- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Relationship tip: Do not watch a chess movie with a chess player.

You may want to discuss plot twists, favorite characters or the quality of the cinematography. The chess player will be focused on whether the board was set up right and why the heroine in the murder scene was playing a line in the Scandinavian that has been known to be inferior since Topalov-Nepomniachtchi, Zagreb 2017.

Which of course brings us to the wildly popular Netflix mini-series “The Queen’s Gambit,” based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis. Having just finished watching the seven-part series, I can tell you it has something to do with a red-headed orphan girl who, while she has some real drug, alcohol and men issues, does play chess really well.

But enough about that. What has the chess world so jazzed is the fact that the producers tried — for once — to make the chess part of the film accurate. They even enlisted former world champ Garry Kasparov and U.S. master and author Bruce Pandolfini to consult on the play and the atmosphere.

The result is miles better than the typical Hollywood depiction of the Royal Game, but with a few howlers that rankle. Prodigy Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) and her opponents move far too quickly in complicated positions. The playing of a top tournament in an open hotel lobby is risible. The idea that Beth could rise to near-world-class strength and then be floored by a Rossolimo Sicilian definitely strains credulity. The comment that a top Soviet grandmaster “never offers his opponent a draw” — nope.



And without giving away the ending, we are asked to believe a clutch of decent American players, including what appear to be two Class B twins from Kentucky, can outwit a team of Soviet grandmasters in an adjourned position.

Still, to focus on the positive, Kasparov and Pandolfini have come up with some intriguing actual games to parse, which fans have been doing eagerly at chess sites across the internet. One of Beth’s early triumphs, which we pick up from today’s diagram, is an homage to the great Tatar attacking player Rashid Nezhmetdinov, with a combination from a 1955 game he won at the USSR championship.

In a tense position, haughty master Harry Beltik has just played 37…Qg8-d5. Beth/Rashid counters with 38. Be6! (not yet winning, but a nice swindle, as White seems to be losing a pawn) Rh8+ (Rxf2+ 39. Qxf2 Qxe6? 40. Qf8+ Kxg6 41. Rf6+ Qxf6+ 42. Qxf6+ Kh7 43. Qxe7+, winning) 39. Bh3 Nxg6? (sealing the Kentucky state championship for our Beth; on 39…Rd3! 40. Rf7+ Kg8 [Kh6? 41. Qc1+ Rd2+ 42. R1f2 c3 43. Rxe7] 41. Qg2 Nxg6 44. e6 Rd2 45. R1f2 Rxf2 46. Rxf2 Rh5, it is still very much a game) 40. Rf7+ Kh6 (White wins in the long run after 40…Qxf7 41. Rxf7+ Kxf7 42. Qf5+ Kg7 43. Qf6+ Kh7 44. Bf5) 41. Qxg6+!!, a classic Nezhmedtinov combination.

It’s a forced mate after 41…Kxg6 42. R1f6+ Kg5 43. Rf5+ Kg6 44. R7f6+ Kh7 45. Rh5+ Kg7 46. Rg5+ Kh7 47. Bf5 mate.

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“The Thomas Crown Affair” has its points, but the coolest use of chess in cinema is still probably the game that opens the 1963 James Bond classic “From Russia With Love.”

There are a few chess glitches for a fan to carp about, but the source material can’t be faulted: Boris Spassky’s famous King’s Gambit win over fellow Soviet great David Bronstein from the 1960 USSR championships.

Spassky freely acknowledged after the game that White could have gotten a boring edge with moves like 15. Rf2, but he said he couldn’t resist playing the spectacular but speculative 15. Nd6!!? Nf8? (a rattled Black should have played 15…Bxd6 16. Qh7+ Kf8 17. cxd6 exf1=Q+ 18. Rxf1 cxd6 19. Qh8+ Ke7 20. Re1+ Ne5 21. Qxg7 Rg8 22. Qxh6 Qb6 23. Kh1 Be6 24. dxe5, and “despite the fact the king is in the center, it is not easy to attack,” Spassky later wrote) 16. Nxf7! against one of the greatest players of the age.

Despite giving back a piece, Bronstein (“McAdams” in the movie) can’t hold back the White attack. It’s over on 22. Nxe5+ Kh7 23. Qe4+, and Black resigned facing 23…g6 24. Rxf8! Qg7 [Rxf8 25. Qxg6+ Kh8 26. Qxh6+ Qh7 27. Ng6 mate) 25. Rf7 and wins.

Kronstein (Spassky) — McAdams (Bronstein), USSR Championship, Leningrad, February 1960

1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 d5 4. exd5 Bd6 5. Nc3 Ne7 6. d4 O-O 7. Bd3 Nd7 8. O-O h6 9. Ne4 Nxd5 10. c4 Ne3 11. Bxe3 fxe3 12. c5 Be7 13. Bc2 Re8 14. Qd3 e2 15. Nd6 Nf8 16. Nxf7 exf1=Q+ 17. Rxf1 Bf5 18. Qxf5 Qd7 19. Qf4 Bf6 20. N3e5 Qe7 21. Bb3 Bxe5 22. Nxe5+ Kh7 23. Qe4+ Black resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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