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Category: Movies

The Queen of Katwe – A Movie Review

Too often movies are judged as success or failure simply on the amount of money generated by theater, advertising, and merchandise revenue. With those factors typically making up the outcome measurements for modern films, most chess movies are doomed to commercial failure from the start or face relegation to independent distributors. Last year’s Pawn Sacrifice is a perfect example of the challenges faced by chess films. The film opened to high hopes, received mixed reviews, premiered almost two years after completion, received a positive review here on Campfire Chess, but has since disappeared into the abyss of forgotten films and misbegotten biopics. In reflecting on Pawn Sacrifice prior to reviewing The Queen of Katwe, I realized that Pawn Sacrifice simply does not have the creative longevity to remain at the forefront of modern chess cinema. Perhaps some of the early reflections (including my own) were the result of hype and excessive expectations that were ultimately underwhelmed and left disappointed. That is why when I went to see the film reviewed in this article, I was cautiously optimistic about the outcome and determined to guard myself against personal biases.

Cautiously optimistic…

The Disney biopic The Queen of Katwe, which is based on the life story of Phiona Mutesi, premiered in theaters across America on Friday night and yours truly was there with my beloved to watch the film. I was pleasantly surprised to see that we were among 40-50 moviegoers in the theater for the 1845L showing. In contrast, Pawn Sacrifice was less than 15 the night of its local premier. After suffering through a collection of disappointing trailers (and one about dogs that had me bawling) the movie finally began and we were treated to just over two hours of Disney’s interpretation and dramatization of the life and trials of Phiona Mutesi.

Capturing Ugandan Struggle and Pain

Because this was a Disney movie, I was interested to see to what lengths the producers would go to portray the depths of pain and suffering endured by Phiona and her family in the Katwe slums. It only took a few minutes to realize that the producers had used subtle nuances present in the daily lives of Kampala’s slum citizens to maintain a sense of vibrancy while showing a deep and resounding pain felt by Phiona and her family. Singing and dancing for personal pleasure soon gave way to singing and dancing in the streets for money to buy dinner. The daily struggles presented throughout the film were never lost in the mixture of chess and personal victories, but those struggles also never whitewashed the sense of achievement and growth brought on by Phiona’s challenges and triumphs.

Phiona was played expertly by Madina Nalwanga and her coach by David Oyelowo, but it was without a doubt the exceptional Lupita Nyong’o who played Phiona’s mother that stole the show. There were times throughout the film that I wondered if the story was actually about Phiona’s mother and less about Phiona and her brother. Yet, these powerful moments where we were treated to following Phiona’s mother through her daily struggles provided the audience with a wonderful context for the challenges that Phiona would face. Why would a mother hesitate to accept scholarships or growth opportunities for their child? These questions and many others were answered by the unique way in which the filmmakers frame the challenges, failures, and triumphs of Phiona in the parallel worlds of chess and life through the eyes of her mother. It become apparent early on that Phiona is certainly her mother’s child; a woman who refused to roll over or accept that she was not capable of rising to a higher level of achievement.

Are We Still Looking for Bobby?

It is hard to write a chess film review without comparing said film to the classic Searching for Bobby Fischer, but doing so with The Queen of Katwe sets a new precedent in chess cinema. That 1991 film staring Joe Mantegna and Max Pomeranc is often seen as a benchmark for chess filmmaking and storytelling. Many people, including myself, hold it dear as one of the best movies about chess ever made. Yet, I could not help but wonder as I watched The Queen of Katwe with my wife, if we were not watching what could become the Searching for Bobby Fischer of the 21st century.

Earlier this week I wrote about how the Daily Caller wrote a hit piece on Phiona Mutesi quoting anonymous Grandmasters and others leading up to the film’s release. The intent of that article was to paint her as a subpar chess player undeserving of any sort of international attention. Yet, such language and disrespect is not levied at young Josh Waitzkin in press releases for Searching. Josh was (and still is) considered a legitimate chess prodigy although he has mostly given it up to pursue other activities. In her native country of Uganda and among the most powerful chess professionals in Africa, Phiona is a chess force to be reckoned with. The hit article certainly weighed on me as I watched the film. Fortunately, I was pleased to see that the filmmakers had treated Phiona and the chess world with an enormous amount of respect.

