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.
Today we’re going to do something a bit more obscure. So obscure, in fact, that the moniker ‘popular culture’ can barely be justified. Yes, today we leave the burning bright spotlights of hit TV-series and the booming, amped-up volume of big rock concerts to dive into the foreboding depths of long forgotten comic books series. Today, we bid farewell to glamour and fortune. Today, we deal with Klont. Yes, Klont. It is a comic series which ran for a short while in Flemish comic magazine Robbedoes, didn’t get picked up, and disappeared like a raindrop in the ocean of Belgium’s gigantic comic scene.1 The comic is centred on the adventures of a bearded college-age guy. In our episode of today, which comes from Robbedoes‘ 33th issue of 1980, we find him in a lesson about electronics.
Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! I got my first suggestion! That’s an important moment in the life of a young blog. So exciting! Less exciting is the fact that it’s about a pop song. A pop song.1 That’s about the last place where I would expect a chess reference. It happens in a song with the pseudo-profound title it’s not war (just the end of love) by a band called manic street preachers2 . It’s a rather sordid affair, really. The text is filled with irritating half rhymes, utterly devoid of both meaning and meter, and the music is in a rather standard song form with stereotypical orchestration. The music video is more interesting. Even though the song is quite recent, it very much breathes a cold war atmosphere. Just look at this still shot:
Belgium is a strange, strange country. I don’t mean the bizarre borders1 , the incredibly complicated politics2 , or the fact that there’s a Belgian chess history site. No, I mean the fact that Belgium’s most famous inhabitants are all fictional.3 What Belgians are reasonably well-known internationally? Tintin maybe? Or the smurfs? Lucky Luke? Dr. Evil? Or our protagonist for today: Hercule Poirot, probably the most famous detective since Sherlock Holmes. He stars in an astonishing amount of books, some films, radio dramas, and our topic of today: a long lasting television series. In episode six of season five, Poirot returns to Belgium. About halfway through the episode, we get to see one of the rarest sights nature has to offer: people playing chess in Belgium.
“Post mortem” is the slightly macabre but very apt term chess players use for the after-game analysis with one’s opponent, where one looks at the most useless variations and is astonished by one’s own stupidity. So when I encountered the 2002 computer game called “post mortem” I hoped, for just a happy second, that it would be chess themed. Such, alas, is not the case. Instead, it is a murder mystery point-and-click game. You take on the role of Gus MacPherson, a former private eye working as a painter in Paris. He is called back to his former job to investigate the murder of two other Americans. It’s a rather messy affair, with decapitations, blood spatters, ritual murders – all standard stuff. Until you stumble upon the following gruesome scene: