The Simpsons, With Magnus Carlsen and Other Chess Stars
ByDennis MonokroussosFeb 26 — 10:00 PM
A week ago, an episode of The Simpsons, the long-running animated series, featured chess and a guest appearance by Magnus Carlsen. But it had many other references to real chess players. World Chess’s columnist explains.
The Simpsons has been on television since 1989, but the episode that debuted on Feb. 19 was special for chess fans: The game was a central theme and it guest starred Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion, as himself.
In the episode, called “The Cad in the Hat,” viewers learn that the show’s paterfamilias, Homer Simpson, is a very strong player (despite his general intellectual inadequacy in the series as a whole). There is another plot focusing on Lisa and Bart, Homer’s grade school children, but I’ll deal with the chess content. There is a lot of it to support the story line and its quality is much higher than the usual chess fare parceled out by the film and TV industries – at least in the United States.
Viewers find out about Homer’s chess prowess when Homer and his family are on an outing at the beach and come across a couple of older players near the end of the game.
The players, both known from the retirement center where Homer’s father, Abe Simpson (better known as “Grampa”) also lives, are named Jasper Beardly and Old Jewish Man (apparently the writers have never given him an actual name), and it’s Jasper turn to move. He has White and picks up a bishop to take a Black bishop. Homer tries to warn him not to do it, but he does it anyway, and is promptly mated.
Beardly, Jasper vs. Old Jewish Man
? |? |Round ? |????.??.?? |*
( 1. Rf2avoids mate in one, but White is still completely lost after
any capture on f2. (If Black didn't have an a-pawn it would be more
interesting, though still winning for Black after 1...Bxf2+ 2.Kxh2 and
something like 2...f6. )
The winner leaves, and Jasper challenges Homer – whom he calls “Blobby Fischer” in honor of Homer’s corpulence – to a game. To everyone else’s surprise, Homer wins, announcing and delivering the move …Ng3 checkmate. One small problem: it’s an illegal move, though no one notices this. (Whether the writers intended this is unclear.) After the game, Homer chuckles and announces, “Another victim of the Budapest Gambit.” While that is a real gambit, the opening isn’t shown, and I was unable to find this game in a database. (In fact, the only game I managed to find that corresponded exactly with what appeared in the episode was the very last one.)
The family wants to know how Homer learned to play chess so well, and he tells them that it started years ago, when he played with his father. A flashback clip (with music from Mozart’s “Requiem”) shows this position:
This is the position in the first shot; in the second shot another Black pawn seems to have sprouted on e5. Also, in the first shot it looks like the pawn on e7 is on the back rank. As for the assessment, White is winning easily - assuming it's his move.} *
The story doesn’t develop any further at this point, but ends in a sight gag. The next chess scene comes with Homer playing Marge. They start from this position:
Simpson, Homer vs. Simpson, Marge
Casual game |? |Round ? |????.??.?? |1-0
1. Qd8+. (1.Qxe4 was more than good
enough to win too, so it's unlikely that the writers took this example from a
real game.) The mate wasn't shown, but would go like this: 1... Kxd82. Bg5+Ke83. Rd8#
While this is the most famous example of the combination, it’s good to give credit where it’s due. The first instance of the combination I can find is 46 years earlier in a game between Ladislas Maczuski and Ignatz von Kolisch, from a four-game match that finished in a draw.
The next time that Homer is in action is in a mini-simul at the local bar (“Moe’s Tavern”) against his coworkers Carl Carlson and Lenny Leonard, and against Barney Gumble, Homer’s high school friend who is the town drunk. First, the game with Carlson, an African-American who later claims with pride that Magnus Carlsen is his cousin.
Simpson, Homer vs. Carlson, Carl
Simul |? |Round ? |????.??.?? |*
suspicion is that this was a lazy version of what was originally intended to
be the famous Morphy vs. Count of Isouard game, given next.
The position doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but bits of it may look familiar. That feeling of familiarity will increase upon seeing the move Homer played: 1.Nxb5. This looks strongly reminiscent of the famous “Opera Game” between Paul Morphy and the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard. Note especially the position before and after White’s 10th move.
