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Iconic Chess Scenes In Fiction: Top 5 Games From Movies And TV

Iconic Chess Scenes In Fiction: Top 5 Games From Movies And TV

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Hello everyone,

For today's blog, I would like to show you and briefly explain a few curiosities about some of the most famous chess games that took place in fiction, whether in movies, books, TV shows, or often more than one at the same time. What chess enthusiast has never been excited to see a game being played in the movie he was watching or the book he was reading? And of course, our favorite hobby in these cases is to find some grotesque error in the presentation of the scene, such as the already classic inverted board with a black square to the right of the players.

After a very serious and thoughtful text about Viswanathan Anand, followed by one with a more humorous tone involving spurious correlations, I decided that this time it would be a good idea to bring something more informative and curious, which does not involve deep reflection but is also not complete nonsense. In case you are wondering, this text will not be a full professional analysis of these games, but actually just a short presentation of my favorites for entertaining purposes, in no particular order of preference. A detailed explanation of all these scenes can easily be found on YouTube if you want to know more about any of them in particular.

Please note that I have included games played in cultural works which are not directly related to chess, but where it has only "accidentally" appeared in the plot. Therefore, this list will not include games from "The Queen's Gambit", "Pawn Sacrifice", or any other media where chess is the main focus. 

With that introduction and explanation out of the way, let's get down to business. I chose five games that I thought were worth showing and commenting on. Those are:

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1)      Harry Potter/Hermione/Ron vs The Chessboard Chamber (Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone)

Although I prefer "The Lord of the Rings", I have to admit that my favorite chess moment in popular culture comes from a Harry Potter movie. In this scene, our main character and his two best friends are playing a game of wizard chess. Ron commands all their moves, and each of them must also replace a piece on the board. If that piece is captured during the game, the one representing it would not be able to continue their trail. The chamber they are playing in resembles a giant chess set enchanted by Professor McGonagall, with the human-sized pieces being alive.

Playing with the black pieces, Harry takes the place of the dark squares’ bishop, Hermione is the queenside rook, and Ron is one of the knights. The whole game is not shown, but it is possible to see that our heroes decided to play a Scandinavian defense (1. e4 d5). I hope that Bobby Fischer did not watch this disgrace.

The movie then shows a tense struggle, as they not only have to try to win the game, but also avoid their own demise by preventing the pieces they are replacing from being captured. After a long and confusing battle, they reach this position:

What comes next is the really interesting and stunning part. First, the enchanted board plays Qxd3, attacking Harry, as bishop, in a3. Ron, the one who gives the moves, blocks the attack with Rc3, a sacrifice that the chessboard does not hesitate to accept, immediately playing Qxc3.

The position was already lost for White, but Qxc3 is a huge blunder, giving Black a forced mate-in-3 line. Ron first sacrifices himself by playing Nh3+. White's king has no escape, so the only legal move is to capture and eliminate Ron with the queen (Qxh3). Harry then moves to the c5 square (Bc5+), again leaving the king cornered with no legal moves available. Once the queen blocks the check, Harry can finish the game with Bxe3#.

However, there is one curious fact worth mentioning: As explained above, Ron sacrificed himself for a mate in 3, allowing Harry and Hermione to move on to the next quest. But what the movie, unfortunately, does not dramatize or explain enough is that in the given position, Black actually had a mate in 2 if they had played the move Bc5+ first. White's only option would have been to play Qxc5, and then Ron could have applied the checkmate on his own with the move Nh3#. Look at this alternative line below:

The difference is that in this scenario, it is Harry who would have been knocked out by the Enchanted Board, while Ron and Hermione are the survivors. Ron, in a gesture of deep friendship for Harry, decides to sacrifice himself instead, so that his friend can continue his journey and defeat Lord Voldemort.

Like I said, it's a pity that the writers didn't emphasize it to make the scene more dramatic, but I still think it's very cool.

 


2)      Sherlock Holmes vs Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows)

From my favorite scene to my favorite fictional character. It is no secret that I am talking about Sherlock Holmes, the famous and brilliant detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In the 2011 movie "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows", our genius protagonist plays against his rival Moriarty. Their moves were based on a real game played in 1966 in Santa Monica, California, USA, between the Armenian world champion Tigran Petrosian and the Danish player Bent Larsen, one of the strongest masters of the time.

In the actual game, Larsen had the white pieces and Petrosian had the black pieces. In the movie, however, it is Sherlock who plays Larsen's moves, but as Black, while Moriarty reproduces what Petrosian played, but with White. In a very strange case that seems to have come straight out of elementary school, when your friend gives you his homework and says: "Just don't copy it exactly," the directors of the movie decided to invert the colors, making it unnecessarily confusing.

So, instead of Holmes playing 1. e4 and facing a Sicilian Defense (1. e4 c5), it is Moriarty who plays the English Opening (1. c4), to which Sherlock responds with 1 ... e5. To remove this complication from my blog, I will simply show the game as if Sherlock was playing as White from the beginning. It is a fairly even battle until move 24, when Moriarty plays the inaccuracy Bg7.