Phiona expresses her desire to be a chess master and receives both good and bad advice throughout the film, but never is the idea of rising to the top of the chess world presented as an option to Phiona without an enormous amount of personal commitment and support. Even when Phiona attends the Moscow Olympiad, her defeat becomes the crux of the film’s final act in which she finds herself struggling to play for fear of losing.

Ultimately, The Queen of Katwe exposes something about Phiona Mutesi that is often lost in stats, PGN files, and ELO references: her humanity. The film expertly balances the philosophy and challenges of playing chess but also shows how chess can bring out the truth of human struggle and triumph. Such stories are often overplayed in cinema, but here it is professionally mixed to where the chess victory is never really undermined by the struggles that it seeks to solve.

A Final Verdict…

The Queen of Katwe was much better than I had anticipated and it tugged at the heart strings in a way that only Disney can manage. It was easy to be empathetic with Phiona and her relatives facing daily starvation and deplorable conditions in the Katwe slums. The outstanding performances combined with some great chess scenes that were obviously supervised by chess professionals that cared about how the game was represented on screen, it is a film that is definitely worth seeing. Yet, I think that only time will tell if it has the longevity to remain a classic in chess cinema. The story of Phiona Mutesi is still ongoing, but that is the crux of the film’s entire premise. Life never stops, and those places were are used to are not always the places we are meant to be.

I only hope that Phiona and this film continue to inspire people to pick up our game.

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Queen of Katwe Trailer Released

I did a small exposé in September of 2014 on Phiona Mutesi and her incredible rise in the professional chess world. At the time, it was rumored that Disney had acquired the rights to Tim Crothers’ book The Queen of Katwe, which is based on Phiona’s life in Kampala, Uganda and her rise to play in the 2010 and 2014 Chess Olympiads. Now, Disney has released the official trailer for The Queen of Katwe and has set its release date for September 23, 2016.

Initial reaction to the trailer has been positive and it looks like Disney has managed to capture the essence of Phiona’s story, which is triumph over the worst of life’s circumstances. Fortunately, this is a theme that Disney has great experience with. Hopefully the film will get screen time here in San Antonio so I can deliver a proper review at its time of release. Until then, enjoy the trailer above, check out the article on Chess.com, and visit the official Facebook page for the film.

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Pawn Sacrifice – A Movie Review

The Bobby Fischer biopic Pawn Sacrifice debuted this week in theaters across the United States. The film stars Tobey Maguire as the venerable chess prodigy Bobby Fischer and Liev Schreiber as the pillar of Soviet Cold War chess dominance Boris Spassky. A couple of years ago when I heard that Zwick, Maguire, and Schreiber were working on a film based on Bobby and the 1972 World Chess Championship I was very excited to see chess returning to the silver screen. Although I had high hopes for the film I was skeptical that it could usurp my favorite chess movie of all time: Searching for Bobby Fischer. The story of Pawn Sacrifice‘s production is almost as dramatic as the story it tells. For the entire production and a long time after its conclusion there were only two promotional photos made available online to promote the film. When it was completed, there was a time when the film rode into festivals without a major distributor. However, Bleecker Street Media picked up the film and distributed it to audiences around the United States starting on September 24th of this year following a special presentation in Saint Louis after the conclusion of the Sinquefield Cup.


The Story

Robert James Fischer was one of the most electrifying personalities in 20th century chess. He taught himself to play chess when his mother left him alone for hours on end in their Brooklyn apartment overlooking Ebbets Field. At age 15 he became the youngest grandmaster in the history of the game and the youngest candidate to ever emerge for the World Chess Championship. The young boy from Brooklyn quickly took the chess world by storm and soon started winning the hearts of people outside the chess world for the way that he not only destroyed his opponents on the board, but also for the psychological damages he often caused. Bobby Fischer played chess at a time when the Soviet Union poured a significant amount of its national budget and effort into producing some of the world’s top grandmasters. Chess was seen as proof of Soviet intellectual superiority over the United States and its allies and the results of countless Chess Olympiads and World Championships seemed to validate that claim. However, Bobby’s emergence brought to light what had been known in secret for many years: the Soviet Union had been intentionally drawing games to stack the deck against players from other countries. The result was that key Soviet grandmasters were virtually assured a shot at the FIDE World Championship title, which was often played against another Soviet grandmaster. The player who had the most favor with the state at the time was allowed to win the title and hold it as long as it was beneficial for the sake of the Soviet system.

