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The magical chess experiment

4/29/2004 – Derren Brown is a "mind control" illusionist, whose chess ineptitude he himself describes with a rude word. Yet he was able to take on nine strong players, including two grandmasters, in a simultaneous exhibition on Britain's Channel 4, and actually win the match. This is how he did it.
 

Over here in Britain there is a rather peculiar chap by the name of Derren Brown, who is part of a new wave of entertainers which has suddenly made magic cool again.

Earlier this year Brown caused controversy after playing 'Russian Roulette' live on Channel 4, using his powers of suggestion and ability to read a person's behaviour to correctly predict which of six chambers a bullet was loaded in. This ultimately turned out to be rather farcical and it was imperative that, with his new series, 'Trick of the Mind', Brown regained the trust of a public who had grown rather tired of his antics.

It would be fair to say that, with the first episode, the illusionist did more the enough to prove his worth. Among other things, he forced a London cabbie to forget where the London Eye was and astounded TV comedian Stephen Fry (himself a big chess fan) with a card trick.

But the centrepiece was a simultaneous display with nine British chess experts – including four Grandmasters – in which Brown set out to achieve a positive score. Derren Brown described his own chess abilities as "shit" prior to the stunt, yet achieved a score of +4 -3 =2, with wins against two Grandmasters.

It was not the case, of course, that Brown is some hitherto undiscovered chess genius; in fact, he did not even use his psychological skills. He merely made use of a reasonable memory; by mentally pairing the players, he was able to mirror their moves and played them against each other. The ninth player, with the rather vague title of 'president of King's College chess club', was supposedly playing a normal game against Brown throughout, which the illusionist won; there are some question marks over this victory however, given that Brown was by his own admission not very good at chess...

This is not, of course, a new trick. Alekhine and his twice world championship challenger Bogoljubov were once challenged separately by a relative patzer to games of correspondence chess at money odds. In effect, of course, the anonymous opportunist was playing in neither game. The story goes that the two players, who were friends away from the board, met up one day and latched on to what was happening!

Similarly, in 1972, the magician Romark challenged Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky to a simul (which was declined); it can be seen that certainly, whilst it is not a unique trick, it is the first time the 'mirroring' technique has worked on such a large scale, against such consistently high-quality opposition as IM Paul Littlewood.

A final curiosity from the Brown simul is that before the games, he had handed an envelope to one of his competitors. After his performance, Brown scrawled a longish number on a whiteboard, and then asked the player to open the envelope; it turned out that, with the exception of the first digit, this number was made up from the number of pieces each of the masters had remaining at the end of each respective game. Quite how this was pulled off is unclear. But either way, it's the first time we've had chess of any sort on TV for a long long time...

Morgan Daniels

Addendum

Mark Howitt of Huddersfield, UK, writes: "After talking with Jon Levitt on the playchess.com server I have a few things to add to your news item. Jon was quite convinced the whole thing was a hoax; he believed that someone was even telling Derren the moves in the ninth game. Just to clarify the status of the ninth board, he's a player of 2200 strength. The title 'President of King's College Chess Club' refers to him being the figurehead of a University in London, which is one of the strongest in Britain.

There's also a reason, perhaps, for Mr Brown being able to predict the number of pieces remaining on the board at the end of the game. Apparently during a retake, there as a shout and a noise and the players view of Graham Lee, the holder of the envelope was blocked. There could have been a switch made at this time. However, there still remains the puzzle that Mr Lee was convinced that the envelope had remained in his pocket the whole time, and he is regarded as an honest man in England.

Any further research you could do on this article would be appreciated. Chess and psychology are two subjects that interestingly intertwine."

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