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Hit the Board, Jack

Issue 126

When I was a teenager, no one understood how I suffered. No one detected my secret genius. When I saw kids my age on TV or in the movies, they were unattainably glamorous or totally dorks. I never wished that I hadn’t been born, but I was convinced that life was not fair (to me).

So you can imagine my excitement when Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky for the world chess championship in 1972 and there it all was on public television. Fischer wasn’t a teen like me, but this thing he did – his super power – was the thing that I did, too. Thanks to television, we were no longer nerds or outcasts. We were geniuses, warriors, outlaws. Chess players. Righteous.

Bobby Fischer, 1971.

It would’ve helped if Fischer had had attractive female fans hanging off him, but it was enough of a miracle to see chess on TV. I wasn’t complaining that PBS couldn’t turn chess into Easy Rider.

Now that the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit has become a hit, you may be looking for another ripping chess yarn to watch. Sadly, except for some documentaries and a silent Soviet film called Chess Fever, this is close to everything:

  • The Mighty Pawns (1987)
  • Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
  • The Luzhin Defense (2000)
  • Knights of the South Bronx (2005)
  • Pawn Sacrifice (2012)
  • The Queen of Katwe (2014)
  • The Queen’s Gambit (2020)

The Queen’s Gambit is set in the 1950s and 1960s. The soundtrack includes pop and jazz milestones of the era, some in the original versions, others in groovy new remixes.

However, there are no songs about chess in The Queen’s Gambit. There are no songs about chess in any of these movies. There are more books about chess than there are about baseball, but chess has a long way to go before it catches up with baseball on the jukebox.

There are no chess equivalents for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “Be a Believer in Giant Fever,” or a “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, and Bob Dylan never wrote a note about chess, but they all wrote about baseball. We don’t even play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a match (though we do invite celebrities to throw out the first pawn).

So how much chess music is there? Not much!

  1. The musical Chess
  2. The “Your Move” section of Yes’ “I’ve Seen All Good People”
  3. Several songs by the Chilean singer/songwriter Juga, including “Oh Capablanca” and her chess version of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Endgames Bloody Endgames.”
  4. Art Blakey’s “The Chess Players” is an instrumental. That doesn’t count, but this list is short enough.
  5. Chess Records doesn’t count either. What I wouldn’t give to hear Howlin’ Wolf sing about a bishop with the blues!

 

So chess is not exactly a sport you can hang your muse on. The few movies made about chess reflect this. They work from a limited palette of themes:

  • The Mighty Pawns and Knights of the South Bronx are about inner-city children who succeed by learning to play chess.
  • Searching for Bobby Fischer is about a child prodigy who wants to be the next Bobby Fischer.
  • Pawn Sacrifice is based on the life of Fischer. The Luzhin Defense is about a bigger nutburger than Fischer.
  • The Queen of Katwe and The Queen’s Gambit are about the challenges facing young women who want to play chess. The former is based on a true story, the latter on a novel.
  • The Queen’s Gambit is also about a young woman who shares some similarities with Fischer, much like the musical Chess, which is about a young man who shares some similarities with Fischer.

Historical note: Chess Fever, if you’re wondering, was filmed in Moscow in 1925 during a major international tournament. The city went mad for chess. The director saved a ton of rubles by filming a story about a city that goes mad for chess and what this does to two newlyweds. The director recruited José Raúl Capablanca, who was playing in the tournament, to play himself in the film. Can marriage survive chess? Yes – when your marriage counselor is the chess champion of the world!

This is the only chess film I know of that escapes the vortex of kids, women, and Bobby Fischer.

The house was rocking because they were playing blitz chess.

Mad About You

Chess may not be the most popular topic for a song, but there are multiple crossovers between chess and music.

The Soviet-era grandmaster Mark Taimanov was also a concert pianist. François-André Danican Philidor wrote operas and was the best chess player of the 1700s. Kurt Cobain and Frédéric Chopin made their own chess pieces. Frank Sinatra hired someone to make his chess pieces. Chess was written by Tim Rice and half of ABBA. Several male chess players abandoned their bands to play chess, but Bono gave up chess to start a band. The Wu-Tang Clan play chess. So does Yoko Ono. David Bowie and John Lennon played, Jay Z and Ludacris play, and Sting built a giant chessboard in his back yard. That may be the best thing about Sting I have ever read.

Ray Charles appeared on the cover of Chess Life magazine in September 2002. “I beat Willie Nelson yesterday,” the Genius of Soul said in the story. “He tells me I turned the lights out on him.”

You can’t rhyme chess with “June,” “moon,” “love,” or “above.” “Less,” “mess,” and “stress” are not promising. But at least you can find chess in the movies, for which I am grateful. That’s my life, right there. To borrow a line that was written for another sport, I don’t care if I never get back.

 

Header image courtesy of Pexels/JESHOOTS.com.

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