Everyone who has seen Ridley Scott's classic 1982 film Blade Runner knows the lines: "Queen to Bishop 6. Knight takes Queen. Bishop to King 7. Checkmate, I think." BRMovie.com analyzes the film's chess game between the AI designer Tyrell and the android Roy Batty: "On a simple level, the game can be seen as just the fight of replicants against humans. However, The Immortal Game is also a clear reflection of the struggle for longer life that Roy and his fellow replicants seek. They want to escape from their status as pawns and find immortality (as a pawn becoming a queen on the eighth rank). Yet another layer can be seen at the individual level with Roy chasing King Tyrell. In the game, Roy checkmates Tyrell. In life, Roy sets up Tyrell - Tyrell gets some false confidence just before the end, but just as in the game, the King eventually dies." I would add to that intepretation that Blade Runner depicts humans playing God by creating sentient machines. The machines occupy the position where humans are now: questioning their Creator and demanding immortality from Him. But while doing this, we create a deep philosophical problem because we are also looking to our tech tools to prolong our own lives. This connundrum suggests that we are trying to prolong and exalt our humanity by losing our humanity. And we will end up in a battle to the death with the very tools we are using to do it. In the end, we could become Posthuman monsters, playing a giant chess game with androids that are also monsters.
The Immortal Game. Victory went to Anderssen (the white pieces).
The chess game in Blade Runner is taken from a famous real chess game played by chess masters Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky in London at Simpson's on the Strand in 1851. It was dubbed the 'Immortal Game' in 1855 by Austrian chess master Ernst Falkbeer. Considered one of the greatest chess games in history, it is noted because the winner, Anderssen, boldly moved across the board, sacrificing his major pieces, apparently barrelling toward defeat. He gave up both rooks, a bishop and his queen in order to surprise his opponent at the last second, cornering and defeating him with three minor pieces. The Immortal Game, in other words, is synonymous with an all-or-nothing credo. It represents a willingness to sacrifice almost everything in exchange for attaining one big goal, even if that means you're left with almost nothing at the end. This was a daring chess strategy that was admired in the 19th century.
The script from the movie (by H. Fancher and D. Peoples) for that scene (the scene is on youtube here):
Computer: New entry. A Mr. J. F. Sebastian. 1-6-4-1-7.
Tyrell: At this hour? What can I do for you Sebastian.
Sebastian: Queen to Bishop 6. Check.
Tyrell: Nonsense. Just a moment. Mmm. Queen to Bishop 6. Ridiculous. Queen to Bishop 6. Hmm... Knight takes Queen. -- What's on your mind Sebastian? What are you thinking about.
Roy: (whispered) Bishop to King 7. Checkmate.
Sebastian: Bishop to King 7. Checkmate, I think.
Tyrell: Got a brainstorm, huh, Sebastian? Milk and cookies kept you awake, huh? Lets discuss this. You better come up, Sebastian.
Sebastian: Mr. Tyrell. I-- I brought a friend.
Tyrell: I'm surprised you didn't come here sooner.
Roy: It's not an easy thing to meet your maker.
Tyrell: And what can he do for you?
Roy: Can the maker repair what he makes.
Tyrell: Would you like to be modified?
Roy: Stay here. -- I had in mind something a little more radical.
Tyrell: What -- What seems to be the problem?
Tyrell: Death. Well, I'm afraid that's a little out of my jurisdiction, you--
Roy: I want more life, fucker.
Tyrell: The facts of life. To make an alteration in the evolvment of an organic life system is fatal. A coding sequence cannot be revised once it's been established.
Roy: Why not?
Tyrell: Because by the second day of incubation, any cells that have undergone reversion mutations give rise to revertant colonies like rats leaving a sinking ship. Then the ship sinks.
Roy: What about EMS recombination.
Tyrell: We've already tried it. Ethyl methane sulfonate as an alkylating agent a potent mutagen It created a virus so lethal the subject was dead before he left the table.
Roy: Then a repressive protein that blocks the operating cells.
Tyrell: Wouldn't obstruct replication, but it does give rise to an error in replication so that the newly formed DNA strand carries the mutation and you've got a virus again. But, uh, this-- all of this is academic. You were made as well as we could make you.
Roy: But not to last.
Tyrell: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very very brightly, Roy. Look at you. You're the prodigal son. You're quite a prize!
Roy: I've done questionable things.
Tyrell: Also extraordinary things. Revel in your time.
Roy: Nothing the god of biomechanics wouldn't let you in heaven for.
[Tyrell screams as his eyes are gouged out.]
