Saturday, August 14, 2010

Check.... Checkmate!

I applaud television shows for trying to include chess in some of their stories. I really do. In the past, I couldn't stand it, because the directors took so little care in setting it up. The board would be set up wrong, or what the players were saying wouldn't correspond with the moves on the board. But worst of all was the same horrible trope that appeared in every television show which featured chess. I'm sure you've seen it. One character makes a move, and in as smarmy and satisfied a manner he can muster, announces "Check!" triumphantly, as if putting someone in check was any big deal.

The second player muses, looks over the board, then casually makes a move, smiles and responds "checkmate!" to the stunned surprise of Mr. Smug.

Such a sequence, which probably occurred in every in television show with a chess scene prior to 1990 or so, is almost completely impossible. A player in check is not permitted by the rules of chess to do anything but get out of check. Such a sequence requires a player to make a move which simultaneously gets him out of check and puts the other player in checkmate. A move that blocks the check would not be sufficient, as the player who called check could simply capture that piece to escape. It would have to be a move that simultaneously blocks the check and uncovers an unstoppable check by another piece. This is so unlikely that most amateur chessplayers could not achieve it if they were allowed to put the pieces WHEREVER THEY WANTED. (Go ahead, try it. I'll wait.)

Fortunately, modern audiences and show creators are a little more sophisticated, and now they usually follow the much more intelligent choice of stealing real games from history to allow their characters to wow us with their acumen. Unfortunately, this still does not quite work. Actors and directors may try their hardest, but unless you know chess, it's extremely difficult to get the timing down.
In the Season 3 West Wing episode, "Hartsfield's Landing," President Bartlett and Toby engage in a friendly game of chess. After three moves, Bartlett observes with interest that Toby is playing the Evans Gambit. Unfortunately, it does not become an Evans gambit until five or so moves later. The showrunners clearly found an Evans Gambit game, but any chessplayer watching would know that the actors were following a script.

Last season on the Mentalist, in the Episode "18-5-4," they took a crack at chess, and did a pretty good job of it -- if you're not a player. (I couldn't embed the video, but if you'd like to follow along, someone has captured it for YouTube here:)

Mentalist Chess Game

Simon Baker as Patrick Jane makes a convincing blindfold chess master, but he too, screws up the timing. Early in the game, Jane says, "declining the gambit, interesting." Unfortunately, the game doesn't become a Queens Gambit Declined until d4, the move FOLLOWING Jane's statement. After Be7, Jane smiles knowingly and says "mmm, your funeral," despite the fact that this is an extremely safe move. After his next move, Bg5,he says "mind your queen," despite the fact that his opponent's queen is protected by two pieces. Finally, later on, the opponent says to Jane "Q to e7, taking your bishop." Again, Simon Baker does a great job of looking intrigued by the move. Unfortunately, it's the only move that doesn't lose immediately, and is not very intriguing at all.

Again, Baker cannot be blamed. The producers could have had a chess player screen the episode and he would have found these things instantly. And again, I applaud the effort. But for those producers out there thinking about trying to seamlessly include chess in an episode, be warned: You haven't quite gotten there yet.

FYI, the game that Jane and Bunting play is Fischer Spassky Game 6 from the 1972 World Chess Championship. For chess geeks, I've included the entire game here (The moves in bold are the ones actually played on screen):

1. c4 e6 2.Nf3 d5 3.d4 Nf6 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bg5 O-O 6.e3 h6 7.Bh4 b6 8.cxd5 Nxd5 9.Bxe7 Qxe7 10.Nxd5 exd5 11.Rc1 Be6 12.Qa4 c5 13.Qa3 Rc8 14.Bb5 a6 15.dxc5 bxc5 16.O-O Ra7 17.Be2 Nd7 18.Nd4 Qf8 19.Nxe6 fxe6 20.e4 d4 21.f4 Qe7 22.e5 Rb8 23.Bc4 Kh8 24.Qh3 Nf8 25.b3 a5 26.f5 exf5 27.Rxf5 Nh7 28.Rcf1 Qd8 29.Qg3 Re7 30.h4 Rbb7 31.e6 Rbc7 32.Qe5 Qe8 33.a4 Qd8 34.R1f2 Qe8 35.R2f3 Qd8 36.Bd3 Qe8 37.Qe4 Nf6 38.Rxf6 gxf6 39.Rxf6 Kg8 (for some reason, here the show threw in "...f4," which is impossible and I can only assume they did it so that they could have a more convincing version of the "check...checkmate!" moment, since the game is pretty much lost by black at this point) 40.Bc4 Kh8 41.Qf4 (mate in 3 moves sounds better, but it's actually mate in seven ... 41. Qg8 42. Rf8 Re8 43. Qf6+ Rg7 44. e7 Rb8 45. Bd3 Rxf8 46. exf8(Q) Qxf8 47. Qxf8+ Rg8 48. Qxh6)