Magnus Carlsen on The Simpsons: The Portrayal of Chess in Pop Culture

 

For months, the chess world has awaited Magnus Carlsen’s cameo on The Simpsons.

Magnus Carlsen is pop culture’s favorite chessplayer, bringing chess into many unlikely spaces, even modeling campaigns and a Porsche commercial.

The Simpsons is a staple of American culture and the longest-running American sitcom, currently on its 28th season. The show has featured cameos from names as notable as Paul McCartney, Stephen Hawking, Dolly Parton, Conan O’ Brien, Venus and Serena Williams, Betty White, Elton John—the list goes on and on.

Magnus Carlsen’s cameo is a big step for the game into mainstream culture. In fact, the show featured chess as a focal point throughout the entire episode.

On the other hand, pop culture has a habit of misrepresenting chess, often featuring everything from incorrectly set-up boards to huge misunderstandings of the game and the culture.

How did The Simpsons portray chess when writing a Magnus Carlsen storyline? Let’s take a look.

Before you read further, if you haven’t watched the episode, I’d recommend it. It’s available on the FOX website, titled “The Cad and the Hat”.

Pros

1. It describes chess as a sport.

Many in the chess world consider it important that chess is recognized as a legitimate competitive sport along with athletic pastimes. The Simpsons episode supports this viewpoint.

  • Chess is first introduced in the episode by Marge saying, “Maybe you should watch this sport instead” as she pulls Homer into a beachside chess park.

Homer playing chess against his father as a boy.

  • Like many sports movies, the episode uses the game to explore the often complicated dynamics of father-son relationships. Homer’s chess abilities are connected to his childhood experiences with his father. By the end of the episode, he resolves his issues with his father through the game.

“To find your true feelings, you must finish your final chess match with your father.” -Magnus Carlsen’s advice to Homer

  • Watching a chess game is compared to watching the Super Bowl. While the people at Moe’s bar watch Homer’s chess match with his father, someone enters and asks, “Doesn’t anyone want to watch the Super Bowl?” To which, Moe replies, “Get lost!”

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2. It includes recognizable chess culture references.

  • In Homer’s game against Marge, he wins with a famous checkmate-in-three pattern inspired by the game Richard Reti vs. Savielly Tartakower in 1910.

Homer Simpson vs. Marge Simpson

White to move and mate in 3.

Here is the classic game that inspired the checkmate pattern:

Later in the episode, another Tartakower game is referenced and, again, he is on the losing side.

  • Homer’s final game against his father is a re-creation of the game: Botvinnik vs. Tartakower, Nottingham 1936.

Compare the final positions of Homer vs. Grandpa and Botvinnik vs. Tartakower.

Nottingham 1936 was one of the strongest tournaments of its time with all of the top eight players in the world competing, including five world champions Botvinnik, Capablanca, Alekhine, Lasker, and Euwe. The game, Botvinnik vs. Tartakower, won the brilliancy prize of the tournament.

The clash between Homer and his father is a meaningful parallel to the clash between Botvinnik and Tartakower. Nottingham 1936 was one of Botvinnik’s first great tournament victories (he tied for 1st along with Capablanca) while Tartakower was one of the classic masters of the hypermodern school of chess.

Watching the expression of Homer’s father throughout the game and how it changes when he realizes he’s losing brings to mind a famous Tartakower quote:

“A Chess game is divided into three stages: the first, when you hope you have the advantage, the second when you believe you have an advantage, and the third… when you know you’re going to lose!”

Homer’s father at the start of the game

By the end of the game

  • One of the bar patrons playing against Homer in the simul tells him, “You’re playing like Polugaevsky at Mar del Plata!”

Homer’s simultaneous exhibition

Lev Polugaevsky was one of the strongest players in the world in the 1960s, competing in the Candidates matches four times. Two of his most significant tournaments wins were both at Mar del Plata—in 1962 when he won the event two full points ahead of the field, including former World Champion Vassily Smyslov, and in 1971.

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3. It shows the spectator side of the game.

