The name is Spassky – Boris Spassky

9/2/2004 – "If chess is a vast jungle, computers are the chainsaws in a giant environmentally insensitive logging company," writes Nigel Short in his always entertaining Sunday Telegraph column. He goes on to plead for more romance in chess, and tells of a brilliant King's Gambit game by Boris Spassky which was used in a Bond movie...

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The following are excerpts from the Sunday Telegraph column by Nigel Short. The link at the bottom leads you to the full story (with an annotated game). Note that you have to register, free of charge, to read the columns. This entails giving an email address and a password for future logins.

Nigel Short the King's Gambit

Nigel Short, Telegraph chess columnist

Filed: 29/08/2004

If chess is a vast jungle – deep, relatively unexplored and slow to yield its myriad secrets – computers are the chainsaws in a giant environmentally insensitive logging company. If our beloved game is not to be reduced to a glorified noughts and crosses – an arid computational desert – then, like a beautiful and intelligent woman, it must retain an element of mystery.

If I sound uncharacteristically sentimental, it is probably because my wife and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary this week and thus, for once, my thoughts are jolted out of their quotidian rut onto matters of the emotions. A little romance does not come amiss in either chess or love, or so I try to remind myself from time to time.

In my opinion perhaps the most romantic of all openings is the King's Gambit (1. e4 e5 2. f4!). A few years ago I sat in a bar with Vladimir Kramnik discussing theory. At that time the future World Champion was contemplating a switch to King's Pawn openings and he wanted to bounce his preliminary ideas off me. He opined that the Evans' Gambit (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. b4!) was very logical: White sacrifices a fairly unimportant wing pawn to open lines and accelerate his development. This was not necessarily to say that it was Vlad's preferred method of starting the game, but at least he could understand the rationale behind it. In contrast, the King's Gambit, however, was for him totally incomprehensible: it loses a pawn and weakens the kingside, for all he could see.

Of course Vlad was absolutely right; my scientific deductive side had to agree – the King's Gambit has had a somewhat dodgy reputation ever since it was first mentioned in Lucena's manuscript of 1497. And yet my irrational mystical side revolted and still revolts against so cold and sober a judgement. There is something inspiring about voyaging into storm-tossed seas.

Over the years the most successful practitioner of the King's Gambit has been Boris Spassky. His record of 16 victories and no defeats (with some draws) is unsurpassed. His victims include two of the most illustrious names in chess history – Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov – and his famous brilliancy against Bronstein was used as the opening scene of the Bond movie From Russia with Love.

From Leningrad with Love

The movie Nigel mentions, From Russia with Love, was produced in 1963. One of the villains is Kronsteen, played by Vladek Sheybal, master plotter for the terror organisation SPECTRE. Kronsteen is also a world-class chess player who, when asked if his plan would be successful, replies: "It will be. I've anticipated every possible variation of countermove." And Bond's colleague, the Turkish operative Kerim Bey, says of him: "These Russians are great chess players. When they wish to execute a plot, they execute it brilliantly. The game is planned minutely, the gambits of the enemy are provided for."

In the famous chess scene at the beginning of the movie we see Kronsteen playing the Canadian McAdams in an "International Grandmaster Championship". The score is 11½–11½. The position on the board is the following:

Kronsteen – McAdams, From Russia with Love, 1963

Here Kronsteen gives his opponent a long glare and then plays 1.Nxe5+ (as you can see in the picture above). He ominously says "check" while the move is displayed for the audience on a large demonstration board. McAdams nervously plays 1...Kh7, after which Kronsteen smiles and plays 2.Qe4+.

McAdams is horrified and knocks over his king as a sign of resignation, muttering "Congratulations sir, that was a brilliant coup." The audience bursts into applause as Kronsteen leaves the room to get on with his evil plottings.

The reason McAdams resigned is clear: after 2...Kh8 3.Rxf8+ Qxf8 (or 3...Rxf8) White wins prettily with 4.Ng6+ Kh7 5.Nxf8+ Kh8 6.Qh7 mate. 2...g6 is not much better, since 3.Rf7+ wins the queen.

