I really don’t think that people outside the chess world appreciated what a major event this was, definitely in U.S. chess history but arguably even in world chess history. Until 2016, the U.S. had never, ever won a chess Olympiad in which Russia or the Soviet Union participated. They were simply in a different category than the U.S. team. As the video points out, in 1980 the Soviet Union had Garry Kasparov, a future world champion, playing as an alternate! Also, there was no time in the 1970s or ’80s or ’90s when you could say that we were definitely the second best in the world. We could get a bronze sometimes if we played well and the stars aligned.
But the chess world has changed. It’s partly the opening of borders, so that the vast pool of talent within the former Eastern bloc was free to emigrate to other countries (including the U.S.), to play and more importantly to teach the next generation. I think also the computer has had a huge impact on the chess scene, because it opened up the flow of information. Every player can now have a GM-level trainer from an early age. Every player has access to vast quantities of information about openings, about their opponents, etc. There are no secrets any more in the chess world. That has worked to the benefit of the countries that can best capitalize on the Information Age.
So I really think that in the 2016 Olympiad we saw a New World Order. This U.S. team was not just a bunch of upstarts playing over their heads, like the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey team. This was a team of professionals, still seeded no. 2 behind Russia but only by a narrow margin, and they knew that if they kept their cool and played together as a team, they would be able to win. And in fact they won in dominating fashion, scoring 10-1 with nine wins and two draws. In any ordinary Olympiad they would have won by a large margin. But this wasn’t an ordinary Olympiad. Another team kept pace — Ukraine, which also scored 10-1, with ten wins and one loss. The U.S. won their match with Ukraine, but after that the Ukrainian team kept the pressure on the U.S. by winning round after round. In the end, the U.S. won on a tiebreak that was ridiculously close — it was decided by the result of a game on board 27 that finished long after the U.S. and Ukraine were done with their matches.
That’s all background — now for my comments on the video. Almost all of the video consists of interviews with the U.S. team members and coaches. There is some archival video from past Olympiads and some video from this Olympiad that is pretty cool. However, the relative lack of action makes the video less exciting and suspenseful than it could have been. I wish there had been more narration of the most dramatic moments. The only sequence that really takes you into the thick of the battle has to do with Sam Shankland’s amazing comeback victory in the match against India. It’s a good sequence, and it shows what the potential of this film could have been. Unfortunately, there was nothing about the other matches: the victory over Ukraine that turned out to be the decisive match of the tournament; the nail-biting win over Canada in the last round and the even more nail-biting wait to see how the tiebreaks would play out.
Also, considering this is a production of an organization that calls itself the World Chess Hall of Fame, it’s perhaps surprising that the point of view is so 100 percent American. There are no interviews with anyone outside America who could give a perspective from the rest of the world. Someone should have drawn attention to the fact that the U.S. was playing Canada on board one in the last round. Interview the Canadians! They had a fantastic tournament, too! If you want any proof of the change in distribution of chess power in the world, that’s it. Also, there is also essentially no mention of the Women’s Chess Olympiad; only Yasser Seirawan in his interview keeps referring to the U.S. “teams” (plural) and the “open” olympiad (to distinguish it from the women’s).
These are minor quibbles, though; the value of this film is immense for U.S. chess fans because we get to hear our heroes speak, and the camaraderie of this team comes through very clearly.
Last and definitely least, I want to review the first unsatisfactory chess movie that I’ve seen. This weekend I watched A Little Game on Netflix, a movie that came out in 2014 but somehow escaped my notice. We’ve been fortunate to have several good movies recently that focused on chess for young people: Brooklyn Castle, Queen of Katwe, Searching for Bobby Fischer (arguably the one that started it all). The great thing about all of these movies is that they were based on real events. That authenticity made them fun to watch for chess players and non-chess players alike.
I think we’ve gotten to the point now where you can actually start talking about a genre: the chess movie. Once you have a genre, you start to have clichés, copycats, movies that try to do the same thing but lack the grounding in reality. In short, you get a movie like “A Little Game.” Nothing here feels real. It seems as if the filmmakers are checking off the boxes. Plucky ten-year-old heroine: check. Mean girl adversary: check. Mysterious grizzled chess teacher: check. Washington Square Park: check.
The content of the “chess lessons” is particularly painful for actual players to watch. The girl is supposed to figure out how the pieces move for herself. After she does this, after a period of time that might be days or weeks, it’s as if that is all she needs to know. She immediately starts playing great chess, challenges the mean girl to a game and… well, I can’t say any more because spoilers, you know.
The other problem with this movie, besides lack of authenticity, is that every darn thing is a metaphor. The heroine points this out herself! “I hate metaphors,” she tells her guru/teacher, and she’s right. If we’re going to make a movie about chess, just let it be about chess, not chess-as-a-metaphor-for-life. It’s interesting that the filmmakers seemed to be aware of what was wrong with their movie and put it into the mouth of their lead character, perhaps to keep critics from saying the same thing. Sorry. It didn’t work.
“A Little Game” isn’t a terrible movie by any means, but it’s way below the other movies I mentioned. I do want to end with one thing that I really like about it — it has a female lead playing chess, and a female antagonist playing chess, and not for one moment anywhere in the movie does anyone make a comment like “girls shouldn’t play chess.” Thank god we have gotten past that!