Bobby’s distate for the Soviet chess machine was put on prominent display in his now famous Sports Illustrated article in 1962, The Russians Have Fixed World Chess. If he was not a target of the red chess machine and the KGB, this article propelled him into the international spotlight and aired the dirty secrets of Soviet chess for the entire world. The rest of the story is pretty well known. Bobby went on to defeat some of the most powerful grandmasters of the day and win a chance to challenge Russian World Champion Boris Spassky in the 1972 championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. Yet, throughout the tournament and in the years leading up to it Bobby was plagued by a growing sense of paranoia and mania. He was obsessed with the Russians and convinced that they were tracking his every move. While its true that the KGB was keeping close tabs on Bobby, the fear and paranoia he was experiencing grew out of control and damaged practically every relationship he had. When the match was over Bobby emerged victorious over Spassky and the Soviet chess machine. After that he disappeared and was largely unheard from until his 1992 rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia.

Pawn Sacrifice covers much of Bobby’s life from his adolescence through some of his prominent chess appearances up to the 1972 World Championship match. For much of the film the chess takes a backstage to Bobby’s growing paranoia and personal struggles. When it begins, the World Championship match in Reykjavik is a powerful backdrop for what is often seen as Bobby’s final battle to maintain his own sanity. Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of Bobby as the self-confident Da Vinci of modern chess is a perfect recreation of the man that many watched throughout the years on television and in tournaments around the world. In contrast Liev Schreiber is a silent, towering man who more closely resembles a football star than a chess champion. There is a heavy sense of Bobby’s personal desire to beat Spassky than of Spassky’s desire to beat Bobby. At least, until Bobby fails to show for the 2nd game of the match and risks losing the championship to Spassky by forfeit. Spassky agrees to play Bobby in the back room away from the audience because winning the match by forfeit would rob him of a true victory against Bobby. The film’s climax comes in game 6, which is widely known as the best game of the match and one of the greatest chess games ever played.

The Good

There is a lot to love about Pawn Sacrifice for chess and non-chess fans alike. For the non-chess fan, the acting in the film is superb and the way in which it portrays Bobby’s descent into paranoia is well done. Some have complained that Bobby spent much of his time in the film yelling at people around him and this is certainly not what is portrayed in much of the archival footage of him. However, this is consistent with the testimonies of his friends and family. Bobby Fischer drove away pretty much everyone that ever stepped forward to care for him. The paranoia, which was grounded in truth, simply became too much for him to handle. Even the greatest chess player in history had a breaking point.


Although the chess itself takes a backseat to the story of Bobby and his struggles again himself and the Soviet chess machine, I was deeply impressed by the quality of the chess presentation. The producers painstakingly recreated the 1972 World Chess Championship with precision right down to the design of the Reykjavik chess set used in the match. In addition, the film does a great job of creating an authentic look and feel of the late 1960s and early 1970s without overdoing it with excessive hippies and peace symbols.

The Bad

Just as there is a lot to love, there is a lot to dismiss, loathe, or simply forgive and forget about the film. Obviously I have already discussed the use of incorrect notation in an earlier post. In addition to this, there was the general choppiness in the first half of the film as the producers struggled to fit so much of the story into such a little block of time. Given the depth of material I think that the producers did a decent job providing the audience with enough information to follow the nuances of the story without becoming overwhelmed by minutia. However, there were some elements that were unusual and seemed out of place given the pace and direction of the film narrative. The biggest example I can think of is Bobby’s brief obsession with the Worldwide Church of God in which he listened to countless recorded sermons prophesying the end of the world. Bobby became disillusioned with the church and it was a major portion of his life, but the focus of Pawn Sacrifice made Bobby’s brief time spent listening to the sermons seem out of place. There was never a noticeable change in his behavior, whether verbal or nonverbal, that would have enabled the hint of his religiosity to benefit the story.


I also could not help but notice that Michael Stuhlbarg who played Bobby’s friend Paul Marshall in the film was wearing a standard issue US Air Force blue overcoat during much of the movie.

