Chess has appeared in novels, movies, and television shows, sometimes even taking center stage in films such as Searching for Bobby Fischer. But the most popular fictional portrayal of chess ever created is most likely Chess, a musical written by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and Tim Rice.
Chess is the story of a live triangle between two grandmasters - one American, one Russian - and a woman serves as a manager to one of the players but falls in love with the other.
The show wasn't exactly a hit the one time it got to Broadway - it only lasted two weeks in a 1988 stint - but it has long remained popular with fans of musicals around the world. Many different versions of the show have been put on over the years, featuring modified plots, different selections of music, and various casts.
Basic Plot Summary
While the plot of Chess has changed in the various incarnations of the musical, some of the basic elements have remained basically the same throughout the life of the show. The musical was inspired by some of the political machinations surrounding the 1972 Fischer-Spassky World Championship match.
The West End production of the show begins with the American World Champion, Frederick "Freddie" Trumper arriving with his second, Florence Vassy, who wants him to tone down his behavior. Trumper is opposed by Russian challenger Anatoly Sergievsky. After a series of victories for Anatoly, Florence leaves Freddie, and he resigns from the match.
Anatoly wins the match, then seeks asylum in England with the help of Florence, the two have fallen for each other.
One year later, Anatoly defends his title against a Soviet opponent. The match takes place in Bangkok, and Freddie is on hand for the match. The Soviets have also sent Anatoly's former wife Svetlana to Bangkok; a KGB agent blackmails her into forcing Anatoly to lose the match.
Florence is also given incentives to get Anatoly to agree to lose, but these efforts prove fruitless. Freddie ultimately decides to give Anatoly some critical advice that helps Anatoly defeat his opponent. Anatoly, feeling as though his only successes in life (at least for the time being) are likely to come on the chess board, decides to return back to the USSR.
The Broadway version of the show keeps much of the same music, but significantly changes the plot of the show. Instead of two matches, the show revolves around just one. Anatoly is also made into the reigning champion, but Freddie ultimately wins the match after falling far behind in the early going.
The Music of Chess
Despite the fact that the musical itself could never seem to settle on a single format that worked, the music from Chess has remained popular for decades. Before the musical was ever performed, a concept album was released that contained only a vague description of the plot.
The album was a worldwide hit, reaching the top 50 in several countries, including top 10 statuses in the United Kingdom, West Germany, and South Africa. It was even the number one album in Sweden for seven weeks, thanks in large part due to ABBA's contributions to the musical score.
The biggest hit of all from the album was One Night in Bangkok, which reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100. Other songs that gained significant popularity included I Know Him So Well (a #1 hit in the UK), Nobody's Side, The Arbiter, and Pity the Child.