Morphy, Paul vs. Duke ofBrunswick/Count Isouar, Karl
1. e4e52. Nf3d63. d4Bg44. dxe5Bxf35. Qxf3dxe56. Bc4Nf67. Qb3Qe78. Nc3c69. Bg5b5This is the position that seems to have inspired the Homer
Simpson-Carl Carlson game just shown. 10. Nxb5!Just as in the
aforementioned game. 10... cxb511. Bxb5+Nbd712. O-O-ORd813. Rxd7!Rxd714. Rd1Qe615. Bxd7+Nxd7And now for the beautiful finish to one of the most
famous games in chess history, if not *the* most famous game: 16. Qb8+!Nxb817. Rd8#
White to move should play 1.Re8 mate, but Homer plays 1.Ne4 and announces mate in four. More on that later, but first it’s worth mentioning Barney’s exclamation, “You’re playing like Polugaevsky in Mar del Plata!” Non-chess players watching this will probably be amused and think it’s made-up gibberish, as is unfortunately the case in many Hollywood depictions of chess. While this is not the sort of chess position the late great Belarussian grandmaster Lev Polugaevsky (1934-1995) would have reached (he wasn’t an 1.e4 player, for starters, and this position would have arisen from that first move), he played in Mar del Plata three times (in 1962, 1971, and 1982). He won the first two times in dominant fashion (in 1962, by two points, ahead of the second-place finisher, Vasily Smyslov, the ex-World Champion, and in 1971, by a whopping three-point margin), and tied for third the third time (with Anatoly Karpov, who was then World Champion). So maybe “playing like Polugaevsky in Mar del Plata” should be understood as praising Homer’s play rather than indicating a similarity of their particular game to one of Polugaevsky’s.
Back to the game itself and the announced mate in four. There is no such mate, not even if White gets to move again. Once again though, the position has a familiar look to it. The combinative idea of Nf6+ is there, and then if the bishop were already on h6 White would have Re8#. I’ve seen versions of this where Black has castled and White plays 1.Nf6+ gxf6 2.Qxf8+ Kxf8 3.Bh6+ Kg8 4.Re8#. A bit of sleuthing followed, and I found an even closer parallel, clearly the one the writers had in mind.
Richardson vs. Delmar
New York |? |Round ? |1887.??.?? |ECO: C42 |1-0
1. e4e52. Bc4Nf63. Nf3?!Nxe44. Nc3Nxf2??5. Kxf2Bc5+6. d4!exd47. Re1+Kf88. Ne4Bb69. Qd3!?d510. Qa3+Kg811. Bxd5!Qxd5?Almost
exactly the position from Homer's game with Barney. There are two (highly
relevant) differences: it's White to move, and he has a queen - though not for
long. 12. Nf6+!With mate in four. 12... gxf613. Qf8+!Kxf814. Bh6+Kg815. Re8#
Oddly, that board is shown a couple more times while the scene in Moe’s Tavern continues, and each time it looks different, and clearly not in a way that’s consistent from one shot to the next. Meanwhile, Moe Szyslak, the barkeeper and proprietor of the eponymous establishment, asks Homer how he got so good at the game. Homer resumes his storytelling from before, again noting that it goes back to playing with his father. Viewers are now treated to one of the most basic possible games of all: Fool’s Mate, which Homer loses to his dad.
Simpson, Homer vs. Simpson, Grampa
Casual Game |? |Round ? |????.??.?? |ECO: A40 |0-1
Playing his father doesn’t seem to lead to any improvement, but Homer meets a friendly professor who trains him to become a fine player. Fortunately, the professor’s son doesn’t like chess, so Homer is the beneficiary. Not much of their games is shown. There’s the first couple of moves of a game in which Homer has White, and it begins 1.e4 d6 2.Nc3, before the board is no longer visible. (Whether as a joke or an accident, the white-on-right rule is violated: h1 is a dark square.) After White’s third move – bishop somewhere – it morphs into a second game in which Homer is Black, and it appears that he mates White’s king with a pair of rooks on the a-file.
It’s time for young Homer to take on his father again, and this time the position looks something like this:
In this position, Homer plays Nd6.
There’s some ambiguity about what’s where, but comparing what can be seen of this position to the one that arises after 19 moves in the finale, it’s clear that they’re the same, or at worst that this game is a corruption of that one. At any rate, Homer plays Nd6, the move played in the final game as well, and his father announces the end of their chess games with each other: “We had a beautiful thing here, and you had to ruin it by getting good! No more chess in this house!”
Before the introduction of Magnus Carlsen to the episode and the final showdown between Homer and his dad, Homer is again playing with Carl Carlson, this time at the bowling alley. The position this time around is absurd, indeed, it is illegal.
Carl Carlson has apparently recovered from the bar simul game, because here he's completely winning. (The position is also completely illegal.) Homer played 1. Nc3-e4 and nothing is shown after this. Maybe the producers initially wanted to continue with Rh8-f8 2. Ne4-f6, mate, or 2. Ne4-d6, mate?
Homer plays 1.Nxe4 and the game goes no further. My best guess is that the original idea was to give another move, most likely 1…Rf8 and then either 2.Nf6# or 2.Nd6#. This motif is well-known, but I couldn’t find any examples that looked like the basis of the odd position on the board.
At the bowling alley, Moe tells Homer that his excellence in chess is related to his desire to kill his father, something he says he learned from a book called Chess and the Patricidal Impulse. This may be an allusion to the work of Reuben Fine. Fine was one of the world’s top players in the 1930s and 1940s before giving up competitive play to study and then practice psychoanalysis.
