On Tuesday, December 6, 2005, the latest chess movie, Knights of the South Bronx, starring Ted Danson (of Cheers and Becker), premiered on the A&E network.
The movie is based on the true story of David MacEnulty (played by Danson), an English teacher, who improves the lives of several poor children in the South Bronx by teaching them how to play chess. Through chess, he teaches them a skill set that helps them with life’s challenges and their chess success changes their outlook on life in a positive way. A nice touch was giving MacEnulty a cameo appearance at the end of the movie as the announcer at the chess tournament awards ceremony.
Danson portrays MacEnulty as Richard Mason, who is fired from his high-paying corporate job, and becomes a substitute teacher and mentor for a group of fourth grade students.
The movie shows the kids in a realistic light from a chess perspective and how they handle themselves when they win and lose. Despite a few swear words that were inappropriate and unnecessary for a children’s movie, I thought Knights of the South Bronx was entertaining and accurately portrayed the benefits of chess for kids.
In the credits they do a nice job of giving chess quotes from the real-life kids, whose lives have been changed by chess.
Dawson, the young kindergartener, was my favorite kid. When asked why he thinks he won his first tournament game (all the other kids lost theirs because they were intimidated by various elements in the wealthier surroundings), he says that he pretended that his pieces where ninja warriors and nothing can stop them. (The ninjas appear on the chessboard in his mind during his final game). Mason tells the other kids that they need to find their ninja. Of course, many kids think in this sort of way about the powers of their mighty warrior pieces. Actually, some adults do too. I had to laugh at a flashback of my own that happened about ten years or so ago when Bill Engles was running the G/30 tournaments out of the Wendy’s, downtown on the 16th Street Mall. I had my own ninja…Frosty the Snowman! I couldn’t get the theme song of Frosty out of my head and, amazingly, gained great confidence as I sang it to myself during my games.
Most of the chess scenes were reasonably accurate, but they did make some serious chess blunders that a novice tournament player can easily identify.
Hollywood has a long history of messing up chess movie scenes by making major chess errors. (see my column entitled, “Oscars for Chess on the Big Screen” in the April 2004 Colorado Chess Informant or online at https://www.coloradomasterchess.com/Informant/Chess%20Oscars.htm)
Mason’s simultaneous exhibition in the park is where the chess errors begin. They added this scene to make the movie more interesting, but it probably didn’t happen in real life. I looked up MacEnulty’s rating on the USCF website and he has a provisional rating of only 1654. I suspect that large crowds in New York City don’t show up to watch a Class B player give a simul!
Fourteen adults show up to play in the simul, during which, Mason pretty much checkmates or announces mate in two to all of his opponents on the same pass. Of course, although this is unrealistic, for the sake of a movie, I understand that they have to keep the movie moving along. At the end of the scene after he defeats everyone, the announcer says, that Mason beat 14 players in 18 minutes. Considering the timeline: he must physically move to the next board, often wait for the opponent to move when he arrives, think for a second or two, and remember that some players will pass…even Kasparov couldn’t do a simul this fast on a good day!!
During the simul, they focus in on one of the games with this position, with Mason playing white and to move…
White is pretty much winning with any move; the most obvious of which is dxc6+. The camera angle is from white’s perspective.
Mason is thinking (way too long to keep pace with the final time of the event mentioned above). Then the camera angle changes as the board is seen from black’s perspective, and, poof…the black knight on f6 has vanished! Mason plays Ng5 and says, “I think that is mate in two.”
As the camera angle moves back to white’s side, and the mysterious f6 knight reappears! Mason’s opponent tips over his king. With or without the knight, it isn’t mate in two as black can postpone mate longer than two moves.
I guess MacEnulty wasn’t even consulted on the chess position here, as he would have surely objected and given them a position that works (there is not shortage of realistic looking mate-in-two problems floating around).
Another chess mistake came in the classroom when Mason was teaching the children about checkmates. He describes a three-move repetition, but calls it a stalemate.
The major chess errors don’t stop here. Fast-forward to the final scene at Nationals.
First to Jimmy’s final game. We see him playing white at the start of the game from across the board. Notice that the white king was to the left of his queen. But the white queen is actually properly placed on a white square. Of course, this means that whoever set up the board incorrectly rotated it 90 degrees.
The last chess error is a classic movie/television chess mistake and shows up in Dawson’s final game, right after the ninjas come out of the shadow of the pieces.
Dawson’s opponent keeps checking him back and forth with his queen from the h-file. Dawson keeps escaping check. On the last move of the game, Dawson retreats a rook to block the check and announces checkmate! Now it is physically possible (though not likely) to block a check and give discovered checkmate at the same time. In the position though, a pawn is one square diagonally in front of the interposing rook, as seen from the queen’s perspective.
Especially considering that this is a chess movie, these technical chess errors are inexcusable. For a small fraction of Danson’s pay, couldn’t they hire MacEnulty or some other chess player to edit the chess scenes?