Finally, I could not help but laugh when my wife poked me in the side at the end of the film as Bobby rode away in his car from the tournament at Reykjavik. When he has cleared the crowd of people he reaches into his pocket and unzips a pocket chess set. And, this is not just any chess set…its a Chessmate Wallet! My wife recognized it because its from the same company that makes the Chessmate Ultima that I reviewed back when I first started this site.

The Final Verdict

Pawn Sacrifice is a solid psychological drama and a great historical pic about one of the greatest moments in chess history. Despite its few flaws and creative liberties taken by its creators, it stands on its own as a powerful representation of the tormented world of Robert James Fischer who, despite having his ELO eclipsed by other chess players, remains the greatest and most influential chess player in history.

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What the Pawn Sacrifice Poster Says About Chess Players

I am one of those guys who spends most of his life wishing that he could go to film festivals to catch the latest and greatest independent films from across the globe. Instead of actually going to these festivals, however, I am most likely doomed to tracking the films that interest me as they spend years in distribution limbo awaiting a mainstream theatrical release. This has especially been the case with the movie Pawn Sacrifice, the upcoming biopic about the 1972 World Chess Championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. I remember hearing about it for the first time and was filled with excitement! That was over a year and a half ago, with Pawn Sacrifice just now preparing for its theatrical debut. In any case, I digress.

For most of the time that the public has been aware of the existence of the movie, the only real promotional material available for it was a publicity photo showing Tobey McGuire and Liev Schreiber in their respective roles as Fischer and Spassky. Of course, the initial reviews of the movie from the premier festival have not been great although these days it is impossible to trust most movie reviews, especially the ones coming from independent film festivals. Yet, I still held on to my hope until the official poster for the film was finally revealed.

The Mind of Robert J. Fischer

At first, it struck me as a fairly standard piece of modern poster art. Earth tones are all the rage in Hollywood’s digital arts factories. I guess that it is because faded browns and grays increase the audience’s sense of the character’s pain and struggles. I also like the subtle complexities of the picture. There is much for the audience to discern from the look on Bobby Fischer’s face and the chess notations coming out of his head. For the people who knew, played with, and experienced the real Bobby Fischer, the notations coming out of his mind represent the whole of who he was as a human being and as a chess player. Bobby lived his life only to play chess. When he played, he was the best that the world had ever seen, but the darkness of his dichotomous existential paradigm eventually took him from the game, and eventually…sanity itself.

Just a hint of emotional struggle…
An Algebraic Quandary

I did not give the poster much thought until I started seeing the reactions from other chess players on Chess.com and on various Facebook chess groups. Where most people might decry a lack of creativity in Hollywood these days or the overemphasis on brown colors, but instead, chess players know exactly what is most important in life, and that is the accuracy of the chess!

You see, the chess notation coming out of Bobby’s head in the poster is historically inaccurate. Although Bobby might have annotated some of his games in algebraic notation (shown in the poster), it is a well known fact that he exclusively used descriptive notation when playing in tournaments. This might not seem like mich of a big deal to the casual observer, but to a chess community flustered and running out of patience with Hollywood’s inability to even set a board up correctly, it means everything in the world. I realized that I saw the commenta as petty and obnoxious mainly because I am a huge Bobby Fischer fan and I have been looking forward to the film for quite some time. However, after some introspection and examination of the poster, the trailer, and the comments from others within the chess community, I came to the conclusion that:

  • 1) It is historically inaccurate.
  • 2) It does not matter to 99% of the audience that will see the film.
  • 3) It does not change the film at all.
  • 4) It does matter to the remaining 1%, who are those of us that go to bed at night and solve tactical positions in our sleep.

I regret my initial impressions of the response to the poster in some sense. Yes, perhaps the complaints (if taken seriously) are a bit on the obnoxious side, but those comments represent the passion of a community that has dedicated itself to the game. For us, chess is not just a game…it is our game. At this point, I am willing to attribute the algebraic notation to simple human oversight since watching the trailer reveals that a key shot of the chessboard that actually reflects a position from the original tournament. Perhaps these small details will make up for the algebraic notation in the minds of most chess players, or perhaps it does not really matter at all. Even great historic films like Schindler’s List and Amadeus are filled with historical inaccuracies, but the small details did not effect the overall quality of the final product.

