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Chess and problem rambles by PW

27 Jan. 2019 – Top 10 greatest chess scenes in movies

For chess enthusiasts who are also fans of cinema, movie scenes that prominently feature the royal game hold a special appeal. Many people have produced lists of the most famous of such scenes, clips of which are typically found on YouTube. Surprisingly, however, no-one has attempted to put these chess sequences together in a single video. So I decided to do just that – choosing the ten best film depictions of the game (in my view), ranking them, and collecting them in a HD-quality video. The result is now on YouTube: Top 10 Greatest Chess Scenes in Movies. Because I wanted the selected scenes to be more-or-less self-contained and not mere snippets, some segments are longish (though none exceeds four minutes) and the whole compilation is 27 minutes in length. You can also jump to individual segments using the heading links provided below.

10. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
A blitz game between Sherlock Holmes and his archenemy Professor Moriarty serves as the climax of this film directed by Guy Ritchie, a keen chess player. (He also made Revolver (2005), a crime thriller that references chess even more heavily, but it’s not as good.) The original scene goes for ten minutes, too long for our purposes and I had to edit out some non-chess related parts; that’s why this segment may feel a little disjointed at times. That the game played – based on Larsen-Petrosian, 1966 – develops into a form of blindfold chess is a plus, as this sort of feat is rarely displayed in movies.

9. X-Men (2000)
In the sci-fi X-Men series about mutants with superpowers, chess makes frequent appearances, sometimes at key moments. A few years ago I even created a YouTube video gathering these Chess Scenes in the X-Men Films. The game is mostly used to represent the rivalry between Professor Xavier and his “frenemy” Magneto, and this sequence from the first X-Men film is no exception. Apparently neither of the two actors involved (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) knew how to play chess and an over-qualified GM was brought in to teach them!

8. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
If anyone could make a chess game seem glamorous and sexy, it’d be two movie stars of the calibre of Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. In this heist film, he’s a rich executive who masterminded a bank robbery and she’s an investigator on his trail. No one in their right mind would actually pay attention to the chess moves in this scene. Did I mention that the game opens with the Ruy Lopez?

7. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
This film about the real-life prodigy Josh Waitzkin, based on one of my favourite chess books, is excellent but I’m not a fan of how his main rival is portrayed. That’s why I didn’t choose the Championship game between them that ends the movie. Instead I picked a terrific scene of the young Josh playing his hustler friend (Laurence Fishburne) in a New York park. Here the editing, music, and Oscar-nominated cinematography combine to perfectly capture the fun of speed chess.

6. Blade Runner (1982)
This cult movie posits a dystopian future in which androids are nearly indistinguishable from humans but are manufactured as slaves. Chess is used as a plot device here, as the leader of a group of rebel “replicants” (Rutger Hauer) exploits an ongoing game to gain access to the head scientist who created him. That the replicant also outwitted his genius maker in chess is obviously meant to suggest his superior intelligence over humans. The moves announced in this scene reproduce the ending of the Anderssen-Kieseritzky Immortal Game.

5. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
Chess acquires the big-budget, CGI-laden treatment in the first Harry Potter film. This movie franchise has been such a phenomenon in popular culture that the scene of giant “Wizard’s Chess” demands a good placing on my list, even though the film itself, aimed at youngsters, is not much to my taste. IM Jeremy Silman devised the critical position, in which Harry’s friend Ron sacrificed himself to help Harry to deliver mate. Check out Silman’s revealing article on his experience as the chess consultant on the film (linked below).

4. Pawn Sacrifice (2014)
Perhaps the more you know about the details of Fischer’s life and his World Championship match with Spassky, the more you’d be distracted by the inaccuracies of this biopic. Still, screenwriters are not giving up their artistic licences anytime soon and if we treat this as a feature film (not a doco), it is well-made and enjoyable. Take the Game 6 scene, which begins deliberately to convey the intensity of top-level play and the public’s captivation with the match. It then builds up to a dramatic finish that tells us something about the protagonists: one is an impeccable player, a little dazed by the world’s reaction to his brilliance, the other a perfect gentleman.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Legendary director Stanley Kubrick was a chess lover who incorporated the game in many of his works, including The Killing (1956) and Lolita (1962). But the best-known of these chess moments comes from 2001, in which an astronaut relaxes by playing with HAL, the sentient onboard computer. HAL is a memorable character who always speaks pleasantly, whether he’s beating you at chess or going on a murderous rampage. Though nowadays we are used to programs demolishing human players, back in 1968 the idea would have been far-fetched, so the film is kind of prescient.

