CHESS MOVIE OF THE MONTH
By Bob Basalla
Author of Chess in the Movies
(Each issue a movie not included in Bob Basalla’s 2005 book is chronicled for chess history in these pages—just for you!)
The spy movie/chess union made yet another connection in the form of the popular 2007 film CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, directed by Mike Nichols.
In the early 1980’s gonzo congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) desperately wishes to funnel arms to the Afghani insurgents fighting the Soviets. Never mind protocol or the ways of orderly bureaucracies. Iconoclast Charlie wants it done and he wants it done now. Enlisting an equally iconoclastic CIA operative, Gust Avrakatos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Charlie goes off to find the appropriate arms expert for his purposes. Gust takes Charlie to an outdoor venue where a young man is holding court playing a simultaneous chess exhibition against four opponents (listed as Joe Sikora, Gabriel Tigerman, Patrick Bentley and Marc Pelina). An overhead shot of the proceedings indicates that the exhibitor is doing very well.
“See the nerdy looking kid in the white shirt playing against the four guys at once?” Gust points. “Which one of the guys do you think is a strategic weapons expert for the CIA?” Of course it turns out that the nerdy looking kid in the white shirt giving the simul is their man. The name of this 29 year old wunderkind is Mike Vickers (Christopher Denham).
Gust calls Mike over to meet Charlie, and Mike complies, a bit reluctantly and not before making an announced “key play” on one of the boards. Another opponent soon calls out his next move to which Mike replies over his shoulder, “Bishop to queen’s knight seven.”
“See, playing without even looking at the board,” observes Gust, drawing the obvious cinematic parallel between chess acuity and great intelligence overall.
Charlie is still skeptical though. “That’s a useful skill,” he drawls, “if ever Afghanistan’s invaded by Boris Spassky.”
Gust and Mike win him over soon enough. In the meanwhile another player calls over his next turn. “Uh, knight to queen’s bishop five.” (This move appears to have had already been played before, making his call an error in movie continuity. I point things like this out because whole rafts of film buffs search for such trivial stuff.)
Mike’s reply is immediate. “All right. Queen to king’s rook three.” Then glancing up he warns another opponent, “Guy on the right. You don’t want to trade queens with me.”
So the Afghans win, the Soviet Union collapses soon after and everything is right with the world, except…
The film ends with an actual chess related quote from the real Charlie Wilson: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And then we ****ed up the end game.”
CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR was based on the book of the same name written by George Crile. As I often do with such cases I took a look to see if such a chess moment actually occurred in Mr. Crile’s historical account. It does not. So here we have another case of screenplay fictionalization to make the story, in this case the first meeting with Mike Vickers, more dramatic. However interesting the truth, movie people often think they can “improve” on reality. Take that into account when viewing film stories based on (the key words here) actual events.