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Here, you will find a behind the scenes look at the process of creating Chess: In Concert here at SDSU, along with information regarding the historical, cultural, social, and strategic information behind the musical Chess, including insight into the production history, the Cold War, the 1972 World Chess Championship, and how to play Chess on your own!
— Rebecca Ojeda, Dramaturg, MA Theatre Candidate
Chess In Concert: Behind the Scenes
Check out these production photos from Chess: In Concert, which features the work of over 100 students at SDSU! (Special thanks and photos courtesy of the SDSU School of Theatre, Television, and Film’s Instagram: @sdsuttf , the SDSU Design/Technical Masters of Fine Arts Program’s Instagram: @sdsumtmfa , the SDSU Musical Theatre Masters of Fine Arts Program’s Instagram: @sdsumtmfa , the SDSU Music and Dance Department’s Instagram: @sdsumusicdance , the SDSU Arts Alive Division’s Instagram: @artsalivesdsu , Director Stephen Brotebeck, Music Director Robert Meffe, Lighting Designer Ashley Bietz, Costume Designer Stacey Olson, Stage Manager Ryn Schroeder, and Integrated Media Designer Adam Parrocha.
The Origin of Chess
In 1981, Tim Rice met with Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus from the pop group ABBA to discuss a new idea for a musical. Andersson and Ulvaeus wanted to branch out from pop and tackle a theatre project and were intrigued by Tim’s interest in chess Grandmaster Bobby Fisher and Cold War politics. The trio decided to collaborate on what would become Chess. It was first released as a concept album (shown to the left) and became an international hit.
1984 European Concert Tour Debut
The concept album debuted as a musical in October of 1984 in London. It toured around Europe, with an original cast that includded Murray Head, Tommy Korberg, Elaine Paige, Denis Quilley, Bjorn Skifs, and Barbara Dickson. Critical response for the tour included a review for the show that stated it had a “rock symphonic synthesis [with] sophistication and hummable tunes” (TIME Magazine, 1984).
1988 Broadway Debut (US)
A second major stage version of the musical was made for American audiences in 1988, with differences in the music and plot points. While the story changed drastically, the basic plot remained the same. One of the major differences is that the entire show is about one chess match, not two. Despite the changes, the Broadway production did not sustain a large audience consistently, and closed after only 70 performances.
In 2008, Warner Brothers Records produced a filmed double performance concert version of Chess with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. Tim Rice refers to this as the “official version”, which included 2 American songs, “Prologue” and “Someone Else’s Story”. The cast included Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel, and Josh Groban.
- 1988: Tony Award Nomination: Best Performance by a Leading Actor/Actress in a Musical (David Carroll and Judy Kuhn).
- 1988: Drama Desk Award Nominations: Outstanding Actor/Actress/Featured Actor in a Musical (David Carroll, Judy Kuhn, and Harry Goz); Outstanding Music (Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson); and Outstanding Lighting Design (David Hersey).
- 1988: Theatre World Award Winner
Artists Behind Chess
Benny Andersson (Playwright, Music)
Benny Andersson is a producer, songwriter, and keyboardist who has co-produced the mega-hits of the 1970’s Swedish pop group ABBA, along with Bjorn Ulvaeus. After discovering the music of Elvis Presley, Andersson began playing in rock music bands. As a solo artist, Andersson stays busy, performing with the group, “Benny Andersson’s Orkester”, or “BAO”. His most recent work is reflected on an instrumental album released in 2017, “Piano on Deutsche Grammophon”, working with Linn Fijal, an engineer at RMV Studios. The album features solo renditions of songs throughout the entirety of Andersson’s career.
Bjorn Ulvaeus (Playwright, Lyricist)
Bjorn Kristian Ulvaeus was born in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1945, and grew up in Vastervik, Sweden. As a young adult, he was a member of the folk group, “The West Bay Singers”. In 1963, after winning a radio show talent competition, they were signed by Polar Music, and changed their name to “Hootenanny Singers”, and became a popular group in Sweden in the 60’s. After Ulvaeus met with Andersson, they began releasing records and staged a cabaret show with the group, “The Hep Stars”. After this, for decades, Bjorn was occupied by his work with Andersson, writing four musicals, including Chess, and Mamma Mia.
