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Archive for Monday, May 7, 2001

Chess films no pawn in Hollywood

Audiences cheer checkmates as knights, rooks take to big screen

May 7, 2001

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— The boys of summer are finally slugging, catching and pitching again. The hoopsters and hockey players are gunning for their championships.

But as the jocks take center stage on the small screen, it's a very different kind of sport chess that's about to get a jolt from Hollywood.

"The Luzhin Defence," puts chess front and center in a major motion picture for the first time since "Searching for Bobby Fisher" sparked a renewed interest in kings, queens and pawns.

"Chess has this reputation, when it comes to film, which it doesn't deserve," says Marleen Gorris, the movie's director. "It works just as well as any other sport in a film."

The movie comes at an opportune time. Sometimes considered the domain of college brainiacs and the high school pocket-protector crowd, chess seems to be enjoying a more widespread revival of late.

The United States Chess Federation, a not-for-profit membership organization, reached an all-time high of 90,367 members in March an increase of more than 1,500 from last year.

Much of that is due to a rise in interest from young people, like the more than 4,000 elementary, junior high and high school students from 46 states who competed in last weekend's Super-Nationals II in Kansas City.

"It seems to be a challenge that young people are taking on," says Steven Schwartz, general manager of the New York-based Your Move Chess & Games, which bills itself as the nation's largest chess store.

The chess federation also counts celebrities among its ranks, including Nicolas Cage, Ringo Starr, Chevy Chase, Rosie O'Donnell and Will Smith. Even jocks are playing chess members of the New York Yankees and Mets have showed their interest, as have New York Knicks Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston and Kurt Thomas.

Chess has enjoyed a previous relationship with the big screen, from the sight of Death crouching over the board in Ingmar Bergman's "Seventh Seal" to Samuel L. Jackson hustling for dollars in the park in "Fresh."

Now comes "The Luzhin Defence," a film adapted from Vladimir Nabokov's 1930 novel that follows the exploits of Alexander Luzhin, a shabby chess genius who attends an Italian tournament in 1929.

The term eccentric would be an understatement to describe Luzhin, played by John Turturro. He's absent-minded, unreliable and utterly without social graces. He makes Rain Man look like David Niven.

Even so, he manages to demolish his much more suave competitors, earn the respect of his peers and even get the girl, played by Emily Watson. "It's an excellent chess film except the ending is a little too Hollywood," says Tom Brownscombe, director of scholarship programs for the chess federation.

"There are a few chess grandmasters who are that devoted and who are almost that lacking in other-world skills, but that's actually a very rare situation. Most chess masters are well-rounded, normal people. If you saw them on the street, you wouldn't know that they were chess masters."

Like most chess fans, Brownscombe points to 1993's "Searching for Bobby Fischer" as the gold standard. Starring Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley and Laurence Fishburne, the movie examined the development of a 7-year-old chess prodigy and the competitiveness of cheerleading parents.

And chess could only get another boost with another film.

"As more attention is drawn to anything, it becomes more popular," says Joan DuBois, who handles media relations for the chess federation. "Especially something that has virtue in the first place."

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