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Correspondence Chess
"On the Square" Article

As soon as I read the following movie review I emailed Eric Johnson for permission to post it here. There was a delay, since there was a possibility that it would be published by Chess Life. I just received the following note from Eric along with permission to post:

"Please note ... that USCF opted not to carry the video in its catalog..or the review..despite the fact that USCF props are used repeatedly in the film (banner obtained from USCF, boards, clocks). In a weird way..the USCF-avoidance of this product should help to boost Laura's sales."

If you're interested, information appears at the bottom of the review concerning how to get more information and order. Eric C. Johnson is the editor and publisher of Chess Pride magazine (see my review of this interesting publication). Eric can be reached at: Chesspride@aol.com

New Chess Film "In the Open"
Captures Essence of Amateur Chess

By Eric C. Johnson

Let’s get one thing straight right from the start. Laura Sherman’s new film, “In the Open,” does not portray chess tournaments in a particularly glamorous light.

But that’s OK, because most chess tournaments are not very glamorous.

During the first few minutes of the film, this realization might rub some USCF tournament veterans the wrong way. After all, aren’t movies supposed to be polished affairs, where the subject matter is made to look its best? And aren’t we supposed to judge movies by the quality of the acting, the flashiness of the special effects, and the intensity of the drama?

But life, like an amateur chess tournament, is not always polished and professional. Life, unlike the movies, does not have an unlimited budget.

Jean Baudrillard coined the phrase the “hyperreal” to describe such situations, where our expectations derived from artistic depictions come to replace, or seem more real than, the actual event.

And here, in Laura Sherman’s new film, this tension between how we think a movie should depict a chess drama runs head-long into what we know those chess events are really like.

“In the Open” deals with a group of longtime friends who assemble together over a long weekend to attend a local USCF-rated chess event. Sam is a Jason Priestley look-alike who really digs chess. Mary, the hostess, really digs Sam (but doesn’t know it yet). Gary is the typical Star Trek nerd, who intellectualizes everything, including his own social backwardness. Mo and Kyle are brothers engaged in a bit of sibling rivalry. Ricki is a tomboy desperately trying to get noticed. These are the social undercurrents of what is undisputably a chess movie, but yet also something more (and yet less) profound.

This is not the story of a tension-filled national championship, as in “Searching For Bobby Fischer.” There are no champions here. There are no huge crowds, no cheering parents. That type of story would be too easy, drawing as it would on our existing sense of the hyperreal.

Instead, “In the Open” takes the exact opposite approach, concentrating on showing what a small amateur tournament is really like. In this respect, the film succeeds brilliantly. The players are decidedly average, yet likable as most folks are in real life. They each have their own particular social flaws, yet each has some equally redeeming features. They grow on you.

And the film pulls no punches when it comes to showing the social negatives associated with amateur chess. The players express some opinions that would surely make a USCF official blanche. One character questions whether women can compete as equals against men in chess. Another actively schemes to drive the two main female characters away from the tournament by spreading false gossip. A third bemoans the fact that chess is a dead-end, where even the top players cannot make a decent living.

Early in the film, one of the characters exclaims to her father, “Oh great, just because Mom is out of town, I have to come to the chess-geek convention.” Now that’s painful realism for you!

And yet, the film’s accuracy is also its very greatest charm. The tournament hall scenes show real players using real USCF equipment (vinyl boards and BHB clocks). There is a large, blue USCF banner hanging on the wall. And the movie makes it very clear, through constant dialogue references, that this is supposed to be a USCF-rated tournament.

In fact, the scenes with the actual chess play come across very well. When the friends are gathered together at Mary’s house before the tourament, they play some casual blitz games. To the director’s credit, these games actually look like real blitz games. During the tournament itself, the camera pans from board to board, stopping for a few minutes of dialogue as each game begins or ends. That, too, is a pretty fair representation of how it really happens, as opposed to our hyperreal expectation of how it should happen in the movies,

What comes through most clearly, in this cinematic photograph of the USCF universe, is that these very average characters have the same life problems off the board as they do on the board. Chess, like life, is a game of open information. The challenge is to see deeply enough into the situation to notice the fine details.

Nothing is lost by revealing to the reader that Sam and Mary find each other over the board (literally), or that Gary learns that he needs to take more risks (both in chess and in his social life), or that Mo and Kyle finally come to a new and deeper appreciation of their relationship as brothers. There is no “secret ending” here, just as there are no “hidden moves” in a game of chess. You simply have to look more deeply to find the answers that were there all the time. Answers to problems that you, the viewer, have had in your own life and on your own board from time to time.

If the USCF had a sense of humor, they would show this film publicly at every National Event. It will undoubtedly become an underground classic on the chess circuit. I can think of no better recruitment film for new members for the federation’s 2,200 affiliated clubs and chess businesses. Veteran chessplayers will also appreciate the movie’s no-nonsense realism.

“In the Open” is not a hyperreal rendering of what chess should be like. Instead, it is very much a time capsule movie of how we actually played it.


For information on how to order your copy of “In the Open,” contact Laura Sherman (of Wild Heart Films) at laurasherman@earthlink.net.

Buy the film [Note: The Campbell Report is not involved in movie orders in any fashion. This link is provided for information only.]

Copyright © 1999 Eric C. Johnson, All Rights Reserved.

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