Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Great Chess Movie: A Wonderful Time Capsule of World Class Chess in the Late 1970s/Early 1980s

The Great Chess Movie is a 1982 feature-length documentary about the world of chess. Director Gilles Carle and researcher Camille Coudari--a Canadian International Master who also appeared in the film--wanted to interview Bobby Fischer but the reclusive former World Champion (1972-75)/eight-time U.S. Champion declined to participate in the project. Carle and Coudari instead depict Fischer's rise and fall through a combination of archival footage and interviews with various Grandmasters who competed against Fischer. They also create interesting profiles of Anatoly Karpov (World Champion from 1975-85) and Viktor Korchnoi (who twice challenged Karpov for the World Championship).

International Master Michael Valvo and Professor Monty Newborn describe the efforts to build a strong chess playing computer. Belle, the strongest chess computer in the world in the early 1980s, evaluated over 100,000 positions a second--quite impressive for that era but laughably primitive compared to the current silicon beasts that evaluate millions of positions per second. The ability of computers to play chess very well--and yet not totally "solve" the game (unlike checkers, which was "solved" many years ago)--raises the question of exactly what kind of skill it takes to become a strong chess player. Coudari speculates that great chess players have a very specific kind of intellectual ability centered on the application of visual memory and he notes that Sammy Reshevsky--the prodigy who later became U.S. Champion--displayed uncanny visual memory when a psychologist tested him as a young boy but he did not score as exceptionally well in other categories.

The second Karpov-Korchnoi World Championship Match, held in Italy in 1981, receives extensive coverage in the film and the depredations of the Soviet Union are well worth remembering: Korchnoi defected from the Soviet Union in 1976 but his wife and son were forbidden to leave the country, so Korchnoi suffered enormous psychological pressure and torment while competing against Karpov, the darling of the Soviet system. That was just the culmination of decades of maneuvering that the Soviets did to make sure that the world championship title stayed in their hands as "proof" of the superiority of communism over capitalism. While there is no denying that Fischer suffered from psychological problems--and thus it is possible that he was in some way incapable of defending his title--the Soviets certainly took advantage of Fischer's fragile mindset during the tense negotiations for the eventually aborted 1975 Fischer-Karpov match; one clip--poignant viewing for any true chess fan--depicts a confident Fischer stating that once he captured the title he would make sure that future matches would be decided by who wins the most games (with draws not counting) but of course Fischer's insistence on this condition ultimately led to him losing the title to Karpov without a fight. Ironically, after Karpov became champion the Soviets eventually agreed to this change and Karpov's 1984 match versus Garry Kasparov was supposed to be won by the first player to amass six victories with draws not counting (Karpov took a 5-0 lead but Kasparov fought back to 5-3 and then after 48 total games the match was suspended without decision when it seemed that Karpov was on the verge of mental and physical collapse; they started a new match under the old format in 1985 and Kasparov ended Karpov's reign with a 13-11 victory, five wins to three with 16 draws).

The movie lasts 79 minutes and I have posted it below in three separate video clips (7/18/15 edit: the original links no longer work and I have not been able to find an English version, so I have reposted the movie--in French--in one link); the footage near the end of the first video clip and extending into the early portion of the second video clip is a particularly fascinating examination of the difference between Fischer's approach to chess and Karpov's approach to chess: Grandmaster Ljubomir Ljubojević, who eventually ascended to third in the world rankings behind only Kasparov and Karpov, says that Fischer played chess dynamically--seemingly creating chances for both sides but really only creating chances for himself because he saw so much more than his opponent--while Karpov played chess in a more controlled manner, seeking to eliminate his opponent's chances. Ljubojević confidently declares that Fischer's method is superior, a prescient statement considering that within a few years Kasparov employed a very dynamic playing style to dethrone Karpov.

Karpov was Kasparov's great rival--they battled for world chess supremacy for the better part of a decade--so it is understandable why Kasparov has expressed the belief that Karpov would have had good chances against Fischer in 1975 (i.e., Kasparov elevates himself by elevating Karpov) but it is interesting to observe that in the context of that time, even as Karpov dominated the chess scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the various Grandmasters interviewed in the film consider it obvious that Fischer was superior to Karpov, though Jan Timman concedes that Karpov had "proved more" (by winning tournaments as World Champion, while Fischer never played in a sanctioned event after capturing the title).

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