Tim Rice (Lyricist)
Tim Rice was born in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, England, in 1944 and studied at Lancing College. With Andrew Lloyd Webber, he wrote the Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita. In 1991, he was signed on by Disney as a lyricist, working on “The Lion King”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “Beauty and the Beast”. When the lyricist for “Aladdin”, Howard Ashman, passed away, Tim stepped in and completed the score. “A Whole New World”, and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” won him two Oscar awards. In 2017, NBC produced a live staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, which led to his first Emmy award, making him an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award winner). Tim was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994 and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008.
Richard Nelson (Chess Book Author)
Richard John Nelson was born on October 17th, 1950 in Chicago, Illinois, and is an American playwright and librettist. He wrote the books that went on to become the award winning musicals James Joyce’s The Dead, Chess, and The Apple Family Plays. Nelson’s earliest theatrical influences were in musical theatre, and claims that he had seen over 25 musicals before ever seeing a staged play. In 1972, he attended Hamilton College in 1972, and worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he produced 10 plays, including Some Americans Abroad, New England, and Goodnight Children Everywhere.
Historical Context for Chess
The Cold War was a period of political tensions and anxious tendencies between the Eastern countries of the Soviet Union and their influenced countries, and the Western countries of the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s allies, spanning from the mid 1940’s until the fall of the Soviet union in the year 1991. (Above, you can see a map of the aligned countries.) Although when one thinks of the Cold War, one may conjure up images of major armed conflicts, the Cold War instead was a time of what is called “Proxy Wars”, where neither side actually fought or engaged directly with each other, but instead used threats. For example, the United States military threatened for control over communist countries, and both sides participated in an arms race. Despite the use of deadly nuclear warfare in Japan to bring an end to World War II, the United States went on further to encourage the development of nuclear warfare during the duration of the Cold War.
The Soviet Union replied not only with their own nuclear tests, but also launched the first satellite into orbit, “Sputnik”, which caused the United States to launch a satellite of their own, “Explorer I”. With nuclear warfare a real threat to Americans, many citizens nationwide developed their own precautions, in the form of bomb shelters, and nuclear warfare drills. Meanwhile, the United States government began blacklisting anyone that they believed might be involved in any sort of communist activity, which ultimately influenced tensions, fear, and hysteria amongst every aspect of American lives.
What is a Defector?
In an attempt to escape the clutches of communism from communist countries, one would make an attempt to defect from their home country. To do this, one would be referred to as a “defector”. A defector is a person who gives up their allegiance to one state or country for the allegiance of another, which is considered to be heinous and illegitimate from the original country. This makes the person be considered to be a traitor from the original country. During the Cold Wars, a defector was often held in aspirations as a propaganda trophy. The political influence of defectors is similar to that of Pawns in a Chess game.
One can then wonder, “What is home”? As well as, “Who has power in a game of Chess? In a Proxy War? How does this power shift?”.
During the Cold War and the battle between the escalation of communism and Democracy, one important instance that occurred was the World Championship Chess match of 1972, between chess prodigies Bobby Fischer of the United States, and Boris Spassky. For more information about the importance of Chess during the Cold War, read this article written by Harold C. Schonberg for the New York Times in 1981, titled, "Cold War in the World of Chess" using the button below.
US – Russian Relations: A History
Even though their alliance was apparent during WWII, the US and Soviet Union soon grew hostile towards each other, probably because their partnership could be seen as rushed and out of obligation. The US had such a fear of communism and were hesitant to even recognize the USSR as a legitimate part of the international community, delaying their aid in WWII and causing millions of Russian deaths. The complicated history of socio-political tension between Russia and the US leading up to, during, and after the Cold War still remains until the present, even though the Cold War “officially” ended with the eventual fall of the Soviet Union.
