Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Let's Try the Sicilian Defense"

"But perhaps love is stronger than chess?"

"When I see a beautiful woman, I too start to hate chess."

"Remember that chess is a danger to family life."

Surely there is nothing so tragic as watching a beautiful woman get dressed. And yet, who among us has not peered over a naked woman's gentle curves to get a better look at one's closest shelf of Russian history and literature books? It's a strange sensation to find one's two dearest passions, physical love, and literary obsession, so proximate to one another. But there it is, the ultimate reminder of the erotic essence of a love for all things Russian.

One is reminded of the early Soviet film, Vsevolod Pudovkin's Chess Fever. This 1925 silent film is the last word in obsession. The film opens with a neurotic protagonist frantically playing both sides of a chess game, forgetting in his madness that he has a date with his beloved. The musical score, created decades later, is manic but also ecstatic. Eventually, the film's hero realizes that he must leave his favorite game, but his checkered clothes--handkerchief, socks, cap--remind him, and the audience, that chess fever will pursue him.

The frenzied protagonist marches toward his romantic appointment but is delayed by a sign in a store which reads: "Halt, chess player." The man obeys the order, and soon finds himself immersed in a hotly contested chess game with the chess store's proprietor, who only comes to life when somebody sits down across from him at the chess board.

Eventually the chess player arrives at his fiancees house. The woman, upset by the delay, feigns anger but then decides to forgive her suitor. Sadly, the supplicant has forgotten the woman he was trying to soothe. Instead, he is studying a chess problem that has fallen from his pocket. Enraged, the heroine throws all of the man's chess problems out of the window. These problems, falling from the window, find their way to various men, who are delighted by them. The whole world, or at least the male portion of that world, are infected with the chess disease.

After stripping her lover of all chess problems, the woman throws him out of her flat. "I love only you. You love only chess," she says. It's all over between us." Distressed by his dismissal, the chess fanatic marches toward the river, ostensibly to commit suicide. He drops a checkered handkerchief into the icy river. The woman, for her part, seeks solace from her enemy, chess. Her father gives a giant book which, he says, has always been a great comfort to him. But alas, the book turned out to be an encyclopedia of ancient chess problems. She runs to another room, but sees that a caregiver is presiding over two children who are just being introduced to the insidious game: "Kolya has just made a Queen's Gambit. I can hardly believe it!"

In despair, the woman rushes to the pharmacy and demands poison. But chess is the order of the day even here, and the pharmacist, engrossed in the game, mistakenly hands her a chess piece instead of poison. When she notices, she screams, but just then the god of chess delivers her from her agony. A world famous chess champion takes her under his wing and shows her the magic of the game. The film closes when the woman and man find themselves at the same chess tournament. "Darling. I never knew chess was such a fascinating game. Let's try the Sicilian Defense."

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