Fringe chess Theater
Jennifer's Blog
By Jennifer Shahade   
August 21, 2006
Last night (Sunday), I went to the 10 pm showing of  The French Defenseat the New York City Fringe Festival. I was intrigued by the concept of a play geared toward the lay American on the first game of the 1960 Botvinnik-Tal match.How was Dimitri Raitzin going to make this accessible to a mainstream audience?


Daniel Hendricks Simon playing Mikhail Tal and Robert J. D' Amato, playing Mikhail Botvinnik.

The answer is great acting, a wonderful musical score to accompany the chess moves, and a lot of explanatory dialogue. It was also delightfully and unpretentiously short. On the other hand, at 45 minutes and 15$, it's a pricey play, per-minute.

Raitzin took some understandable liberties in his goal to showcase the inner thoughts of World champions: "The idea for the French Defense came while watching two grungy dudes play chess in the south-west corner of Washington Square Park...How great would it be if instead of the two grungy dudes, the two best chess players in the world, playing for the highest of stakes, were free to talk to each other, to vocalize their inner feelings as if no on else were watching?"

Essentially, Tal and Botvinnik are chattering throughout the play. Raitzin for the most part, used this creative device to explain the histories of both players and invent trash-talk. The fear and excitement that must have enveloped both players during this very dramatic first round game wasn't really gleamed from this fast-paced performance. One nice exception is when Botvinnik plays a novelty (Bd7!) and Tal jumps out of his chair in fear and surprise.

There is some great writing, especially in, Botvinnik, played with vigor by Robert J. D' Amato. According to "IronMike", as he is nicknamed in the script, the player with the "colder blood and the bigger balls" wins in chess, not the player with the higher intellect. He envies Tal's ability to play with such abandon, describing his own approach as playing to stay alive, just as he lived through Stalin's rule to stay alive. Botvinnik monologues include one on Capablanca's energy psychologically rattling opponents ("The game was already lost before you made your first move, because he was Jose Raul Capablanca"), and another on anti-semitism under Stalin.

Tal, played by Daniel Hendricks Simon is not written as well. The real Tal is known as the coolest and all around "best guy" of the world champions. However, he's cast as an immature, uneducated, talented brat. He bangs the clock, claims that champions such as Capablanca and Steinitz could be defeated by "second-rate club hackers from Odessa", and is surprised that Botvinnik has studied his games. The playwright does achieve something by creating this contrast, and it's all imaginary dialog, but it does seem somewhat unfair to Tal's legacy.

As for chess accuracy, the actors move the pieces smoothly, and the script includes technically correct chess analysis. There was a blooper at the end, in which the actors made the wrong moves, starting with Tal's 30. Rxc4?! instead of Bxc4! "Botvinnik" had no idea what to do, so he played the totally inexplicable a6? Then Tal remembered his lines and played h5, ending the game. Tal ends the game saying: "Mate in six", although there was not a forced mate in six in the real game or the new messed up end position. I could dig this for dramatic effect, but they didn't go to the trouble to go through that alleged mate to satisfy the blood thirsty audience members.

The real score is posted below. Kasparov annotates this game in Volume II of the Great Predecessors Series. Garry was particularly impressed by Tal's rook maneuvers. (Rh1-h3-e3) and (Ra1-b1-b4xf4-d4!)



In other news, WIM Dr. Alexey Root will be on Fred Wilson's chess.fm show Tuesday night, talking about chess in education and her new book, Children and Chess: A Guide for Educators. Dr.Root is part of UTD's amazing chess program, which offers hundreds of thousands of money in chess scholarships to America's most talented.

I'm getting hyped for the second season of the U.S. Chess League. I'll be managing the New York Knights again. Be sure to check my blog for frequent, completely biased recaps on Chess League. Speaking of bias, I also have a place in my heart for the Philadelphia Masterminds. My father manages the team, I go to Philly all the time, and played on the "Masterminds" (Masterman's high school chess team). If Philadelphia were playing New York in any sort of sporting match-up besides the Chess League, I'd root for Philly. As for our match-up on August 30, I warn my father that I will be posting a power line-up. Be very afraid!

xoxo,
Jennifer