short King walk v Tinman.

A game that had brought so much pleasure to so many people and
made money for people who never even played the game.

Yet the players concerned are not rewarded in way at all.

People reading this will have games they have played on a DB that
is being sold at a profit and yet they will not get one penny.

I know nothing can be done. Just a rant I air whenever the opportunity appears.

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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by David Lettington » Mon Mar 15, 2010 5:51 pm

Arshad Ali wrote: To date this is the best novel I know of (on chess).
I know that novels are slightly off topic here, but I also enjoyed the Queen's Gambit. My absolute favourite chess related novel is "Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw" by Thomas Glavinic, but there's also "The Luneberg Variation" by Paolo Maurensig, "The Royal Game" by Stefan Zweig (I noticed it was recently re-packaged as "Chess"), "The Flanders Panel" by Arturo Perez-Reverte, "The Chess Players" by Frances Parkinson Keyes and "The Eight" by Katherine Neville.

Arshad Ali
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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Arshad Ali » Mon Mar 15, 2010 6:03 pm

David Lettington wrote:
Arshad Ali wrote: To date this is the best novel I know of (on chess).
I know that novels are slightly off topic here, but I also enjoyed the Queen's Gambit. My absolute favourite chess related novel is "Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw" by Thomas Glavinic, but there's also "The Luneberg Variation" by Paolo Maurensig, "The Royal Game" by Stefan Zweig (I noticed it was recently re-packaged as "Chess"), "The Flanders Panel" by Arturo Perez-Reverte, "The Chess Players" by Frances Parkinson Keyes and "The Eight" by Katherine Neville.
Ah yes, "The Luneburg Variation." Good stuff there. Slender little book. Never heard of "The Eight" or "Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw."

Returning to movies (mea culpa), someone mentioned "The Thomas Crowne Affair." That was so unconvincing -- the meaningful (but not amorous) exchanges of looks as they presumbaly tried to outwit each other on the chessboard. Clearly they weren't au fait with the nuances of the KID. Something better was the game in Scott Ridley's "Bladerunner," where Tyrell is having a correspondence game with one of his genetic designers.

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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Arshad Ali » Mon Mar 15, 2010 6:26 pm

Geoff Chandler wrote: One thing that always annoyed me is that when a player produces
a masterpiece that is it.

Me or any other clown can put that game in a book and get paid for it.

People reading this will have games they have played on a DB that
is being sold at a profit and yet they will not get one penny.
If memory serves, I think Fischer wanted the players to receive some royalty if the games were given in print.

Let me play devil's advocate. If you just put the raw moves of the game in a book, you're not going to get paid much for the book today. Maybe 20 or 25 years ago, before computer databases became ubiquitous and affordable. These days you would have to use the game to exemplify some pedagogic point and you would have to give some painstaking analysis that readers would be willing to cough up a few quid for. With books like Timman's "The Art of Chess Analysis" or Nunn's "Understanding Chess Move by Move" or with the books of Stohl and Marin, one is paying for deep analysis, for exegesis of underlying meaning. Being a "masterpiece" is often in the eye of the beholder and, say, a subtle positonal masterpiece may need to be interpreted and explained for the plebs sordida (like myself). The game is merely the raw material. I agree that the players should receive something for the raw material -- but the author still has to work to produce something sellable.

Likewise with the databases. If the game is significant, it will come with annotations. And the database features are designed to use the raw material of large numbers of similar games (similar in terms of opening or pawn structure, for example) to churn out typical plans, churn out statistics. Again, I agreee that the players should probably get something ($200/3,000,000 games), but there is "added value" in what the database does to the raw material.
Last edited by Arshad Ali on Mon Mar 15, 2010 7:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Mick Norris
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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Mick Norris » Mon Mar 15, 2010 7:11 pm

David Lettington wrote:
Arshad Ali wrote: To date this is the best novel I know of (on chess).
I know that novels are slightly off topic here, but I also enjoyed the Queen's Gambit. My absolute favourite chess related novel is "Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw" by Thomas Glavinic, but there's also "The Luneberg Variation" by Paolo Maurensig, "The Royal Game" by Stefan Zweig (I noticed it was recently re-packaged as "Chess"), "The Flanders Panel" by Arturo Perez-Reverte, "The Chess Players" by Frances Parkinson Keyes and "The Eight" by Katherine Neville.
The Flanders Panel is an excellent book - I've since read all the other books by Perez-Reverte that have English translations, all good too
Any postings on here represent my personal views and should not be taken as representative of the Manchester Chess Federation www.manchesterchess.co.uk

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Rob Thompson
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Re: Portrayal of chess players in film and on television

Post by Rob Thompson » Mon Mar 15, 2010 7:18 pm

I enjoyed "Chess", by Stefan Zweig, but had no idea it had a different name before this.
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