Writing Chess in Fiction

Writing Chess in Fiction

Hikaru Junction

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Writing Chess in Fiction

Hello, and welcome to the only chess blog on the internet that’s written in the school library.

Still working on some other stuff, and since it’s post-Labor Day here in the States, it’s been a little busy. As I think I’ve mentioned on here, I’m an amateur writer, and this week I thought I’d put up a[n edited] post I originally wrote elsewhere on writing fictional scenes with chess in them.


Often, when chess is written into a story, it’s because there’s a need for one of the following:
1. The reader needs to know that the main character’s a genius/prodigy.
2. The main character needs to match wits with the antagonist.

And that’s great! Chess can be really useful for showing some of these things, and it can be a great vehicle for tension. However, there are some common misconceptions that can be cleared up. Let’s start out with some bad examples, and then work our way towards how to write a great chess scene.

A lot of problems occur in our first scenario (showing the intelligence of the main character) because it’s overstated or exaggerated. This even happens in published books! For example, the bestselling second book in the Artemis Fowl series made the following gaffe concerning Artemis Fowl’s impersonation of a Grandmaster “Stefan Bashkir”:

“Once a checkpoint official, himself a chess grandmaster, had doubted their story, until Artemis beat him in six moves.”

There are two problems with this description. The first, and more minor one, is that the list of chess Grandmasters is publicly available, and the checkpoint official would know this. Either he believes Artemis is the real (in-universe) Grandmaster Bashkir (which is very unlikely but, I suppose, possible) or he doesn’t, and the disguise doesn’t work. Point is, there’s no reason why his chess skill would be tested rather than his identity.

Secondly, the much bigger problem is that it’s essentially impossible to beat a chess Grandmaster in six moves. By this I mean that it is technically possible, but that there is no scenario in which it would ever happen barring any ridiculous outside circumstance not described here. It doesn’t matter how good Artemis is (and there’s no reason why he can’t win this game, if he actually is extremely good at chess,) six moves is not going to happen.

There’s no reason to break suspension of disbelief like this for anyone who has any idea about how chess works– it’s unnecessary. If Artemis just “beat him,” “beat him in twenty moves,” or “beat him in twenty minutes,” it becomes much more plausible despite the strangeness of the general situation.

How does this apply to chess showing a character’s intelligence more generally? First of all, there are some basic parameters. Any game of chess between evenly matched players of skill good-to-incredible is generally going to be around forty moves. Twenty moves is very short. Sixty is on the longer end, but still well within reason. Eighty is very long, but possible. Your protagonist should not be beating a good chess player in six moves unless their opponent is drunk to high heaven. It’s just impossible to be so much better than your opponent that they’re defeated so easily.

Secondly, there’s a lot of work that goes into being a Grandmaster-level chess player. If your character is, they study a huge amount. They know their openings, they know their endgames, they know their tactics and positional strategies. It’s not enough to just be smart– if your character is smart and lazy, they’re probably not that good.

Let’s take a look, then, at our second scenario– how can we write a scene where our characters face off in a climactic chess battle? Well, there’s one major factor that determines how you can write the scene, and it’s the formality of the situation. Take this scene at the climax of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer (adapted from the book of the same name; I’ll only be talking about the movie.)

In it, Joshua Waitzkin is playing against his rival Jonathan Poe in perhaps the most formal situation possible: a monumental match in the U.S. Junior Championship. In-universe, some of what I’d characterize as mistakes are somewhat justified since they’re kids, and wouldn’t place a huge importance on the rules, even though other characters might. However, they are present.

1. You are required to write down your moves in tournament play, and especially a game of this importance. Neither player does.

2. Both Waitzkin and his opponent slam the pieces and the clock, especially in the opening and endgame. Not technically illegal unless there’s a complaint, but generally frowned upon.

3. Both players blitz out their moves, disregarding any strategy of time management.

4. You don’t have to say “check,” and it’s frowned upon at most higher levels, but here it’s fine as it’s common for kids to do so.

5. In the “Waitzkin winning back the queen” sequence, the timing is a little weird, but it’s understandable. Pandolfini likely sees the trick but is unhappy with Waitzkin’s play rather than the end result. Vinnie probably says “There it is!” too late: it should be on the fork, not the capture, but it’s fine.

6. Probably the biggest problem is that you can’t talk to your opponent– both do throughout the game– unless you’re offering them a draw, which Waitzkin does silently.

7. The silent draw offer isn’t illegal, but it is a little weird for a kid to do.

8. Jonathan should see he’s losing as soon as the pawns start to move in the final sequence, but it’s excusable.

9. If Waitzkin really wanted a draw, he could promote to a bishop instead, but that’s more of a nitpick than anything real– at this point, he wants to win the game.

10. Resigning is generally either a handshake or stopping the clock, but again, kids tip over the king, so it’s reasonable.

These are the main details that people get wrong in a depiction of tournament chess. The people involved with this movie know chess and made the trade-off, but I thought I’d be thorough.

In general, how do you write this accurately? Tournament chess is pretty darn civilized, so it's difficult, but in general: a game takes a couple hours, and there’s really very little opportunity for interaction without breaking rules. If you can make the actual chess make sense, all the better: here’s what they did to adapt this scene


and here’s what they did for Harry Potter (though it was essentially edited out of the movie.)

If it’s informal, you have a lot more leeway: you can dispense with needing to have the solution actually be chess-based– it can be outside the game, such as in the Doctor Who story Nightmare in Silver. More importantly, you don’t need structure. You can get rid of a clock, writing down moves, etc. Despite this, though, it still needs to make sense as a chess game, within move limitations, or it doesn’t hold water, instead undermining the idea that your characters know what they’re doing. A writer has the potential to make a character infinitely competent by just doing the necessary research. Do the research.


Not really chess-y, but I think it’s interesting/connected enough to put here. If it’s not, let me know in the
Discussion Thread: Thread 178326

Next week, I think it’ll be a return to something with some more dense chess. Maybe prompted by this thread. Thread 178298

Orion L.E.

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