Chess is a 1984-to-pretty-much-still-going-on-now musical made in part by the brains behind the band ABBA and Tim Rice. It is institutional in the world of musicals, one of those theatre productions that give a lot of people ‘favourite’ songs to do. It includes a well-known pop song, One Night in Bangkok, and the enormously popular look-I-can-belt song Nobody’s Side. It follows the narrative of basically three people across a set of chess games done for the sake of International Relations during the Reagan era of anticommunist nonsense.
The predominant characters are Freddie Trumper, a Bobbie-Fischer-esque American turbo asshole, and boy that name was just, man, we just were not fucking subtle about how bad an asshole that name signals, and Anatoly Sergievsky, a Russian chess grandmaster who pretty quickly shows himself as being The Good Protagonist. The third character in this mix is Florence Vassy, Freddie’s manager and subsequently, Anatoly’s love interest. It’s set in the early eighties, with an upcoming chess game between two grandmasters to show that America and Russia can totally get along well enough to play a board game.
The plot, which I am simplifying, runs that Freddie and Florence go to Italy, to compete against Anatoly. Freddie and Anatoly play, but Freddie is also a dick about things, and blows up the games to negotiate for more money and better coverage. Freddie insists this is absolutely not because he’s a petty, conniving wenus, and is in fact brilliant strategy to show how clever he is, which he then disproves by losing the match against Anatoly. Anatoly has spent the intervening time falling in love with Florence, and defects to the West.
This serves as an enormous black eye for the Russians, and in the next championship, they bring an even better super-Soviet chess player, an Ivan Drago, but with, like, Castling Maneuvers, to defeat Anatoly, who now is the best player in the world and playing for their rivals. A conspiracy including Freddie and Florence and Anatoly’s wife, oh did I mention he had a wife? Embarrassing, but anyway, that conspiracy unfolds around him that’s designed to force him to lose the game, and if he does it’ll make everything better for everyone. There are good moral and ethical and practical reasons to lose the game, and he’ll also get goodies if he does.
He chooses to win, instead, and in the process, everything he had falls apart and he goes back to the Soviet Union and leaves everyone in the rubble going ‘wow, that was a deep and significant comment on how gamers are arseholes.’
It’s great, and it’s enduring and it’s fun to listen to, and it’s very Theatrical and Literary, in that it has one of those endings where you can just imagine much better ways the story could have chosen to go, but no, instead, it chose to end the way it did to be a Point about Something.
It’s a good stage play, and if you’re interested, you can probably just go play it on Youtube on any one of a dozen weird bootlegging channels. There’s an album you can listen to on Spotify and I believe it’s even available as a movie on some streaming services. This is an institutional musical, some thirty five years plus in its life. It is perhaps no small point of irony that Chess, the musical, feels too big and well known to talk about because the game it references and so rarely uses, is the shortcut go-to metaphor game. And yes, when I talk about what games are for in media, you can expect I’ll mention Gaming the Stage, and oh hey, here we are, and there I go.
Does Chess use chess well?
… Kinda no?
Because this game isn’t about chess. And look, I think it’s possible that it would be impossible for musical theatre, the way this story goes, to use chess ‘well.’ Chess as a game is too laden with metaphor. It is the cliche of cliches. Chess is so fundamental to our media and the way we tell stories that entire narratives are broken down to fitting its move-countermove narrative, the pieces themselves serve as iconic components of other metaphors. I mean, we refer to people as ‘pawns,’ and we don’t do it because we get them from pawn stores.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because Chess isn’t about chess. Chess is so much not about chess there is a character who has made it clear that he absolutely cares about chess to the exclusion of anything else, and his main job is not getting involved in the plot. Characters do not talk about chess, they do not talk about strategies, they do not show the board, they do not even explain the little chess lingo they use. Chess has an extravagent song about selling and promoting Chess by people who do not understand chess at all. When Chess is mentioned to people outside of the tournament, their entire reaction is mild disinterest at best.
Chess is a story swelled around this tight, gut-clenched core of a game that is the most important thing ever and it couldn’t matter less. Chess, the game, is meaningless to Chess, the story, because there is too much built around this game of chess to ever spare time looking at chess. And why did they choose chess to make this centerpiece of diplomatic hell?
Well, because chess is just a game.
One thing that’s funny to me about Chess is how Anatoly is clearly a leading man, but he and Freddie are both such intolerable gamer shitheads it’s impossible for me to appreciate them. There’s even a whole song Anatoly sings about how tormented he is by the idea of having to do the right thing for the sake of other people, like Ayn Rand literally penning a narrative of Gamers Rise Up. This song is even impressive and sounds good, which means that you have Leading Man Material singers throwing their voices to the rafters even as they basically spout out but meeeeeeeeeeeee
Ultimately, though, Chess metaphorises what was seen as a clash of civilisations as one indecisive dude convinced that the only thing that really mattered in the world was him, really. And really, when you consider the two forces it wanted to compare, the Soviet Union and Reagan’s America, maybe it was right to say ‘these are both basically the same monster dithering over how it wants to win or lose today.’ It’s not a question of Anatoly being beaten, it really is a whole narrative about Anatoly inevitably winning, and then trying to convince him to Not Win.
So what, though, if I don’t like Anatoly! I have trash taste, after all. Because my favourite character in this musical is a character who’s even worse than him. And worse than Freddie, and worse than – well, worse than almost everyone. His only possible peer in awfulness is Molokov, the KGB attache sent to try and keep a leash on Anatoly, and then to topple him. My favourite character in Chess is the American counterpart to Molokov: Walter De Courcey, a CIA Agent who’s using the chess game as a way to leverage US interests.
Let me be clear: Walter is a 1984 CIA agent spook. That dude, if we knew more about him, is probably the worst human in any room he enters. Even with what we know, we know that Walter suuuuucks.
And Walter is part of my favourite song in the musical, which isn’t included in most versions.
This is No Contest. In the original and most versions of the play, as stated above, Freddie loses to Anatoly in the first round before his defection. In some American productions, they add this song, a villain song for Walter and Freddie, where they basically sit down and explain how being obsessive, heartless, amoral exploitative monsters makes them capable of winning this game. There’s no need for external motivations, there’s just the game itself, and Freddie is going to win this game, because it’s all he cares about doing.
This song is not, according to the people who made it, canon. That’s fine, I don’t want it to be. See, this song was added to make sure the musical wasn’t about Anatoly, who always wins when he wants to, crushing Freddie, then showing that Freddie wasn’t important. In this case, Freddie beats Anatoly in their match, before Anatoly defects, and that can put his defection in a different light.
But it’s not just that it’s a good villain song about what a complete shitweasel Freddie is, no no. I love No Contest, because it is the song about Walter.
No Contest is a change made to a piece of European cold war media that presents both sides of the conflict as bad, made for America, featuring the most American thing ever -a CIA agent changing a narrative to be about an exceptional individual toppling someone who might make them look bad.
Man, this musical is great, and I once again recommend you check it out. I owe my sister a great debt for bringing it into my life, and telling me all these nuances. It’s beautiful and it’s heartrending and it’s a great story made out of great bits. And even Freddie gets his moments, like when he plugs a reporter for being even more misogynistic than him.
Oh and for Corey’s notes, Viigand is definitely on the spectrum and the story does him extremely dirty.