While I’ve seen numerous mainstream movies and TV shows feature a chess game, I don’t think I’ve seen any others that feature the spectator’s perspective. While Homer plays his final match against his father, a crowd of spectators gather at Moe’s Tavern and watch the game the way that most major tournaments are watched all over the world—on a screen. In addition, the scene blends classic and modern commentary styles—Moe shows the game, move by move, on a large demo board while Magnus Carlsen plays the role of on-screen commentator, evaluating each position for the crowd through a Skype connection.

In his article, “Magnus Mentors Homer Simpson”, Mike Klein even compares Moe’s Tavern to the Kingside Diner, an eatery next door to the St. Louis Chess Club  where chess spectators often gather to watch some of the top events in the country:

“Like the Kingside Diner in St. Louis, a crowd watches the game unfold to its dramatic conclusion… Carlsen commentates via Skype on the Simpson family battle, with Moe’s Tavern being the replacement for the Kingside Diner.”

 

4. It portrays serious study as essential to mastery.

Homer’s first lesson with the professor, a master of the game

While there’s some debate in the chess community about how much talent factors into chess ability, there is no question that any amount of talent must be combined with study and hard work to achieve top results.

Non-chess players, however, often have the misconception that chess ability is simply a reflection of natural brilliance.

Homer’s story in The Simpsons counters this common misconception. When Homer begins playing chess as a boy, he shows very little ability, losing to his father in the shortest game possible, the two move checkmate. 

Then, Homer seeks out a chess teacher to help him improve, and he begins taking lessons from a master of the game every day. Before Homer is ready to compete against his father, the passage of time is shown by Homer growing taller. This sequence shows that Homer’s skill came from consistent study with an experienced player for an extended period of time.

When Homer plays his father again, his father ends their game by saying, “We had a beautiful thing here, and you had to ruin it by getting good!”

 

5. It suggests that chess is becoming more popular.

At one point in the episode, Homer and Marge attend the Springfield Chess Club, which has a sign outside that says, “Check for bullies when exiting,” evoking the old stereotype of chess being an unpopular and unsocial pass time. When Homer and Marge leave the chess club, someone says, “Nerds! Get ’em!” and the two run away frantically.

By the end of the episode, however, a crowd of people at Moe’s Tavern are enjoying watching Homer’s match against his father, demonstrating a newfound popularity for the game. Spectators even take turns cheering for their favored player.

Just like at a sports bar during a game, the crowd alternates cheering

Cons

1. Magnus Carlsen’s character is not very Carlsen-esque. 

Magnus Carlsen is one of the most interesting personalities in chess. From his chess achievements, including reaching the highest rating in human history, to his modeling career to his dramatic outbursts when he’s having an off day, his character stands out. Yet, The Simpsons didn’t use any of his actual personality when writing his character. Considering that his cameo in The Simpsons has been anticipated for months, this is a disappointment.

If you watch the episode knowing no previous information about Magnus Carlsen, you learn nothing beyond the fact that he is the World Chess Champion and that he’s Norwegian (which is the focal point of nearly every joke in Carlsen’s dialogue).

Carlsen’s cameo gave The Simpsons an opportunity to introduce general audiences to a different side of the chess world and its top players, but it wasn’t utilized.

 

2. There are a few errors in the chess content.

  • Homer’s checkmating move in the first game of the episode leaves his king in check.

As Homer makes his final move, it looks like White’s queen is on c2 attacking Black’s king on g6, which would make Homer’s checkmate an illegal move.

The diagram below shows the position before Homer plays …Ng3#. The Black knight is pinned to the king and unable to make the move.

  • One of the game positions in Homer’s simul is missing a king. 

Let’s take a closer look at the first game of the simul:

Where is Black’s king?

Position after Homer plays Nxb5:

What’s interesting is this position seems to be an attempt at a chess reference gone wrong. If you add Black’s king, change one of White’s queens into a bishop, and add the dark-squared bishops for each side, we have a position from one of the most famous games in history, Paul Morphy’s Opera House Game:

  • Some of the boards are incorrectly oriented.

Let’s take a closer look at the board during Homer’s first lesson with the professor:

The board is sideways. White’s kingside rook should be on a light square.

