Chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar rates seven movie and TV chess scenes based on their accuracy.
She looks at various scenes, from "The Queen's Gambit" (2020) to "From Russia with Love" (1963).
Following is a transcript of the video.
- [audience laughs]
[clock button clicking]
Susan Polgar: If you zoom in, you can see that in the corner there on her right-hand side, it's a dark square, so that's when the board is turned the wrong way.
Hi, I'm Susan Polgar. I have won four World Chess Championships as well as five Olympic gold medals, and I have broken the gender barrier in chess.
Today, we are going to look at some video segments from movies where chess has been an important part.
"The Queen's Gambit" S1E7 (2020)
Actually, this game that they are playing is based on a real game that was played by two grandmasters who happen to be close friends of mine, the Ukrainian Vassily Ivanchuk and the American Patrick Wolff. They played this game up to this point back in 1993. The fiction started in the movie from a certain position, in a few moves that went in a different direction. The actual game ended in a draw between those two grandmasters in, I think, 72 moves. The game is having a break. It's called "adjourned." Even in those days, it actually gave an unfair advantage to the side who had better coaches or friends or helpers to do the analysis of that adjourned position. That option is no longer existing today.
In real life, opponents don't usually stare at each other this much or look at each other. To some degree they look a little bit, but they are just usually more busy in trying to figure out the best moves and calculations.
Chess players, some look at the ceiling, some don't. But regardless, that's pretty much what is happening when we calculate a variation. We see the pieces moving. Even though we have a certain specific position right in front of us, we need to foresee when the pieces move one, two, three, five, 10, 20 moves ahead sometimes. In reality, some grandmasters do that, that they look away from the actual board, look at the ceiling or somewhere, just really almost in a way that the position that is physically actually in front of them on the chessboard.
She sacrificed the queen, which is very unusual, because it's the most valuable piece we have in chess. So, she got her queen back, because when a pawn reaches all the way across, it can promote any piece, including the queen. And so now she has a major material advantage at this point in the game. The only thing she needs to worry about that if Borgov starts giving checks. And she blocked the check, the checkmates, an attack on the king. And now the black queen again is attacking the white king. And now she finally found a square for her king when there are no more dangerous checks. And, therefore, white's material advantage is overwhelming, and I think we'll see the end of the game right here.
You know, I was a pioneer in a man's world of chess, and I didn't have such nice treatment. I was invited to a major elite tournament in Spain back in 1987, and one of the top players in the world at the time who was one of the participants, he objected that, "What are women doing in such a prestigious, elite tournament? Women shouldn't be invited." And another six-time US champion that I played actually a year earlier swiped the pieces off the board. So this is kind of a little bit of an idealistic world and not the reality, not in the '70s or '80s or '90s, when I was actively playing, and I think even less so in the '50s or '60s.
"The Queen's Gambit" S1E6 (2020)
[chess pieces clacking]
[clock button clicking]
So, they're playing reasonable starting moves and normal opening moves. So, a good clock player could do it, as well. Three games is a lot playing with a clock. I think they are playing five minutes, which is a traditional blitz game, five minutes for the entire game. Playing without the clock, I have played actually 326 games simultaneously, which was a world record at the time. So, three is not so much compared to that.
[chess pieces clacking]
[clock button clicks]
We're not seeing half of the chessboard and the actual moves to tell whether they are or not. When it comes to the moves, they are all definitely possible positions, and there's nothing illegal.
She was tipping over her opponents' kings in I think a few occasions. That's not something that anybody would do. Additionally, historically, tipping over the king used to be the sign of resigning the game. I definitely give thumbs up. I really like this series, 'cause it did really give a huge boost for chess in general in the mainstream.
"From Russia with Love" (1963)
I actually really like this scene. It was one of my favorites, I think, and the position was very visible. You could see all the pieces.
Attendant: Takes bishop.
[clock ticking] Susan: I remember when I was in Moscow and I've seen a tournament when I was still, like, 11, 12 years old. They were moving those big pieces on those big demonstration boards. And now we can view games live through the internet, but back in the days, it was like this, that they had those so-called demonstration boards to relay the actual moves to larger crowds. There is a very special thing ongoing on the board with this very last move that we see right now, with the knight capturing the bishop.
Attendant: King to rook two.
[chess piece clacks]
Susan: It is a winning position, because now the black king is under attack, it's in check, and then the upcoming moves that will follow up would lead to either major material gain for white or checkmate. So, one of the things that a lot of beginner players or non-chess players don't understand that why people resign until the checkmate comes, right?
And at the same time, it's between experienced players, it's very normal that they don't play the game all the way out. When they see that checkmate is coming in two, three, four, five moves, or even more than that, or they lose their queen, which is one of the most important pieces, you know, they would give the respect to the opponent that, "OK, I know what's coming."
MacAdams: My congratulations, sir. A brilliant coup.
Susan: Applauding is not so much part of the chess scene. It could be because the game itself was so aesthetically pleasing, it's just something unusual. You did something funny or tricky, or, you know, and that's what happened a little bit here. So they were enjoying it as an art, as a performance. Chess-wise, it was also one of the best. I definitely would give a 10.