In this position, Holmes has only one move to maintain a good advantage. If you know a little about movies, you can probably guess it. Our favorite detective sacrifices his queen by playing Qxg6(!!), shocking his opponent. From here on there is a big difference between what was played in real life and onscreen.

In the real world, Tigran Petrosian didn't accept this sacrifice immediately and thus survived for a few more moves, but his position was already extremely difficult, so there was no option but to resign after 30. Rg3. Here is how it went:

However, Moriarty is not as strong as Petrosian and decides to take the queen. There is even a dramatic dialogue where he tries to convince his rival to resign (seriously Moriarty, did you really think Holmes would just hang a queen by not seeing that the pawn was protected?). Without looking at the board, but just saying his moves out loud, Sherlock finishes the game with a beautiful sequence, cornering his opponent's king to checkmate.

The final moves, already after the queen sacrifice, can be seen below. They are spoken in the old notation, but it is not difficult to understand. It starts with the move "King to Rook 2" by Moriarty, which basically means Kh7. You can follow it along with the board above.

If you are curious and want to read a whole blog explaining many more details about this scene specifically and also the real game, I can highly recommend you take a look at the article posted by my friend @AstroTheoretical_Physics: When Sherlock Played Moriarty

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3)      Homer Simpson vs Marge Simpson (The Simpsons: Season 28 / Episode 15)

Chess has also appeared in perhaps the most famous animated series in the world, The Simpsons. In the episode "The Cad and the Hat", Homer decides to play chess and finds out that he is actually a very strong player, surprising everyone and even himself. Playing the tricky Budapest Gambit, he is able to defeat a chess hustler from Springfield and take from him the huge sum of U$22. 

The reason for his unexpected skills is explained later and is related to the fact that as a child, Homer played chess with his father, Abe, as a way of bonding with him after his mother, Mona, left them. He was often defeated, and even fell victim to the popular Fool's Mate, losing in a humiliating two moves. However, with the help of a chess coach who lived nearby, he was eventually able to improve his game and beat his father, who then refused to play with him again.

The episode also features a special appearance by the, at the time, World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, who gives him some advice about chess and his relationship with his father. Homer later encourages Abe to play with him again. After building a winning position, he drops his king and resigns the game, thus closing the wound from their past.

Moving on to this particular game against his wife Marge Simpson, it is based on the game Richard Réti vs. Savielly Tartakower, which took place in Vienna in 1910. She chooses the Caro-Kann Defense, and the game flows relatively normally until move 7, when Marge plays Qxe5, attacking Homer's knight twice.

The natural reaction of most amateur players would be to either protect the knight or move it away from the e4 square. But this is not what our misunderstood genius had in mind. In this position, Homer played the brilliant 8. O-O-O, sacrificing his piece. Marge happily accepts the sacrifice, captures it with her own knight, and thinks that her husband was just distracted, as usual. What she didn't know was that she had just blundered a mate-in-3 line for White, falling into his trap. 

This is the moment when Homer Simpson shows his brilliance with the amazing move 9. Qd8+(!!). Apparently, Marge resigns at this moment, but if she wanted to continue, as in the real world, there would be no choice but to take the queen. Homer could then first double-check with 10. Bg5+ and finish the game with 11. Bd8#, in a very nice and unusual mating pattern. If the king had moved to e8 instead, 11. Rd8# would also result in a checkmate.
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Unfortunately, I could not find a (legal) way to post the exact scene here, but the full episode is easily found online if you are curious to see more. There are many other games that are played and can be seen on the screen, including his final game against his father with live commentary by Magnus Carlsen, based on Botvinnik vs. Tartakower in 1936. 
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4)      Professor X vs Magneto (X-Men)

In the final scene of the 2000 film "X-Men," Charles Xavier, also known as Professor X, plays chess against his rival Erik Lehnsherr, the popular Magneto, in the plastic prison where the latter was imprisoned after the battle between the X-Men and the Brotherhood on Liberty Island. Despite the palpable tension in the air, they seem to be playing only for the sake of it as they speak of serious concerns about their future.

The movie shows only the last moves of the game. Below is the position they initially play when the scene cuts to the board. Charles is playing as "Black", although the pieces he is moving are actually opaque, while Erik's are transparent. Professor X, despite being way behind in terms of material, has some strong advanced pawns on the 6th row and finds a forced mate-in-4 line, which he seems to spot without effort while chatting with his opponent.

Of course, you are welcome to try to find the correct line, but since my intention here is just to show the games and not to make it a puzzle blog, I'll just give the explanation and the sequence of moves. Honestly, I don't think it's that hard to calculate now that I've already spoiled the mate in 4, so please check it below:

The first move that Charles makes, which is clearly shown on the screen, is to eliminate the knight on d1 with the move Rxd1+, thus removing one of the defenders of the b2 square. Erik is forced to capture his rook, as the king is completely blocked by the pawns.

