I'm a fairly good amateur chess player. I'm not rated, but I guess that I'd be 1900, 2000 on a good day on the FIDE scale. Masters and Grandmasters are about at 2400 and up. Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer are currently rated at 2838 and 2780 respectively.
Which brings me in a roundabout way to my favorite TV show, The West Wing.
Not that I watch it often, but I occasionally click through the channels and come across it and am compelled to observe, the way that you in spite of your better judgment stare at a bad car crash.
It's not just the eternal struggle of virtuous and shiny Democrats versus evil, sweaty (and badly dressed) Republicans.
It's not just the lazy ping-pong dialogue of Aaron Sorkin and his co-writers, which aims at busyness and insouciance but serves mainly to chew up airtime:
"Is it what?"
"Is it here?"
"Is it where?"
(I suppose it depends on what the definition of "is" is.)
It's not just the conceit that President Bartleby is a doughty battler for civil rights, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and a furtive smoker to boot. My God, is there no end to the complexity of this man?!
It's when an arrogant crackhead like Sorkin runs his mouth and pisses all over a game I love. Which brings us back to chess. (You knew I'd tie this all together, eventually.)
I don't know why it is, but when movie or TV-makers want to depict an "intellectual" they invariably picture him as hunched over a chessboard, plotting out his next nefarious move.
This is bullshit, basically. The chessplayer only demonstrates his intellect in a very narrow subset of intelligence, namely the attempt to "corner a wooden King in the corner of a wooden board."
Which brings us back to West Wing. (I'm starting to get dizzy.)
President Familiar Quotations is of course a world-class chessplayer, who between solving the Oooga Booga crisis and sternly looking into the camera at strategic moments finds the time to deliver unto his staff crushing defeats over the chessboard.
Anyway, one night I stumbled upon President Bartvinnik preparing to trounce the bald-headed, bearded guy (his name escapes me), but first, to hammer home the point, he barks at his secretary:
"Tell the Rob Lowe character (like I said, I don't watch the show that often) that he's checkmated in ten...(gazing into the distance), no, twelve...
"No. Fifteen moves."
Cut to the Rob Lowe character, in shock at his chessboard, realizing that President Bartakower's awesome command of the game means he is doomed, doomed.
Is this great or what? He can solve the Oooga Booga crisis and play blindfold chess. Hell, I'd vote for the guy.
Problem is, as any serious chessplayer will tell you, the Hollywood image of an omniscient giant mind prowling over the board, calculating each and every move from start to finish is, uh, a Hollywood image.
As Max Euwe, the Danish grandmaster (and true polymath) quipped when asked how many moves he "looked ahead," said, "One, if I'm lucky."
It's true that chessplayers "look ahead," but only in certain situations, like exchanges or sacrifices or in the endgame, with limited pieces on the board.
What chessplayers do look at are patterns. At a glance they pick up on things like X-rayed Royalty or impacted Rooks.
My personal obsession is with Pawn structure. Give me a game against someone with doubled or isolated Pawns and I'll start to probe and poke and prod his defence, until I get slaughtered by a long-range Bishop attack I didn't quite anticipate. Ah, well.
Back to President Bartburne and the bald-headed bearded guy:
Bald-headed bearded guy makes first move.
President Bartablanca strokes chin and says something like:
"Aha! The Evans Gambit!"
Bald-headed bearded guy says:
"The Evans Gambit? There's no such thing!"
President Bartzowitsch replies:
"Yes, the Evans Gambit. It's a derivation of the Giuoco Piano opening, developed in the 19th century..."
I really wish I could have transcribed it better, but I was laughing so hard by this point I was in danger of losing precious bodily fluids.
Mr. Sorkin. I know the Evans Gambit. I've played the Evans Gambit. You apparently know squat about the Evans Gambit.
President Bart-bart-ba-BART-BART (sorry, that's my attempt at "Hail To
The Chief") was correct in general terms.
The Evans Gambit was introduced in 1824 by Captain William Evans and soon became a favorite of the slashing, attacking masters of the Romantic period. It fell out of favor when the suffocating tactics of Emanuel Lasker seemed to counter it, but lately it's had something of a renaissance among younger players, especially the Russians.
It is also indeed an offshoot from the ancient Giuoco Piano opening.
I've enjoyed dropping it on unsuspecting opponents and I've rattled some good players with it.
This, though, is what makes it funny:
1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bc4 Bc5 <-- This is the bare bones of the Giuoco Piano.
4. b4 <-- This is where the Evans Gambit starts.
And on it goes. If you're interested, I would recommend the latest edition of Modern Chess Openings, where it's discussed in exhaustive (and I do mean exhaustive) detail.
But I (and the editors of MCO) am humbled by the utter brilliance of President Bartulyubov, and his ability to discern the Evans Gambit upon the first move of the bald-headed, bearded guy.
The match ended, as all Hollywood chess matches seem to end, with tight closeups of the participants shouting:
With nary a glimpse of the board, which leads me to believe that between them they're playing with eight Queens, or possibly they're just pretending.
Guess who won the game. (Hint -- it wasn't the bald-headed, bearded guy.)
The West Wing. You just can't buy comedy this good.