Friday, September 11, 2015

Another Annoying Movie Cliche: The Surprise Checkmate in 1

Recently I blogged about some movie cliches I hate, like how if a brand-new Lamborghini and a 30-year-old van are in a chase scene, the Lambo doesn't outrun the van, and how everybody always takes their coffee black.

Last night I saw Guy Ritchie's Revolver and liked it quite a lot, but it also gives me the opportunity to complain about another non-lifelike movie cliche, the surprise checkmate in 1. That is: a checkmate which the losing chess player didn't see coming one move before. And these were supposed to be advanced chess players. Grandmasters see checkmate coming inevitably many moves ahead, sometimes dozens of moves ahead. [PS, 7. September 2016: Since posting this, I've seen Revolver several more times, and I must point out that it is not clear, in any of the several games of chess played in the movie, that the losing player never saw the checkmate coming before the last movie. Sorry.]

In real life, sometimes the winning player will make the last move and say, "Mate in 6." Or in 12 or in however many moves it will take to end the game. Of course, the other player isn't required to resign just because the other player announces checkmate in however many. Chess players are never required to resign. But if they're both Grandmasters, chances are that the loser will see what the winner if talking about, if he hasn't already seen it moves before and has just been wondering whether the eventual winner already sees it coming too and isn't going to screw it up. Every now and then in world-class-level chess, the loser will play the game out until the end, until he is checkmated, but in such cases both players and and any advanced chess players among the onlookers know exactly what is coming long before the final move.

Ritchie handles this somewhat better in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Somewhat. Only somewhat. Because it is hardly unheard-of for a player to win a game by sacrificing his Queen. Only in the movies have advanced chess players never ever heard of such a thing, just as only in the movies does a customer in a bar order something no more specific than "a beer." (Well, okay: maybe in 1873, out on the American Western frontier, there was a saloon or two than only offered one type of beer, and only served it in mugs which were all the same size. Maybe. But you know what? Even in a Western set in 1873 it'd be refreshing to see someone ask a bartender whether the saloon had any good IPA.)

So how do you portray advanced chess accurately in a movie? Do you have to have actual Grandmasters on the set, or re-create Grandmaster games move for move? No. You could, but it might unnecessarily complicate things, and creating a good movie is a hell of a difficult complicated task under the best of conditions. The moviemakers aren't there to play world-class chess, but to present the illusion that the characters are playing world-class chess. Typically, in a movie chess game, the entire board position isn't visible, so keep it like that if you want to, because the point of all of this is the the illusion rather than the actual chess. But instead of the surprise mate-in-one as in almost every game of chess ever portrayed in a movie, have the eventual winner move and announce, "Mate in [however many)." Or have the loser do what Grandmasters often do in real life when they realize they've lost: think, then sigh or nod their head, and topple their own King, resigning. In a movie like Revolver, which portrays many chess games between two supposed chess geniuses with a third person looking on, it would be very easy to have the onlooker, realistically, be puzzled, and ask why the loser resigned, and have one of the players rattle off what the next 10 or so moves would have been, maybe throwing in a variation or two ("[...]not Queen to f6 because then Rook to b1, Bishop to to d3[...]" and so forth). It doesn't matter that the audience won't be able to follow it all, because in real life they wouldn't comprehend it either. Just have the onlooker, who is also a genius, but not a chess Master, listen politely and clearly uncomprehendingly to the 10-or 20-move explanation for the resignation, and respond: "Uhhhhh... Okay."

Easy to do. Easy enough, for extra-super-duper realism, to rattle off the analysis of a Grandmaster game from a chess book or a chess column, in which the writer, often one of the players in the game, explains the resignation by writing out what those last however-many moves would have been, often with variations. And easily, you make a good movie much better, because you don't take the chessplayers in the audience out of the suspension of disbelief, you don't give them a crude and entirely unnecessary reminder that this is make-believe, like a phone number that begins with 555, or a character who's supposed to be the world's greatest computer hacker who is mightily impressed by seeing some monitors rather than by hearing the specs of the computer before him.

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