Conclusion

While the portrayal of chess on The Simpsons wasn’t perfect, it shows progress in popular culture’s usage of the game. Chess is focal point of the episode, and a definite effort was made to engage serious chess players and fans along with the show’s usual audience.

Lastly, my favorite joke of the episode: One of the book titles in the chess lesson scenes is titled, Boogie Knights: Chess in the Disco Era.

Though, my overall favorite chess scene from The Simpsons is Bart’s infamous simultaneous exhibition, featured in a different episode. The scene begins with a Searching for Bobby Fischer “Is this the next prodigy?” aura as spectators watch and discuss the simul:

 


About the Author

Vanessa West is a regular writer and digital assistant for US Chess News. She won the 2017 Chess Journalist of the Year award.

Follow her on Twitter: @Vanessa__West

 

 

Comments

  1. Hi Vanessa,

    This is a beautiful commentary on a long awaited excerpt on the unreported growing interest in the game of chess. Chess is generally, seriously under-reported in the media. Yet there is substantial evidence that chess is rather popular behind the scenes. But I have to disagree with the comment that Magnus Carlsen’s character is not very Carlsen-esque. What exactly is Carlsen’s character? This is a rhetorical question which I will venture to answer. In my view, I am even surprised that Carlsen has been parodied in the Simpsons. You say that Carlsen is a very interesting character. But in my view, I would find it hard to describe Carlsen to anyone. In spite of Carlsen being the strongest chess player in the world, and the current Chess World Champion, he is really nondescript as a character. Carlsen is no Tal, Bobby Fischer or Kasparov. Carlsen’s life is rather ordinary with just but one controversy when he stormed out of a conference after losing a game to Karjakin. So, I really do not understand what you mean by Carlsen-esque. And mind you, I am not against Carlsen as my commentary might appear. I actually like Carlsen and thoroughly appreciate his chess mastery, recognising him as the legitimately strongest chess player in the world at present.

  2. Great write-up, one of best I ever read!
    I disliked one episode’s scene where one snaps the neck of another one, then throws him out the window. I pray Magnus hasn’t sold his soul to the Devil with this new alliance.

  3. I appreciate the representation of Chess in this episode, despite some of the error’s in board position, piece position. I have enjoyed the “sport” of Chess sinced I learned the game from my uncle about 42 years ago. I played on my Middle school team, and some on my High School team, and I have been a member of the U.S. Chess Federation for many years, teaching my children the game / sport and understanding the benefits of discipline, patience, improved concentration, improved comprehension of spatial relationships and the joy in replaying and review of the masters & grandmasters through out time. I have followed the Candidates matches and the World Championships, and feel the U.S. Should embrace this game, this sport as much or more than a football or basketball game. I do appreciate Magnus Carlsen, and what he has done & is doing for the advancement of the sport. As the media becomes more aware of the world presence of the sport, they will see that Magnus has come to the U.S. To play many times and has gone to the public schools to talk to some of our best students who are advancing the game / sport and excelling academically… Like Justus Williams, and Joshua Colas; and Susan Polgar, who runs the Chess program at Webster University and offers college scholarships. Hou Yifan, the women’s world champion who is fighting for equal rights to compete for the world championship and promoting chess for women. Wesley So, one of five of our, the U.S. Olympiad team to win the GOLD medal in 40 years, in 2016, and one of three top players of the U.S. And the World. I had to stream almost all of the matches, but it would be nice if the mainstream media would participate more and support our youth and the sport.

  4. “You’re playing like Polugaevsky at Mar del Plata!”

    Assuming Barney Gumble was referring to Mar Del Plata 62 or 71 (the two that Polugaevsky won) and that Homer was playing white in the simul, it might be safe to assume that Homer likes to plays 1. c4 perhaps in hopes of confusing you with transposition or maybe 1. d4 with the idea of fianchettoing his light square bishop.

    Also if you play the KID against Homer, he might play the Samisch.

  5. I do not believe they forgot the King of placed The Board wrong by accident. These mistakes were placed to be found.

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