CHESS VOICE (Vol. 17, No. 1) June-July 1984


   Although The Great Chess Movie has won a cinematic prize, one has to think - in a melancholic vein - that the judges did not know the first thing about chess. Certainly one of the principal commentators, the obscure French chess journalist Arrabal, did not know much about chess and limited himself to poetic misconceptions. Perhaps the Quebecois who made this Canadian film felt more comfortable listening to a Frenchman.

   Basically in the documentary genre which the British have perfected, it would never have hit the charts as a depiction of starvation in Bangladesh, genocide in Afghanistan, or political protest in the Soviet Union.

   For chess players, however - both dedicated and casual - it seemed to have a strong effect. People in the lobby after the Sacramento showing wanted to know if there was a local chess club. After drawing IM Nick deFirmian in a simul my wife had said to me in the auto, "I don't know if I ever want to play chess again. It's a lot of work." Following the movie she came out saying, "Maybe I will play some chess. I feel charged up." My own feelings were similar, but I was thinking of championship chess and the human element which is so much a part of it.

   The core of the film consists of clips of Bobby Fischer, Viktor Korchnoi, and Anatoly Karpov, decorated by the commentary of Camille Coudari, the infamous Arrabal, Vlastimil Hort, Lubomir Ljubojevic, Reuben Fine, and even the pomposities of the late Louis Statham. The focus of the drama is the Karpov-Korchnoi match in Merano in 1981. The tone takes its color from the opening shot of the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine accompanied by an orchestral version of "Don't Fence Me In." We go quickly from there to a shot of the immigrant Korchnoi toting a carton of chocolate milk to his board as he prepares to face Artur Yusupov at Lone Pine, 1981.

   So far the film looks very off the wall, and it could go anywhere. But to say that this is a movie to celebrate Korchnoi is surely on the mark. In his commentary preceding a clip of Korchnoi talking to himself in the whistling wind of the Alabama Hills, Coudari says that you cannot help but like Viktor Korchnoi. Yasser Seirawan, his erstwhile second, would doubtless agree, but Korchnoi is out for Korchnoi's self by all the meetings I have both in the press and from my three meetings with him - not all journalistically related. To give an example of one of our exchanges, I asked Korchnoi, "Are you continuing to pursue your campaign to get your wife and son out of the Soviet Union?" He responded, "Of course! Don't you think I want my son out?" That he divorced his wife Bella as soon as she had arrived in Switzerland should hardly surprise anybody. Yet for this movie where chess is like a Western, Korchnoi is the guy wearing the white hat.

   In The Great Chess Movie Korchnoi comes across as a soft-spoken and reflective person. This is the kind of distortion which visual presentations can foist upon you. What a movie or TV presentation can project relies upon a lag in the eye such that it pauses for a split second on one image and then passes to the next. There is precious little time to linger or reflect, but the impression remains.

   The meat of the movie are the film clips of Bobby Fischer and Karpov. They are leisurely, and you can watch their faces. Fischer responds to questions bluntly and also rationally. You watch his mouth. It is slightly twisted by tension. (We may also hypothesize that he was trying to be nice, but he didn't want all that attention.) He smiles. He is open. Something is still making him nervous about the whole occasion. His sister once said that he was a very special person "who needs a lot of understanding." It jumps out at you in the film clips. But he is trying.

   Among the commentators one is struck that Fine has gained a lot of weight since his playing days and Coudari knows more about the Sicilian than about today's grandmasters. The one who impresses is Ljubojevic, who articulates some very perceptive reveries which are not easy to formulate. If I ever see the film again, I shall concentrate on Ljubojevic.

   Most stimulating for me were the film clips on Karpov. He is moving among mobs of people, many of whom may well be bodyguards, but the attention paid him gives you a heightened esteem for chess and for yourself. And his eyes; you could look right through those eyes. Somewhere in the retina there was a weakness, a fragility. He is a slightly built man whistling his way through the cemetery at midnight. So far no ghosts have appeared. Yet he illustrates the contrast between bar iron and steel. They are both hard, but the bar iron will seem strong and suddenly crack. Karpov has bar iron eyes.

   Karpov showed that in this melee of paparazzi, guards, and officials, he knew fear more than fame. I know, as a soul, I could crack him. Unfortunately, he also plays awfully good chess, and it is unlikely that I would ever get the chance to crack his character for a match victory. Hell, I ain't never gonna get a match. But it is there. He is frail; he is vulnerable but excellent.

   The good big man will still beat the good little man, ad Karpov is the little man. Karpov himself has spoken of the need for a true champion to develop character. This is not a chess quality one develops from studying opening books or the latest bulletins. I still fantasize about his clear and open eyes staring into my own fat eyelids. Who is going to blink? Karpov never blinks, but what he does not know is that blinking does not matter.

   The strength of The Great Chess Movie was that I came out of the theater saying to myself that I wanted Karpov; I could take him. What was weak was that Karpov was cast as a stony villain while Korchnoi became the white hat because he only wanted to play his own game. The stark contrasts were a cinematic contradiction of reality. Fischer has affecting clips, but then Fine calls him a psychological tragedy.

   Fischer's tragedy was that he just had to wait until he won the world championship before he decided to live his own life. It was too late by then. For him the best course would have been to complete his formal education and then play some chess if he had a mind to. He was all of 27 before he hit his peak form. There was no hurry. There were all these people who kept pushing him on, exploiting him in his mind. "Go on, Bobby, be great." By the time he was great it was too late. Fischer really wanted to be himself and have someone love him. The chess was only the thing he did best. Skating stars and tennis pros have expressed similar feelings about their sports. It just absorbed too much of their time, and they were no longer getting the same rewards - nobody thought them crazy.

   But The Great Chess Movie achieved its intended effect for real chess players. It generated chess energy; it even made you feel important because you knew the moves. Maybe rape movies send people out of the theaters stalking. Maybe violence movies send people out of the theaters wanting to punch someone's lights out. Maybe when the home team loses the fans go home frustrated. When I left The Great Chess Movie, I wanted to go out and play somebody some chess. If Karpov wants to play me five minutes for five dollars, I'm going to look in his eyes and only play him for the cash in my wallet.

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