Chess, due to its symbolical connotations, is a popular motive for book covers, even if the book itself has nothing whatever to do with it. The idea is, no doubt, to invoke visions of scheming minds and intricately interwoven plots. Usually, this is restricted to an empty chess board or a single piece somewhere but sometimes there is a bit more to it. This week we’re going to talk about a few of the more interesting examples I know of. No, that does not include Breaking Dawn.1
Fourteenth instalment! Finally a nice round number!1 That deserves something special, I’d say. Something very special indeed: I’m going to watch a movie. More specifically, I’m going to watch Knight moves, an obscure 1992 film about a chess grandmaster getting mixed up in a serial killer case, and am going to write my impressions along the way. Clearly, there will be a good deal of chess to discuss, but this time I’ll try to pay attention to the plot as well. The main stars are Christopher Lambert, fresh from the enormous success2 of Highlander II, and one of the lesser Baldwins. What could go wrong? Let’s find out…
Obscure engravings, highly local comics series – the ‘popular’ in the name of this blog has become somewhat spurious lately. High time, I think, to go back to more well-known things. Things like Tintin. The famous reporter that does no reporting can be seen playing chess a few times in the series. The most famous instance is probably in Tintin in Tibet, where our eponymic hero is playing captain Haddock in a Swiss hotel. Unfortunately, we don’t get a good view of the board there, so instead we go back to Tintin’s first visit to South America in volume 51 of the series: The broken ear. Tintin has been made colonel and aide-de-camp of general Alcazar. Together they can be seen trying to solve the myriad problems a successful revolution faces.
Kiekeboe is a family adventure comic series which is hugely popular in Flanders and, to some extend, the Netherlands. The series has been running for more than four decades and well over a hundred volumes. Especially in the beginning of the series, the stories were often inspired by whatever happened to be in the news. In those days, that meant things like Idi Amin Dada, the Bermuda triangle, or the Karpov vs. Korchnoi world championship matches. The plot of the fourteenth volume is about a grandmaster trying to lay his hands on the chips of a supposedly unbeatable computer. Unsurprisingly, things do not go as smoothly as he hopes, and while his goons are desperately trying to get the blasted things, he’s playing the first games of his match.
As you might already have deduced from this site and its title, I have a slight interest in history. Yet in this blog, I haven’t gotten further than the seventies. Impermissible! Unfortunately, one hundred years ago, movies and television series were comparatively rare and the chances of finding a computer game from Victorian times seem quite slim. What to do, what to do? Well, there are still the graphic arts, of course – and chess features heavily in those. Take the following image, for example. It1 is quoted as being called checkmate the king and is claimed to be from around 1475. It shows an engraving of some king or other playing chess against death. Some online sources attribute it to Israhel Van Meckehem, but from what I understand his name is more or less the default for engravings of this time. (I must admit, though, that I don’t understand a whole lot.)
The X-men, as most of you doubtlessly know, are an American team of superheroes. They get their name from their mentor, professor Xavier, and the fact that the X is the most x-treme letter of the alphabet. The team is composed of a number of powerful mutants like Wolverine, a super-regenerating strongman with retractable bone claws, Storm, who can fly and control the weather, and Cyclops, who can shoot energy beams out of his eyes. There are any number of comic books, cartoons, and computer games about the X-men, but we will talk about the 2000 movie, for there is something about it that strikes me as somewhat implausible. Allow me to demonstrate.
After dealing with comic books, television series, a computer game, and a commercial I feel it’s high time I tackled a movie. And what better movie to start with than John Carpenter’s The Thing from 1982? It’s about a bunch of scientists stuck on Antarctica that find something nasty in the ice.1 Something which absorbs living creatures and camouflages itself as them. The film is at the time of writing in the imdb top 250 and I can confirm that it is indeed very good. At the beginning of the movie, before things go pear-shaped, we can spot a smirking Kurt Russell2 playing a helicopter pilot by the name of MacReady and a leisurely game of chess against a computer. Let’s dive right in, because there’s a lot to talk about.
Chess is just the most exciting thing ever. Just think about it: two men staring at some pieces of wood for five hours on end, barely moving, not speaking a word, trying to fork bishops and queens – enough to keep millions watching!1 Still, for some unfathomable reason, people seem to think that chess is boring. It is on this baffling misconception that GEICO plays in this commercial. It’s from a series of commercials with supposedly rhetorical questions, one of which is “Can fútbol announcer Andrés Cantor make any sport exciting?” To demonstrate that this is indeed the case, they cut to a chess match he is commenting on.
This time, our topic is only tangentially related to chess in popular culture: we will be talking about famous chess enthusiasts. A few lists like this already exist, but they are all rather unsatisfactory. It seems like every celebrity who was ever seen looking at a chess board is included in these lists. I am not interested in people that know the rules and basta. I am also not interested in people that are mainly known as chess players. Magnus Carlsen, for example, did some modelling work but is clearly better known as a chess player. Lasker, too, is mainly known as a chess player.1 Taimanov is a bit of a special case, where it is unclear whether he’s a chess-playing pianist or a piano-playing chess player.
Here, then, are the criteria for inclusion in my highly prestigious list:
- There should be published results for a tournament the candidate played in. Rapid and blitz tournament are not admissible. Obviously, simultaneous exhibitions are right out.
- The candidate must have a wikipedia page, not necessarily in English, mainly concerned with a topic unrelated to chess.
This should make for a distinguished club of people. Probably, the members will be less famous than Einstein, but that’s half the reason I started the list: in the hopes of stumbling upon some interesting people I hadn’t heard about. Unfortunately, by the above criteria, I would have to include William Herbert Wallace, which I don’t like. Therefore, I will add a third criterion:
- The candidate must not offend the whimsy of yours truly, who retains the right to exclude anyone for any reason.
which gives me all the leeway I could want. With a quick search, I found six people who satisfy these three criteria,2 so without further ado, onto the list:
Previously, I called The mentalist a mediocre mystery fiction show. By these standards, Numb3rs is dreadful. First of all, the show has given in to 1337 speak. This is bad. Secondly, there is no Simon Baker. This is unforgivable. The show is about a brilliant young mathematician who helps his detective brother solving cases with maths.1 In fact, Numb3rs might also be a contender for a hypothetical Maths in popular culture blog, but there will be enough to talk about if we restrict ourselves to chess. First we will dissect a chess scene from episode nine of the first season. We see the protagonist’s father, Alan, playing chess with a friend, who also helps the FBI.