2. From Russia with Love (1963)
This early James Bond film opens in a beautiful setting of a match between a Czech grandmaster and his Canadian opponent. The lavish interiors of the playing hall must have cost a small fortune to produce, for a scene that lasts for only two minutes or so. The Czech turns out to be the chief planner of the evil SPECTRE organisation, thus his chess prowess is meant to establish him as a master strategist and formidable foe for Bond. Given the popularity of the Bond films, the position seen on a demonstration board – modelled on the Spassky-Bronstein, 1960 game – could be considered the most famous chess diagram ever.

1. The Seventh Seal (1957)
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s tale set in medieval Europe is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. A battle-weary knight (Max von Sydow) returns home from the Crusades only to encounter Death in human form. The Grim Reaper is ready to claim his life but the knight challenges him to a game of chess, as a delaying tactic (a bit like not resigning in a lost position?!). This cinema classic contains imageries that have become iconic, especially those of the knight facing off Death across a chessboard, and its influence can be gauged by how often its scenes are referenced and parodied in modern culture. An easy pick as No.1 on this list!

The Seventh Seal segment consists of three separate chess sequences and solely because of its total length, this video is blocked on YouTube in a few European countries. If you’re affected and cannot view it at Top 10 Greatest Chess Scenes in Movies, here’s a link to a slightly shortened version (unlisted on YouTube). Its only difference is that it contains two rather than all three excerpts from The Seventh Seal.

Further reading and viewing
These articles discuss and analyse the specific chess positions featured in many of the above scenes, some with notes on the goofs detected. Chess errors are almost customary in movies, and these great scenes are far from immune.
The Subtext Buried In Seven Great Movie Chess Scenes by Walt Hickey and Oliver Roeder
Oscars for Chess on the Big Screen by Todd Bardwick
Creating the Harry Potter Chess Position by Jeremy Silman
Chess goes to the movies: Blade Runner by Jonathan B (The Streatham & Brixton Chess Blog)

Lastly, an insightful video from ‘Now You See It’, a film analysis channel on YouTube.
The Meaning of Chess in Movies by Jack Nugent

23 Mar. 2019 – Stockfish and another modern classic more-mover

Like all top chess engines, Stockfish is a super-tactician and as such it’s normally able to uncover any forced-mate sequences that aren’t excessively long. Yet there are certain directmate problems that are relatively short but which confound the engine. A year ago in a Walkabout (12 Mar. 2018) I wrote about such an exceptional composition, a 9-mover that was unsolved even when its solution was truncated. Given that Stockfish has had two new releases since that column appeared, it seems appropriate to provide an update on its progression as a problem solver. Furthermore, I will present another superb directmate that stumped the engine. Not only is this problem even shorter than the 9-mover, but it possesses an unusual feature that might explain why the program has trouble unravelling either of these works.

As a recap, here is Theodor Siers’ 9-move problem that was fully analysed in the earlier column. At the time, the Stockfish version 8 on Chess.com could not find its solution after running for an hour. Even if we simplify the problem by removing the first few moves of its main variation, the engine failed to solve it until the play is reduced to 5 moves. That means Siers’ problem at the mate-in-6 stage could be the shortest forced-mate sequence that “defeats” Stockfish.

Theodor Siers
Die Schwalbe 1935
Mate in 9

1.Kb1! Sd5, [M8 unsolved by SF10: 2.Kc1!] Sb4, [M7 solved by SF10: 3.Kd1!] Sd5, [M6 unsolved by SF8: 4.Ke1!] Sb4, [M5 solved by SF8: 5.Kf1!] Sd5 6.Kg1! Sb4 7.Kh1! Sd5 8.Bc5 S-any 9.Bxe7.

Cut to the present, we find that version 10 of Stockfish has improved significantly at this 9-move task. It should be mentioned here that I'm now using a PC installation of Stockfish, which gives greater control of its functions compared with the Chess.com Analysis feature. By using Lucas Chess as the interface, it’s also easy to swap between different versions of Stockfish and compare their performances. Now Stockfish 10 manages to solve not only the 6-move position but the 7-move one as well. The mate-in-7 sequence was found in under an hour (the time limit used in all of these tests), with the settings of maximum depth and three lines of evaluation. The problem at the mate-in-8 stage – let alone the original mate-in-9 – remains too difficult for the engine (various numbers of evaluation lines were tested).

Soon after writing about Siers’ masterful work in the first instalment, I came across another more-mover that Stockfish 8 could not handle. This 7-mover by Vladimir Nikitin, diagrammed below, renders a brilliant theme and it became an instant favourite of mine. The task here looks impossible and I gave up on it rather quickly, but the solving program Popeye confirms that the solution is correct in about 50 minutes. Stockfish 8, on the other hand, wasn’t able to crack it until the main line is reduced to 5 moves; therefore a year ago this directmate shared the unsolved mate-in-6 record with Siers’ problem.

