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It’s Just Like Byrne-Fischer All Over Again…

The above, as attentive viewers of Terminator: The Sarah Chronicles will remember, is a quote from Queen’s Gambit (Episode 5 of Season 1) spoken by the saviour of mankind, John Connor

Before we get on this specifically, one might ask, more generally:

Why are depictions of chess in fiction so rubbish?

[Before we go any further, I’ve not gone out of my way here, but: “POTENTIAL SPOLIERS WARNING!!!” – at least if you’ve not seen Season 1 (or followed all of the links that the above hyper-stuff will take you) of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and, possibly, if you’ve not read The Fionavar Tapestry, or are unaware of Byrne-Fisher 1956…]

This moan, in my case, goes beyond any complaints about the usual “it’s a game of chess out there!” or “chess is like war!” (or vice versa) clichés: as someone who used to (at an extremely amateur and inauspicious level, let’s be honest) play league chess and compete in congresses back in the last century, it’s the way that actual games are depicted.  (To be fair, I feel a little bit guilty about picking on The Sarah Connor Chronicles as the heading for this bijou moan, since the opening clichés about chess and war in “Queen’s Gambit” are much better done than most…So it goes…

Anyway, it will therefore be necessary, for a bit, to switch:

[chess geek on]

Let’s start with “Queen’s Gambit” (and, in passing, ignore [sort of] the fact that Byrne-Fisher 1956 was an example of The Grunfeld Defence, and not, in fact, the Queen’s Gambit.)

What set my geek alarm bells off (after, to be honest, when it became clear where the chess game was going) was the comment by the commentator in this episode that “the Japanese seize control of the center with Bishop to c5.” The Japanese (i.e. the Black pieces in this episode) are appearing in the role of Fischer, yet in the game (see link above) it was Byrne (with the White pieces) who played Bishop to c5…The position (after Byrne’s 16th move [Bc5, indeed]) was:

Argh. Later, John Connor seems to realise this:

“That bishop on c5 totally hammered them, Black’s in total zugswang,” he says, with possibly quibble-able use of chess terms, and, to boot, a rather different idea of who’s played what in the current episode (though to be fair, later shots of the board back up the actual Byrne-Fischer game with a White bishop on c5)..

Anyhoo, after 16…Rfe8+, 17 Kf1, Be6!!, as occurred in the game, and is depicted in the programme, the commentary says:

“An unorthodox move from the Japanese, leaving their Queen hanging on b6 sqaure.”

Urgh. As surely any computer would agree, there is no way out for White now. Try playing through, rather than 18. Bxb6 [as portrayed here, and as played by Byrne in the game against Fischer] and the alternative: 18. Bxe6 Qb5+, 19 Kg1 Ne2+, 20 Kf1 Ng3++ etc…(Byrne was presumably hoping for 17…Nb5? 18 Bxf7! etc…)

[I’m less inclined (at the moment) to carp about John’s fluctuating chess knowledge, or the fact that he knows Bryne-Fischer but only recognizes it right at the end of the game…, but….]

To end though, (albeit ignoring the fact that surely a computer would have realised long before, and despite the witless commentator’s comments in the episode about “victory being immanent for the American team”), “Rook to c2 checkmate” was, indeed, for once, how things actually ended (on move 41) in Byrne-Fisher. (Play through it, seriously, it’s great!)

Also, to pick another one I feel extremely guilty about, since it’s one of my favourtie books, there’s a bit in Chapter Five of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree where Paul Schafer plays a game of chess with Ailell, the High King of Brennin, which, whatever the passage’s splendour, breaks the narrative spell, if, like me, you’re inclined to react with a cry of “hang on!” to mentions of how an occasional player marshals his pieces into “a vortex of attack”, only to be met by, “a defence of intricate, resilient, subtlety.”

Yes, I know, it’s probably (and doubtless rightly) only me…

[/chess geek off]

Mark_W

PS: All this has reminded me that a] my favourite review of the first Harry Potter film occurred in the excellent Malcolm Pein’s chess column in the UK’s The Daily Telegraph. (I’m quoting from a long since decayed and fallible memory here, but it was something along the lines of “the Scandinavian Defence seems an odd choice when your life depends on it…”) and, b] my old chess club still has a splendid web presence…