The 1972 World Chess Championship
As one of the most notorious chess matches in history, the 1972 World Chess Championship took place in Reykjavik, Iceland. The game was between the American Grandmaster Bobby Fischer, and the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky, defender of the World Championship title. (They are both pictured to the right.) In a stunning turn of events, Fischer won, at game 21, after he made an unprecedented move, which made Spassky resign before game 22. This win not only skyrocketed Fischer to a celebrity status worldwide, but it also halted the Soviet Union’s over two decade reign over the Championship title. This game, along with Fischer himself as a chess player, has served as the inspiration and context for Chess. This game was the setting for a battle between social and political beliefs. Fischer and Spassky were not only playing against each other as young chess prodigies, but were representing the dramatic political histories of their home countries.
“When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive.”– Boris Spassky
Born as Robert James Fischer, “Bobby” Fischer became a chess Grandmaster at only 15 years old, making him a practical child chess prodigy. In his obsession with the game, he dropped out of school at the age of 16. He went on to break the Soviet Union’s two decade streak as winners in the World Chess Championship in 1972, and has been known as the greatest chess player of all time.
Fischer showed paranoia and eccentricity during the match in 1972, and these feelings grew worse after winning the match, though he was never formally diagnosed with any sort of mental illness. In 1975, Fischer was supposed to defend his title against the Russian Grandmaster Anatoly Karpov, but forfeited the match and title after several of his demands were rejected by the FIDE. He then had a hiatus for about two decades, and returned in 1992 in a rematch against Spassky. Because Fischer had defied a United States government Executive Order, one that had banned participation in international commercial activities, he was forced to move to the Philippines. He lived in Japan temporarily, and eventually moved to Iceland, where he passed away from kidney failure in 2008. His legacy and contributions, including his invention of the Fischer game clock, and the random Chess variant, has made a lasting impact on the culture of chess worldwide.
“Chess is life.”– Bobby Fischer
You can download the PDF of this book using the link provided below:
“There is only one thing Fischer does in Chess without pleasure: to lose!”– Boris Spassky
Boris Spassky was born Boris Vasilyevich Spassky in 1937 in Russia. He was the Russian Chess Master as the Grandmaster world champion from 1969 to 1972. He learned how to play chess as a child in World War II. In 1953, while a teenager, he gained the title as an International Master. In 1972, he lost the world title to Bobby Fischer. Two decades later, he faced Fischer in a rematch, and again lost.
Anatoly Karpov was the 12th World Champion in Chess, and has been considered one of the greatest players of all time. He was the Grandmaster from 1975 to 1985, and again from 1993 to 1999.
“Chess is everything: art, science, and sport.”– Anatoly Karpov
Chess Timing System
In a chess game, the World Chess Federation FIDE has a single, classical time control for most of its major events. It consists of 100 minutes for the first 40 moves, followed by 50 minutes for 20 moves, and 15 minutes from the rest of the game, with an additional 30 seconds per move starting from the first move.
Chess 960, also known as “Fischer Random” is the variant program invented by the Grandmaster Fischer. The rules of the game are the same as in a standard game of chess, but the pieces are randomly shuffled for each player along the back rank (the back row where the King and Queen sits). To try out a version of Fisher’s Chess 960 try the button below.
What is a Grandmaster?
A chess GRANDMASTER (GM) is the highest title a Chess player can attain, making those who obtain the rank the most outstanding chess players in the world. There are also 3 lower-ranking titles – International Master (IM), FIDE Master (FM), and Candidate Master (CM) – awarded to both men and women, as well as 4 women’s-only ranks: Women’s Grand Master (WGM), Women’s International Master (WIM), Women’s FIDE Master (WFM), and Women’s Candidate Master (WCM). The youngest player to earn the grandmaster rank is Sergey Karjakin from Ukraine at just 12 years old. (He is pictured to the left.)
The Chess Glass Ceiling
While the Queen chess piece is the most powerful player in the game, there have only been 35 female Grandmasters in the history of Chess, out of a total of 1,570 masters. The first female Grand Master was Nona Gaprindashvili, from Zugdidi, Georgia (formerly the Soviet Union) winning her game in 1978. So, why is there such a large difference? There are fewer female chess players to start out with, because a lot of women are not taught the game as children. This might change in the future, since half of the video gaming community is made up of women.