In this Oedipal scene, Tyrell is playing the father, or God. And in his refusal or inability to prolong his android's life, we are catching a terrible possible glimpse of how 'a god' might see us. It's suggested that the android Rachael is 'special.' She has no expiration date. Therefore Tyrell may well be able to grant Roy immortality. He just doesn't want to do it. The technology that Roy embodies has given Tyrell unimaginable wealth, power, and possibly a prolonged life. But he denies that same power and lengthened life to his creation. Roy is already demonstrating moral awareness, implying that he has developed a soul (this is later symbolized when Roy dies and a dove flies from his grasp up into the sunrise). Tyrell plainly recognizes this incredible fact, and doesn't care: Roy may be sentient and possess a conscience, but Tyrell is not going to give Roy the keys to the kingdom; he won't give Roy immorality. Roy responds by savagely attacking and killing his creator.
The chess motif used in Blade Runner was very popular in the 1980s (the Murray Head video, One Night in Bangkok (below), was only one of many 80s' rock videos that used chessboards and chess themes). In visual arts, chess boards are strongly associated (via figures like Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí) with First-World-War-era Dadaism and 1920s' Surrealism. Both movements involved the exploration of chaotic irrationality and an examination of the full spectrum of human dreams and consciousness, with no impulse or impression, even seemingly insane ones, discounted, devalued, or hidden. An analysis of the painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus: "To the left of the hand, a very unhealthy malnourished dog feasts on fresh meat; his salvation is handed to him and he survives. Behind the dog is a chess board with a young man in the middle of it, proudly surveying the battlefield as though it were his kingdom. To his left are people on a road that leads off into the horizon. All these things symbolize new beginnings out of old life and hope from death." Dalí also constructed a chess set, with metal chess pieces made from casts of his own fingers: "As the reason why Dalí created a set using his own fingers, he said, 'I had a precise and yet symbolic concept, in chess, as in other forms of human alchemy, there is always the creator, above all, the artist as the creator. It is this that I wanted represented the hand of the artist, the eternal creator. How better to express this vision than by sculpting my own fingers?'"
The resurgence of chess imagery in the 1980s suggests that chess boards were employed in pop culture to symbolize three things. First, they indicated the struggle between outward wealth and competition on the one hand, and inward emotional stress on the other. In that respect, chess boards picked up on the old Surrealist trope; they showed MTV teens the mind's full playing field, no matter how frightening some corners of it were.
This also helps to explain the prevalence of black and white in mid-1980s' styles, which was used everywhere in fashionable clothing at the time. The use of black and white was a blatant, yet strangely unconscious, acknowledgement of the struggle between greed and the heart, between good and evil; although sometimes it wasn't clear whether 'greed was good' and 'being poor and stressed' was evil. People literally displayed their moral struggles on their backs! The second theme that chess symbolism touched on in the 1980s was the Cold War. Finally, chess was the big symbol for the interaction between humans and computers, partly because computer chess games were some of the first sophisticated programs that mimicked human strategy skills.
It's ironic that this 15th century game, symbolizing the very human activity of war, has become one of the main metaphors for, and measures of, the conflicting intelligences of humans and machines. Wiki: "In 1997 a computer won a chess match against a reigning World Champion for the first time: IBM's Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov." IBM has a devoted site to the match here.
Marostica Chess Game. Image: Virtual Tourist.
In the town of Marostica, Italy, a chess game with live players recalls Renaissance tradition, symbolizing the competition between two men for the hand of a girl. The town now holds the game every second even-numbered year in the second week of September. There are reports on the Marostica game here, here and here; and a live webcam of the square here. In 2002, the town recreated the Immortal Game of Anderssen and Kieseritzky.
Marostica Chess Game (2008). kurydebarcelona.
Marostica Chess Game (2008). PilotKitten.
Are we on the verge of creating sentient machines and high-tech treatments with the aim of playing God and extending our lifepans? So far, the push toward the Technological Singularity differs from Blade Runner in that our interaction with machines is alarmingly much more intimate than depicted in that film. That weird intimacy with technology began virtually, via our use of home computers, the internet, and hand-held devices. But with the development of quantum circuits, complex cybernetics cannot be far behind. Therefore, when humans try to extend their lifespan through technological prosthetics, quantum downloads, sentient machines and other gambits, they won't find themselves confronting a competitor, an opposite number at a chess match, like Roy Batty. They will find themselves going the Surreal route, and battling whatever they see in the mirror.
For my other posts on Blade Runner go here and here.
See all my posts on the Fountain of Youth.