Vladimir Nikitin
Shakhmaty v SSSR 1984
Special Prize
Mate in 7

Let us analyse this curious position. Black’s pieces are completely locked up in the corner, but they form a strong fortress against which White cannot break through, at least not in time. Here’s a try sequence that Stockfish finds almost instantaneously, where White launches a successful assault on h3 – 1.Qe6 f5 2.Bxf5 e4 3.Rh8 e3 4.Bxh3 Qxh3 5.Rxh3+ Bxh3 6.Rh8 Rxe1 7.Qxh3+ Kg1 8.Qxh1, but the mate is one move too slow! As one might expect, the actual solution requires a more subtle approach. White’s plan is to deploy the knight to execute a smothered mate on g4, but the piece cannot begin its three-move trip immediately because 1…e1(Q) would unleash the black force against the white king. Rather, White must start with four preparatory moves designed to protect the king, so that the knight trip becomes safe to play. If White shifts the bishop as part of this fore-plan, Black’s e5- and f6-pawns will be forced by zugzwang to march forward two steps each, conveniently unguarding the three squares that the knight wants to access (Sd3-e5-g4).

How does White use the first four moves to secure the king against disruptive black checks that could follow …e1(Q), a move that not only adds a queen but also activates the f2-rook and f1-bishop? The difficulty here seems but compounded by the powerful white force available, which offers numerous options for shielding the king, and the king itself has many potential hiding squares to choose from. Let’s try placing the piece on a1, for example: 1.Ka1 f5 2.Bb1 e4 3.Rc1 f4 4.Rb2 e3 5.Sd3, and after 5…e1(Q) the white pieces have blocked all queen checks and also …Ra2+, hence 6.Se5 and 7.Sg4 seem unstoppable. But in fact Black can refute with 5…e1(S)!, since 6.Se5 Sc2+! checks after all and there’s no mate next move.

The correct fore-plan sees all four white line-pieces making attractive long-range moves to cover the king, which stays on its initial square. Notice how White’s move order is neatly forced, as these line-pieces must avoid interfering with each other. 1.Rc1! f5 2.Bc2! e4 3.Rb2! f4 4.Qb3! e3 5.Sd3 e1(Q); now that the coordinated white army has forestalled checks by Black’s promoted queen, f2-rook, and f1-bishop, 6.Se5 is viable and Black cannot prevent 7.Sg4.

What makes this composition so strikingly original is that the greater part of White’s play is motivated purely by defence. Siers’ problem also has this rare feature, in that the white king’s trek is aimed at evading the black knight’s checks. With hindsight, it’s obvious what caused Stockfish difficulties are these paradoxical defensive moves that are integral to the most efficient mating line. I guess nobody told it that in some special circumstances, defence is the best attack! Be that as it may, the newest version of Stockfish has also advanced in dealing with Nikitin’s 7-move task, deciphering the mate-in-6 position within the hour. But unlike the case with Siers’, the improvement is for one move only. Nikitin’s original mate-in-7 position is still too tough and thus it becomes the shortest forced-mate sequence I know that cannot be solved by Stockfish.

28 Apr. 2019 – ‘Alexandre’s 2020 and American Chess Nuts’

Bob Meadley’s research on chess problem history isn’t confined to Australian materials and in a new interesting article he examines The Beauties of Chess (1846) and American Chess Nuts (1868), two immense problem anthologies that were standard reference works of their times. The former, edited by A. Alexandre, consists of 2020 positions, mostly directmates of a pre-modern style. The latter, edited by E.B. Cook, W.R. Henry, and C.A. Gilberg, contains some 2400 problems of greater variety, some illustrating early themes. Bob provides background information for the two volumes and discusses their contents in detail. He compares the two collections, and concludes that “[The Beauties of Chess] deals with the formative years of problem composition whereas [American Chess Nuts] is about first class composers such as Loyd and Cook. The books deal with different eras.” The article includes 24 selections of problems from these important texts, and below I quote an example from each. Here’s a link to download the article: Alexandre’s 2020 and American Chess Nuts.

Baron Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa
No.291 in The Beauties of Chess 1846
Mate in 5

1.Qc8+! Rb8 2.Qc6+ Rb7 3.Qe8+ Rb8 4.Qe4+ Rb7 5.Rc8. The queen zigzags to clear the c-file for the rook. Bob’s summary of Alexandre’s collection seems appropriate here: “The problemists of today have moved well away from these game positions with checking keys mostly but some are very good and come from a time before the great divergence into themes when the problem was very close to the game.”

Sam Loyd
The New York Clipper 1856
1st Prize
Mate in 4

1.Qg1! ~ 2.Bf2 ~ 3.Bxb6 (threats: 4.Sb4/Qc5) Kd5 or Sxb6 4.Qc5. The eponymous Loyd-Turton theme problem. The queen crosses over the critical square f2, which is then occupied by the bishop, so that the two pieces are lined up with the weaker one at the front. The bishop then moves along the line traversed by the queen, but in the opposite direction.