Worldwide Chess Prodigies
A total of 28 chess players earned their GrandMaster titles before turning 15. Several others earned theirs before turning 18, including Bobby Fischer at the age of 15, and Boris Spassky at the age of 18. At just 26 years old, Magnus Carlsen is considered to be the “Mozart of Chess.” He is the current World Chess Champion, having earned his grandmaster title at only 13 years old.
HOW TO PLAY CHESS
Chess is a game of intellect and creativity, allowing focus and strategy amongst its payers. A chess player must always try to stay multiple steps ahead of their opponent. For clarity, all rows are labelled with an appropriate letter, A-H, and number, 1-8. In a game of chess, the white pieces always go first. Overall, there has been a common understanding amongst players and chess scholars that the player who makes the first move (the white pieces), has an advantage. Statistics support this hypothesis, because white pieces win slightly more often than the black pieces, usually scoring between 52 and 56% more often. Each piece can only move in a certain way on the board, shown below in detail.
The Queen is the most powerful piece on the chess board. In comparison, the Queen is worth that of 9 pawns. The Queen can move in any direction, vertically, horizontally, or diagonally for as many squares possible, as shown to the right.
The Rook is the second strongest piece, whereas they can only move horizontally or vertically for as many squares possible, as shown to the left. In comparison, a Rook is worth 5 pawns.
The Bishop is the third strongest piece, whereas they can only move diagonally for as many squares possible, as shown to the right.. In comparison, a Bishop is worth 3 pawns.
The knight is the fourth strongest piece, and is the only piece that can jump over other pieces. The knight can only move in a capital “L” shape, moving two squares either horizontally or vertically, and then one square in the perpendicular direction. In comparison, the Knight is worth about 2.5 pawns. The squares in red are the ones where the Knight can move to.
While the King is considered to be the fifth strongest piece in the game, that does not mean it is not an important piece. In fact, it is the single MOST important piece. The King can move only one square in any direction, vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. The King is the only piece that cannot be captured. When an opponent’s piece attacks the King, it is referred to as “Check”. When faced with the “Check”, the King is forced to move away from that square.
In addition to the information above, know that the King is the only piece that cannot be captured. When an opponent’s piece attacks the King, it is referred to as “Check”. When faced with the “Check”, the King is forced to move away from that square. In the case to the left, the Queen has the King in a “Check” position. Therefore, the King needs to move to a position that is not under the control (or in the path of) the Queen. The goal of Chess is to give a “Check” that will make the opponent’s King immovable. When this happens, where the King has no options to go without having a “Check”, it is called a “Checkmate”. When this happens, whoever has the King in a “Checkmate” position, wins.
In a game of Chess, it is possible to reach a point where every possible square that a King can move to is attacked by the other person’s pieces. If there are no other players besides the King, and the player is unable to move at all, the King is what is called “Stalemated”, and the game is drawn. To the right is an example of a “Stalemate”.
The Pawn: A Mighty Opening
Last, but not least, is the Pawn. This is the piece that is sacrificed the most often. Even though this piece is the most plentiful, its movements are more complicated than its simple stature, depending on the circumstance. For example, in the opening move, otherwise known as the first move of the game, a pawn can move either one or two squares straight forward, as long as the space is empty. After the pawn moves in the opening, they can only move one square forward on the board, as long as the square is empty. To the left you can see an opening move, and a regular move of a Pawn.
The Pawn: Capturing
If there is an opposing piece on the forward diagonal position of the pawn, it can capture that piece. However, they are not forced to do this. The Pawn is the only piece that cannot move backwards. This is shown to the right.
Pawn Promotion is a move where the pawn transformed into a Queen piece, by reaching the opposite of the board. This can also be referred to as “Queening”. This is depicted using the diagrams to the right. However, if the Pawn moves to a “Pawn Promotion” position on the other side of the board that will result in a “Check” or “Checkmate”, they can choose to promote the Pawn to a rank that is below the Queen, such as a Knight. This is what is known as an “Underpromotion”.