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. Bxe3
1. Rf2 avoids 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.  )
1... Reg2#

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:

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... Kxd8 2. Bg5+ Ke8 3. Rd8#

Homer plays 1.Qd8+ and announces mate in three, which leads to some amorous banter.

Sticking to the chess, the combination Homer intends is well-known. The best-known forebear was a well-known casual, rapid game between Richard Reti and Savielly Tartakower:

Reti, Richard vs. Tartakower, Saviely
Wien | Vienna | Round ? | 1910.??.?? | ECO: B15 | 1-0
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Nf6 5. Qd3 e5?! 6. dxe5 Qa5+?! 7. Bd2 Qxe5 8. O-O-O Nxe4??
8... Be7 9. Nxf6+ Qxf6 10. Nf3 O-O 11. Bg5 Qe6 is unpleasant for Black, but tolerable.  )
9. Qd8+! Kxd8 10. Bg5+ Kc7
10... Ke8 11. Rd8#  )
11. Bd8#

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.

Maczuski, L. vs. Kolisch, Ignaz
Match | Paris | Round 1 | 1864.03.?? | ECO: C45 | 1-0
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 exd4 4. Nxd4 Qh4 5. Nc3 Bb4 6. Qd3 Nf6 7. Nxc6 dxc6 8. Bd2 Bxc3 9. Bxc3 Nxe4 10. Qd4 Qe7 11. O-O-O Qg5+? Surprisingly, this loses outright.
11... Nxc3 12. Qxg7 probably looked too messy to Kolisch, but after
12... Nxa2+ 13. Kb1 Rf8 14. Kxa2 Bd7 his king will escape to safety.  )
12. f4! Qxf4+ 13. Bd2! Qg4 14. Qd8+! Kxd8 15. Bg5+ Ke8 16. Rd8#

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 ? | ????.??.?? | *
1. Nxb5 My 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
Opra Hous: Morphy-Duke of Brunswick | Paris | Round ? | 1858.11.02 | ECO: C41 | 1-0
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 Bg4 4. dxe5 Bxf3 5. Qxf3 dxe5 6. Bc4 Nf6 7. Qb3 Qe7 8. Nc3 c6 9. Bg5 b5 This 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... cxb5 11. Bxb5+ Nbd7 12. O-O-O Rd8 13. Rxd7! Rxd7 14. Rd1 Qe6 15. Bxd7+ Nxd7 And now for the beautiful finish to one of the most famous games in chess history, if not *the* most famous game:
16. Qb8+! Nxb8 17. Rd8#

Next, the game with Lenny:

Simpson, Homer vs. Leonard, Lenny
Simul | ? | Round ? | ????.??.?? | ECO: C57 | *
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ng5 d5 5. exd5 Nxd5 6. Nxf7 In the Simpsons game, it was White to move and he took the queen.

This is a well-known position from the so-called Fried Liver Attack in the Two Knights. The only problem is that it’s White to move, and Homer of course played Nxd8.

The final battle at the bar is Homer’s game with Barney, which shows this odd position:

Simpson, Homer vs. Gumble, Barney
Simul | ? | Round ? | ????.??.?? | *
1. Ne4

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. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Nf6 3. Nf3?! Nxe4 4. Nc3 Nxf2?? 5. Kxf2 Bc5+ 6. d4! exd4 7. Re1+ Kf8 8. Ne4 Bb6 9. Qd3!? d5 10. Qa3+ Kg8 11. 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... gxf6 13. Qf8+! Kxf8 14. Bh6+ Kg8 15. 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
1. f3?
1. e4 e5 2. Qh5?! Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6?? 4. Qxf7# is Scholar's Mate.  )
1... e5 2. g4?? Qh4#

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:

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.

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. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 d6 3. d4 Nbd7 4. g3 e5 5. Bg2 Be7 6. O-O O-O 7. Nc3 c6 8. e4 Qc7 9. h3 Re8 10. Be3 Nf8 11. Rc1 h6 12. d5 Bd7 13. Nd2 g5? 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. f4
14. c5! is also strong.  )
14... gxf4 15. gxf4 Kg7?
15... Ng6 was better, giving up the h-pawn but activating his pieces.  )
16. fxe5 dxe5 17. c5! cxd5 18. Nxd5 Qc6? 19. Nc4 Ng6 20. 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... Rf8 loses as in the game:
21. Nxe7 Nxe7 22. Rxf6! Kxf6 23. Qh5 with a devastating attack.  )
21. Nxe7 Nxe7 22. 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... Kxf6 23. Qh5 Threatening mate in two by 24.Qxh6+ Ng6 25.Bg5#. 24.Rf1+ is also a very unpleasant threat for Black to cope with.
23... Ng6 24. Nf5! A very strong move, preventing the Black king's retreat.
24... Rg8
24... Bxf5 25. exf5 picks up more material while the attack rages on.  )
24... Rh8 25. Bxh6 Threatening 26.Bg5#, 26.Qg5#, and 26.Bg7#.
25... Rxh6 26. Qxh6 Rg8 27. h4 (threatening both Qg5# and h4-h5) costs Black at least a piece, and without breaking White's attack.  )
25. Qxh6 Bxa2 26. Rd1 Rad8 27. Qg5+ Ke6 28. Rxd8 f6 29. Rxg8! Nf4
29... fxg5 30. Rxg6+ will result in White enjoying a two piece advantage.  )
30. Qg7 Black 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.