With the knight off the board, there are now not enough pieces controlling b2. Also relying on his bishop to prevent the king from escaping to b1, all Professor X has to do is keep checking with the pawns until Magneto has no more pieces to capture. The final position is a nice checkmate with the pawn, supported by a knight and a bishop.

From my perspective, there is also a small problem with the scene. After Charles has taken the knight, at 0:40, security enters the room to take him out of the cell. At that moment, it is possible to see two black pawns and that White's queen is still on f2 (to be fair, the board is a bit confusing, and I see two consecutive light squares on the row, so it is not clear to me exactly where the queen is, but it is there). After that, they seem to make no further moves and just talk for the next few seconds until the Professor is taken away.

However, when the scene cuts back to the board to show Magneto dropping his king, the queen is gone and we only see the pawns, suggesting that he also played Qxb2 and went all the way to checkmate. Ok, it's not impossible that they made the moves while talking, but it really doesn't look like it. Despite this detail, I love the scene.

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5)      Astronaut Frank Poole vs Supercomputer HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey)

One of the most famous science fiction works of all time also has a memorable chess scene. I am talking about the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey", released in 1968 by director Stanley Kubrick. To summarize the context, the American spacecraft "Discovery One" is on its way to Jupiter, with the mission pilots and scientists Dr. Dave Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole on board. Most of Discovery's operations are controlled by HAL 9000, an advanced computer with a human-like personality, although what they called an advanced computer in 1968 is probably less powerful than any garbage smartphone of today.

At one point, one of the protagonists, astronaut Frank Poole, plays chess against HAL. It is important to note that HAL 9000, despite being a supercomputer, is actually programmed to win only 50% of the chess games he plays, in order to keep the crew's morale high about their intellectual abilities. Only the final moves are shown on the screen, but they are based on a real game played between Rösch and Willi Schlage in the German city of Hamburg in 1910, valid for Group 3 of the DSB (German Chess Federation) Congress.

The game itself, in which Frank plays with the white pieces and HAL as black, begins with a classic Ruy Lopez opening, answered with the Morphy Defense (3. a6). Until move 13, although it is not shown, Black plays much better and already builds up an overall winning position, where White has not developed any of the queenside pieces and has all of them on the back-rank, except for the queen. Look at the tragic and pitiful position an astronaut could get himself into, proving that chess and intelligence aren't really directly related.

At this moment Frank thinks for a while what to play next and, not realizing the urgency of his situation, decides to take another pawn with 14. Qxa6. HAL immediately sees the sequence leading to Mate-in-5 and plays Bxg2. When the astronaut moves his rook away from the attack, the supercomputer plays the brilliant sacrifice 15. Qf3(!!). In a very noble gesture, which unfortunately Stockfisch and Leela Zero do not do very often, he spares his opponent from suffering and explains the forced mate line. Having heard and understood this, Frank resigns the game.

Black is basically threatening Nh3#. There are many moves that White can play to control this square, such as Qe6, Qh6, or Qc8, but all of them will lead to checkmate in 3 moves anyway. The line narrated by HAL in the movie is the most obvious and also the most beautiful, simply accepting the sacrifice. However, Nxf3# could be played immediately and would also lead to a defeat for Frank.

I find it very curious that Frank has to tell the machine his moves. Apparently, the touch screen technology is something so advanced that mankind in 1968 could not even think of this possibility. Anyway, who do you think would win in 2024? HAL 9000 or Stockfish? Place your bet now!

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Conclusion:

Geri vs Geri will always be the best chess game ever.

Well, since chess is an ancient game known in almost every country in the world, it's obviously no surprise that it's present in popular culture in various productions, usually portrayed as a symbol of intelligence, to prove that the characters are intellectual, serious, and focused people. Even in the case of Homer Simpson, who is basically the opposite of that, the episode tries to show it as a total breach of expectation concerning him.

Although we know that this stereotype is not always true, it still pleases me every time I see the game I love being displayed on the screen, and certainly, the characters who play it earn my respect almost immediately. However, movies or fictional books that focus mainly on chess are still very rare, given the limited interest in the subject by most of the population. I hope that this will change in the near future after the great success that "The Queen's Gambit" was.

Before concluding the text, I would like to make an honorable mention of a game played in the 1982 movie "Blade Runner", where Sebastian plays chess against Dr. Tyrell. This scene is based on the "Immortal Game", one of the most famous ones in history, played by Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky on June 21, 1851. I talk a bit more about Anderssen and this game in my blog about chess in Germany.

Please tell me if you already knew all the games I've mentioned in this text, and also let me know if I've left out any other interesting moments when chess played a role in a famous cultural play. I hope this blog has been informative, entertaining, and that you've enjoyed reading it. Thank you very much and see you next time!