The position used in From Russia with Love is very realistic, the combination quite beautiful, except for the fact that McAdams could have probably drawn with 1...Ne6 (instead of 1...Kh7??). So where did this position come from?

Nigel is right, it was from a game Boris Spassky had played three years earlier, against David Bronstein in Leningrad ("Bronstein", "Kronsteen" – get it?). It is the famous King's Gambit brilliancy. There is however a slight difference to the Bond game.

Spassky,B - Bronstein,D [C36], URS-ch27 Leningrad, 1960
1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 d5 4.exd5 Bd6 5.Nc3 Ne7 6.d4 0-0 7.Bd3 Nd7 8.0-0 h6 9.Ne4 Nxd5 10.c4 Ne3 11.Bxe3 fxe3 12.c5 Be7 13.Bc2 Re8 14.Qd3 e2 15.Nd6 Nf8 16.Nxf7 exf1Q+ 17.Rxf1 Bf5 18.Qxf5 Qd7 19.Qf4 Bf6 20.N3e5 Qe7 21.Bb3 Bxe5.

This position is identical to the one in the Bond movie, except that White has two pawns in the center. Spassky, like Kronsteen, did indeed play 22.Nxe5+, and Bronstein did reply 22...Kh7, only to resign after 23.Qe4+, for the same reasons given above. But unlike McAdams Bronstein did not blunder with 22...Kh7. The reason is that after 22...Ne6, the refutation of the Kronsteen combination, White can play 23.Ng6 (or 23.Qe4 and then Ng6) and win the black Ne6, e.g. 23...Qg5 24.Qe4 followed by Bxe6+.


A number of readers have drawn our attention to the fact that very similar findings on Kronsteen-McAdams were published by our mentor Tim Krabbé on his excellent Chess Curiosities web site (article #250). Normally we read Tim's articles meticulously, but this time we didn't and instead wasted some hours googling our facts from film synopsis sites, articles and bulletin boards. The Krabbé article has a more vivid description of the key chess scene and is worth a visit (Dutch speakers go here).

Also definitely worth a visit is the page Oscars for Chess on the Big Screen, where similar conclusions are reached. In addition NM Todd Bardwick has done research on a number of other films, including Jeff Goldblum playing Judd Hirsch in Independence Day; the wizard’s chess scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (where the game was composed by Jeremy Silman); the game between Josh Waitzkin and Jeff Sarwer in Searching for Bobby Fischer; and of course the most famous one of all, the game between Frank and computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (“I’m sorry Frank, I think you missed it. 15…Q-B3 16.BxQ NxB mate”). A list of 246 films that include chess scenes is included here.

Extensive notes on the Bond film are available at the Bond Film Informant (Serach for "From Russia with Love"). And an article entitled James Bond and Chess gives the following fascinating information, which we should have included:

The position on a wallboard in the movie is based on an intruiging King's Gambit won by Boris Spassky against David Bronstein at the USSR Championship in 1960. Here it takes place at the Venice International Tournament where Kronsteen ignores a courier's sealed message ordering him to stop play on the spot. He knows he risks his life if he fails to obey, but how many players can abandon a sure win? At his own peril Kronsteen waits three more minutes to accept his opponent's resignation; but later he must explain to his superior why he did not obey at once. In the book his excuse is accepted reluctanctly:

"To the public, Comrade General, I am a professional chess player. If, with only three minutes to go, I had received a message that my wife was being murdered outside the door of the tournament hall, I would not have raised a finger to save her. My public know that. They are dedicated to the game as myself. Tonight, if I had resigned the game and had come immediately upon receipt of that message, 5000 people would have known that it could only be on the orders of such a department as this. There would have been a storm of gossip. My future comings and goings would have been watched for clues. It would have been the end of my cover. In the interests of State Security, I waited three minutes before obeying the order. Even so, my hurried departure will be the subject of much comment."

Finally, for those of you who can't get enough of the subject, there's a deep analysis, in German, of James Bond's psychological relationship to chess in this Meta-Chess site.

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