Despite the initial reviews, I am hopeful that Pawn Sacrifice will be an excellent re-telling of one of the Cold War’s defining moments. Tobey McGuire might be the best Bobby Fischer to ever hit the silver screen, or he might be the worst. The character of Bobby Fischer himself was so unique and so far off of the charts of what we would consider normal that I think it is practically impossible to find anyone who could play him in a way that truly expresses the torment he lived with.

Ultimately, any criticism of Pawn Sacrifice’s historical inaccuracies demonstrates that for those of us who live their lives in the world of chess, it will always be more than a game.

For some excellent analysis of the movie and some of the issues I discussed here, check out FM Mike Klein‘s awesome article on Chess.com. Pawn Sacrifice will be arriving in theaters this September. Check out the official trailer here.

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Life and the Luzhin Defense

In the 1930s, the world was entering into a time of upheaval. The Soviet Revolution had solidified itself into the lives of the Russian people and Germany was in the midst of economic transitions that would give way to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Among the turmoil, Russian author Vladimir Nabokov was inspired by the life of his friend, Curt von Bardeleben, a chess master who died after falling out of a window in 19241, to pen a story for a Russian quarterly. Some people believe that if Nabokov had not written his 1955 masterpiece, Lolita, that his 1930 work for the quarterly, called The Defense, would be known today as his greatest work. Most chess players are familiar with the book, which was republished years later as The Luzhin Defense or by the film of the same name starring John Turturro, and opinions vary widely. The purpose of this entry is to examine The Luzhin Defense and its portrayal of life, love, and the stereotype of chess madness.

The premise of the Luzhin Defense is that Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, the book’s protagonist, grows up in a high class family with exceptional education opportunities, but his homely appearance and lack of academic ability quickly earn him disdain from his family until it is discovered that he was born with a significant aptitude for chess. The novel and the movie portray this aptitude as a double-edged sword: Luzhin’s ability to play propels him to fame as a world-class chess player, but his obsession with the game is a hindrance to his social life and his ability to establish dynamic and meaningful connections with other people. This becomes most apparent when the father of Luzhin’s prospective bride makes a spontaneous “small talk” inquiry about the difficulty of playing chess. Luzhin’s calm and distant demeanor shifts to excitement as he arranges tabletop items into chess patterns and explains his thoughts and feelings about key opening moves. The father is obviously overwhelmed by the information and attempts to dismiss Luzhin’s ranting by playing off his words with a simple response, “Yes, a fascinating and difficult thing, this chess.”2 The scene appears in the book and the film and is a brutally honest evaluation of the public’s most typical perception of chess players. The game is viewed unfortunately viewed by many as a trivial pursuit3, and much more so during Luzhin’s era than today. For example, there are photos of Bobby Fischer, Paul Morphy, Alexander Alekhine, and other great chess players along with chess boards and art representing the game scattered throughout my office at work. While there are some serious chess players in my hospital, most people enter the room and look at the chess memorabilia in a way that clearly says, Look at the cute chess pieces, and belies the depth of meaning these items convey to me and so many others. The social challenges faced by Luzhin off the chess board are something that most players can relate to, but the stigma of chess madness is the epicenter of division of opinions on the merits of The Luzhin Defense.

Chess and the Psychosis Factor

It is said that life often imitates art, with most film and literature about chess emphasizing the social awkwardness and psychosis that accompany some of the greatest chess minds in history. Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer are as famous for their mental collapses as they are for their chess brilliance. After leaving highly publicized and successful chess careers, each of them succumbed to unusual behavioral patterns that indicated possible psychosis and eventually died in exile. I mention possible psychosis because neither player was ever formally given a psychiatric diagnosis. Unfortunately for modern chess, Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen may not be widely known outside the world of chess unless they suffer a significant psychological break or are involved in some form of controversy. Instead of chess greatest, the world tends to remember chess devastation and disappointment such as Bobby Fischer’s disappearance after his 1972 World Championship victory. Some people would consider this a chess-specific problem, but most professional baseball players are unknown outside of their home markets unless they commit a crime. The difficulty for many chess players with The Luzhin Defense is that it seems to perpetuate many of the stereotypes connecting chess players and psychosis because as it was with Morphy and Fischer, Luzhin meets an untimely end in the book’s final pages.

