by Sam Juliano
For a very long time chess was a niche interest in the west, a competitive sub genre in the sports world, distinguished of course by its unparalleled level of intellectual acumen. The first world champion was the Austrian-turned-American William Steinitz, who even now has openings named after him. It is generally speculated that the game originated in India, though most of the champions of the last sixty or so years have hailed from Russia. The west, and the United States in particular though, did not embrace the game with the kind of euphoria afforded other sports until 1972 when the famously eccentric Brooklynite Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in a then Cold war confrontation that is now regarded as the “match of the century,” and the series of games that is most often studied by aspiring masters and aficionados of the game worldwide. Each game was studied during live television broadcasts in the states by a man who later became known as the “Julian Child” of chess – Shelby Lyman. Because of Fischer, chess became all the rage in the US, with clubs taking root in high schools and colleges, and chess volumes flying off the shelves of bookstores, many collection of prior tournament games and studies of openings. As a a lifetime chess player, I fondly remember my term as Vice President of my University club back in the mid 70’s, and have maintained my interest. Yet I can only marvel at the level of brilliance reached by this master intellect and the complexities that can only boggle the mind. Some degree of interest waned after Fischer refused to defend his title federation rules, and went into seclusion, later taking up residence in Reykjavik, Iceland, the site of his match with Spassky.
The emergence of Magnus Carlsen, a remarkable Norwegian chess prodigy dubbed “the Mozart of Chess” has brought the game renewed attention worldwide, and for new generations the impetus to study the game anew. In a taut and altogether riveting 76 minute documentary Magnus by Benjamin Ree, the current world champion is featured through videotapes of his competitions and some intimate home movies provided by his amazingly cooperative father Henrik, who provides the proof that his son was reared in ordinary and affectionate terms that don’t give a clue as to the boy’s coming mastery of this game of tactical intricacies, but concisely illustrate that this level of staggering talent can appear out of the blue. Carlsen from a young boy was a fair haired boy, bullied by some in school, but treated to a close family life with doting parents and a sister. He had a hankering for various games, finally taking up chess where he achieved instantaneous successes, including a spectacular blindfold en masse victory over some renowned chess masters in a display of multi-board memory that leaves one practically in disbelief. Ree admits that the concentration in chess and various traveling obligations compromises his scholastic performance, but it would be hard to challenge the astonishing level of aptitude he continued to demonstrate in chess from an early age, one where he even managed a draw against the great Gary Kasperov in the boy’s proudest moment.
Ree smartly concentrates on the big match for the World Championship staged at the Hyatt Regency in Chennai, India the hometown of the reigning champion Viswanathan “Vishy” Anand in 2013 set up when Carlsen “backed in” after a huge upset loss by the Russian Vladimir Kramnik to Ukrainian Vassily Ivanchuk. The tense lead up is skillfully assembled by the director, who is aided by the available live footage and behind the scenes captures of Carlsen and family members, and the arrival of the challenger at the airport. Carlsen is subsequently shown entering the chess room barely seconds before imminent forfeit for the match’s third game, eventually won by the upstart 6 1/2 to 2 1/2. Carlsen’s awkward facial expressions and seeming social dysfunction even extended to his inability to properly address the Norwegian Prime Ministers’s call, congratulating him on his great victory, one celebrated throughout the Scandinavian nation. One might even envision the white knight playing chess with Mr. Death along the seashore in Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, though Carlsen himself bears a modest physical resemblance to Matt Damon. At age 22 Carlsen became the youngest chess champion of all-time, and since then he has defended his title again in 2014 beating Anand in an encore staged in Russia.
The irony for western chess lovers, though a most welcome one no doubt, is that the 2016 defense will actually be hosted by New York City in November (11-30), a venue that might persuade older veterans of the Shelby Lyman to either find the means to attend the match or follow it closely. It can be persuasively argued that very little of chess theory is broached in Magnus, nor are the games themselves are given more analysis, yet Ree has succeeded admirably in humanizing his most intricate subject with an appealing underdog veracity that will pull in even the most casual chess devotees. Ree balks at including interviews with Anand or other masters, but that was never really his focus. The film is about an amazing young man and how he can to be where he is at the top of the chess world. Magnus is a stirring and noble documentary and a major highlight at Tribeca.
‘Magnus,’ a Tribeca Sports Film Exclusive, played as part of the ‘Spotlight Series’ at the Tribeca Film Festival at the Regal Cinemas four times on April 14, 17, 19 and 23.