Fine, as a Freudian, interpreted chess along Oedipal lines. As Harold C. Schonberg wrote in his New York Times obituary of Fine’s death, “He wrote fairly extensively on the psychology of chess. To him, chess was a combination of homosexual and hostile elements. The king on the chess board, he wrote, is ‘indispensable, all-important, irreplaceable, yet weak and requiring protection.’ The queen, he went on, ‘of course, is the woman-figure… . The chess board as a whole may symbolize the family situation.’ Dr. Fine went on to discuss the phallic symbolism of chess and concluded that the game is an outlet for hostile feelings in which a player sees his opponent’s king as his own absent or weak father and tries to kill him by checkmate.’”
Homer is now unsure of himself and his feelings about his father. At this moment Magnus Carlsen shows up, speaking with Homer on Skype and, in a dialog dripping with irony, encourages him to play his father as the necessary means to discover his true feelings about him.
Sure enough, the game occurs and takes place at the Simpson house, and is transmitted live to the watching crowd at Moe’s Tavern, with Carlsen (again via Skype) offering commentary until near the very end. Here, for once, no guesswork is required: the game is clearly and unequivocally Mikhail Botvinnik vs. Savielly Tartakower from Nottingham 1936.
Botvinnik, Mikhail vs. Tartakower, Saviely
Nottingham International Masters |Nottingham |Round 4 |13 Aug 1936 |ECO: A55 |1-0
1. Nf3Nf62. c4d63. d4Nbd74. g3e55. Bg2Be76. O-OO-O7. Nc3c68. e4Qc79. h3Re810. Be3Nf811. Rc1h612. d5Bd713. Nd2g5?Botvinnik criticizes this
move, suggesting that it might have been okay if Black could get in ...Ng6 to
prevent f2-f4 - but he can't.
( 13... Ng6 )
( 14. c5!is also
14... gxf415. gxf4Kg7?
( 15... Ng6was better, giving up the
h-pawn but activating his pieces. )
16. fxe5dxe517. c5!cxd518. Nxd5Qc6?19. Nc4Ng620. Nd6"An excellent move by Homer" - Magnus Carlsen.
Black can't take the knight, because after 20...Bxd6 21.cxd6 White threatens
both the queen (with the rook on c1) and Black's now insufficiently protected
knight on f6. 20... Be6"A stout defense by Grandpa" - Carlsen again.
( 20... Rf8loses as in the game: 21. Nxe7Nxe722. Rxf6!Kxf623. Qh5with a
devastating attack. )
21. Nxe7Nxe722. Rxf6!"Homer has a [the?] win in
hand. He merely needs to take Grandpa's knight" (Carlsen). The show editors
got their timing off here, as Homer has already played 22.Rxf6 and the move
has been executed on the demonstration board at Moe's Tavern, which Carlsen is
watching via his Skype connection. This is Carlsen's last comment to the game,
as he asks for and receives permission to go, protesting that it's around 4 a.
m. in Norway. 22... Kxf623. Qh5Threatening mate in two by 24.Qxh6+ Ng6 25.Bg5#.
24.Rf1+ is also a very unpleasant threat for Black to cope with. 23... Ng624. Nf5!A very strong move, preventing the Black king's retreat. 24... Rg8
( 24... Bxf525. exf5picks up more material while the attack rages on. )
( 24... Rh825. Bxh6Threatening 26.Bg5#, 26.Qg5#, and 26.Bg7#. 25... Rxh626. Qxh6Rg827. h4(threatening both Qg5# and h4-h5) costs Black at least a piece, and without
breaking White's attack. )
( 29... fxg530. Rxg6+will result in White enjoying a two
piece advantage. )
30. Qg7Black is down a huge amount of material with a
dying king. Tartakower resigned here, while in the Simpsons version the finish
is different. Grandpa is clearly upset, realizing the hopelessness of his
situation, while Homer ponders to himself: "Isn't a father more important than
a victory? I've never really known either." A moment later, Homer resigns in
the official Hollywood style, tipping over his king and telling his father he
loves him. Back to the historical game: Botvinnik won the first brilliancy
prize for it on his way to tying for first with ex-world champion Jose
Capablanca. This was one of the strongest tournaments ever played, with five
world champions participating (Emanuel Lasker, Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine,
Max Euwe, and Botvinnik) and several other greats as well (e.g. Salo Flohr,
Samuel Reshevsky, and Reuben Fine, and to a lesser degree Efim Bogoljubow).
Dennis Monokroussos is a FIDE master who has written about chess on his blog “The Chess Mind,” since 2005. He has been teaching chess for almost 20 years and for the last 10 years has been making instructional chess videos, which can be found at ChessLecture.com. Between 1995 and 2006, he taught philosophy, including a four-year stint at the University of Notre Dame.