It is difficult to peer through the bias and prejudice that some people may have about the stereotypes The Luzhin Defense to see the story for what it is: the authentic psychological condition and experiences of a man whose life was held together by chess. Chess often carries the stigma that it drives its players insane, but the story of Luzhin’s life seems more like that of Morphy and Fischer in that chess was the force that held his life together. In times of chaos, people will search desperately for a way to control the world around them. Control is an illusion in itself, but a person experiencing a perceived loss of total control can become depressed or psychotic if the condition is left untreated. In the case of Alexander Luzhin, chess was the lifeblood that held his world together. He was unable to reconcile his physician’s instructions to give up the one thing that formed the fabric of his universe. Chess creates obsession in its players for various reasons, but Luzhin’s obsession had nothing to do with simple aesthetics or competition. Instead, chess represented a deeply philosophical and existential paradigm in his life. This depth of knowledge and experience within the game itself is why the love of chess has persisted throughout civilization for centuries. It is believed that chess originated as a way for military commanders to simulate battle line movements in combat4 and has been applied far beyond the military to finances and social networking. It is this apparent universalism and beautiful complexity that has cemented chess in the world’s psyche as a deeply intellectual and multidimensional game. Chess was the only thing that Luzhin had ever learned to control in his life. We may never know for sure if this was the case for Morphy or Fischer, but once Luzhin was ordered by physicians to stop playing chess or risk dying as a result, he found new ways to integrate chessic thinking into his everyday life. A simple “Hello” to a passerby could be represented by a pawn to e4, or a cordial meeting could be represented by a Knight to f3.

The Heart of a Woman

There are many fascinating parts of The Luzhin Defense story and its characters, but I believe that none are as fascinating as the unnamed young lady who marries Luzhin and becomes his rock of support through his downward spiral. It is safe to say that the story is less about chess and more about the human spirit of love and compassion in the face of hopelessness. Mrs. Luzhin, as she is referred to through the second half of the book, is arguably one of the most patient and devoted women in the history of literature. Despite Luzhin’s odd behavior and his obsession with chess, she remains a passionate and dedicated wife. In a sense, Mrs. Luzhin represents the unconditional love that only comes from the deepest and most personal place in our hearts. While most people would probably have discarded Luzhin, her open heart accepted his faults because she saw more in him as a person and recognized the elegance of a soul buried under decades of torment and despair. For a man who has known this kind of love from a woman, the story is intoxicating. For a man who yearns for this kind of love from a woman, the story is viciously inspiring. I wholeheartedly believe that if we as a people can believe the story of Alexander Luzhin’s psychosis through chess without blinking an eye, we can accept the unconditional love of a woman in the same manner. It is Mrs. Luzhin whose kindness and devotion reminds us that when the world is spiraling out of control, there is no safer place than in the heart of someone who loves us.

Are We Crazy or What?

Alexander Luzhin was probably crazy. Paul Morphy was probably crazy. Bobby Fischer was probably crazy. You are probably crazy. I am probably crazy. Do you see a pattern emerging? In some aspects, psychosis is in the eye of the beholder since what might be crazy in one culture or setting is perfectly normal in another setting. There are a growing multitude of examples where chess has proven to increase aptitudes in math and science and to help deter early onset dementia. I find it difficult to believe that chess itself is responsible for psychosis such as seen in Alexander Luzhin. Moreover, I believe that Luzhin already suffered from a psychiatric condition and that chess was a vehicle that provided him the ability to control that psychosis. Maybe someday a comprehensive study will be conducted into the development of psychiatric conditions and chess, but until then these stories will continue to exist only in the realm of conjecture, urban legend, and first-class fiction.


  1. Lasker, Edward (1951). Chess Secrets I Learned from the Masters, pp. 20-21, in the section on Curt von Bardeleben. New York, 1951. Retrieved from http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/winter55.html 

  2. Vladimir Nabokov, The Luzhin Defense (New York, NY: Vintage International, 1964), Kindle, Location 1407. 

  3. Ibid, Location 1293. 

  4. David Shenk, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2006), Kindle, Location 295. 

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