The Broadway version has a somewhat telescoped story compared to the earlier London West End version (check Wikipedia for comparisons), but the overriding concept is one of complex political intrigue that results at a chess match, starting in Bangkok (in the Broadway version) and ending in Budapest in 1986. Russian champion Anatoly has fallen in love with the American trainer Florence, and wants to defect. But the Soviets use leverage against the families of both (Florence’s family had ties to the 1956 Hungarian uprising). In one scene, Anatoly tells officials he shouldn’t be responsible for what happens to family members he did not sire, but the Russian officials say that isn’t how our system works. Toward the end of the musical the script has various lines about the importance of the individual’s recognizing the “common good.” I wondered how this musical would have played at Glenn Beck’s rally in Washington Saturday. You could say it is a “right wing” show (quite Reaganesque), and a very entertaining one. Entertainment for conservatives!
But the chess games themselves are noteworthy. In Act I, a game starts with a Grunfeld Defense, exchange variation. (Back in the 60s and 70s, there was a conception that the Soviets built their chess hegemony on 1 P-Q4, and the Americans on 1 P-K4, because of Bobby Fisher, but Fisher started using QP opening against Spassky in 1972. ) In Act II, the Russian opens with 1 P-K4 and there ensues a Two Knights Defense (essentially an almost forced but effective pawn sacrifice by Black), Wilkes Barre variation, with all the wild compensations where Black sacrifices everything for mate. The American wins.
The script also suggests that the Cold War was fought on a chess board as much as in missile silos. The ideological and strategic battles, especially after the Berlin and Cuban Missile crises of the early 1960s, tended to map the chess championships. Chess became a patriotic game. (Former Naval Academy midshipman Joseph Steffan talked about chess games played on his submarine summer in his “Honor Bound” book.)
The Two Knights Defense was popular in the early 1960s, both at the GW U chess club, but even earlier. On the night of my “Science Honor Society” initiation in December 1960, one guest arrived early and we played a chess game. I lost with White to this variation, as I remember.
The Signature Theater Max lobby looked a bit like the “Front Page” restaurant, with full newspaper clips of Cold War events, especially the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis, and earlier Hungarian uprising.
Josh Groban appears in this YouTube opening of a different performance by “Live Chess the Musical”.