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001)
Ron: You there, d5!
Susan: So, those were really normal starting moves. It's called the center counter or the Scandinavian defense.
But then I think they were more focused on the visuals of pieces getting captured and eliminated. The first three moves actually that they did play on the board, they are very clear and very realistic. They didn't show even the whole board, and it's very hard to make out what's going on after that.
"Pawn Sacrifice" (2014)
Tobey's a great actor and everything, but just the pure fact that he's just so much smaller in size than his opponent here, Spassky. The real Bobby Fischer, who has been a friend of mine and I knew well, is a very tall, big guy and humongous hands.
Commentator: Fischer has abandoned his trademark Sicilian opening.
Susan: Talk about Fischer abandoning his favorite Sicilian opening -- the Sicilian is not white's choice. I mean, Bobby Fischer used to be known to start almost all his games with his king pawn to e4, and then moving the pawn up two squares in front of his king. That allows the Sicilian, but Sicilian is a choice of black, not of white. So that's a little bit inaccurate, I would say, when it comes to phrasing it that way, that he "abandoned the Sicilian." He abandoned allowing the Sicilian, but he didn't abandon the Sicilian.
[clock button clicks]
Bobby used to be known to play an e4 player, which means starting the game with moving the pawn up in front of his king. And in this game that's being shown in this segment as well as in the real game six of the match, Fischer started with c4, moving the pawn in front of his queen-side bishop. And that's the first time he'd ever done that. And that actually is really important, because the element of surprise is quite important in chess, and that's what he was shooting for in this game. And, actually, I learned from it, and when I played my world championship against the Chinese champion Xie Jun, I also did that similar trick in that I was known to usually start with d4, with the pawn in front of my queen. And that helped me win my last, fourth world championship. I also started with a different move, moving my pawn in front of my king.
So, this is very unusual, that somebody would smile and be so nice. But I know Boris Spassky, he's been a friend of mine for many, many years, and, actually, that's what he did at the actual championship. But it's very, very uncommon. Usually, people are closer to crying and holding their tears back than smiling.
"Queen of Katwe" (2016)
Announcer: This is the final round of our Rwabushenyi National Chess Championship. Phiona Mutesi and Christine Namaganda are tied for first position in the women's category. They will now play the final deciding game.
Susan: Everything is correct. We can see the first few moves. That's the queen's gambit, coincidentally, where black has a choice to accept the gambit. That would mean to capture the pawn on c4 or play the declined. You see the focus and the concentration of the players here. Phiona, who is actually a real person.
Katende: You belong here!
Susan: You're not supposed to just speak loudly and disturb the concentration of the players. Well, once in a while it happens, but it's very, very rare, and usually that person is being escorted out immediately when that may happen. I mean, there has been some extreme situation when somebody got really sick or even died during the chess tournament. But other than that, it's just not normal that people would speak.
[clock button clicks]
I managed to figure out the exact positions and then what was going on. So I would definitely give a very high mark for the technical expertise of the directors and the chess advisors here, because they did a good job in very realistically showing the actual chess positions.
[chess pieces clacking]
[clock button clicking]
And as you can see, the pawn got all the way to the other end. And you can see that whole sequence, that they make a move, they press the clock, they write the move down. So that's also very correct. I would give this segment definitely a 10.
Magneto: That foolish law, or one just like it, and come for you?
Susan: Not as practical to see through the board to differentiate even the colors, which one is the white, which one is the black, but it's obviously visually very pleasing. Magneto: And your children?
[chess piece clacks]
Charles: It does indeed.
Susan: There, I mean, here they can trash-talk or psych each other out, which obviously is normal in casual games or coffeehouse chess or in parks but would not be a part of competition chess. We may play somebody we don't like as much, or they don't like us. It's kind of life. And, yeah, sometimes, they have or they've tried to psych you out and, you know, get into your head, like, stare at you or bang a piece, make a move with a very loud movement, or something like that, or, you know. That, it's called bad sportsmanship.
Magneto: What do you do when you wake up to that?
Susan: So, psychology can be very important. And it starts out right from the very beginning. Because in the beginning of the game, there are many starting options, and people have their favorite options to start the game. And it's a little psychological board ongoing right from the first move, whether, whose preparation will be actually on the board? Who will walk into the other side's prep? Let's say they both prepared for the same thing. Who got deeper into it? So that's a real interesting psychological game right from the beginning. And then, let's say they got out of that and nobody got the significant advantage, then later in the game, it's about, how do you feel about your position?
In any of these movies and segments is that they intentionally or not don't show enough of the chess moves, unlike in "Queen's Gambit."
[clock button clicking]
You can clearly see something is wrong. If you zoom in, you can see that in the corner there on her right-hand side, it's a dark square. So that's when the board is turned the wrong way, which is a very typical mistake, by the way. There are so many commercials and some movie scenes when they don't pay attention to that detail. But also, the pieces are kind of really random on the board, as well.
So this is the one that is thumbs down when it comes to the chess-technical part.
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