Jeremy’s Review: Ian McDonald’s ‘Algorithms’ Falls Victim to the Budapest Gambit

algorithms_posterWhat is the Budapest Gambit, you ask? Well, it’s a chess opening that apparently was able to draw top players into making mistakes only to lose the game. I think it’s an apt appraisal of Ian McDonald‘s Algorithms, a film about chess following three young players from India, which just so happens to be the birthplace of chess, as they vie for prominence in their home country and for a world championship. The catch with these young men is that they are all blind or are partially sighted. Picture that if you can. Chess, a game where there are 318,979,564,000 possible plays in the first four moves, being played by blind players. While these players can certainly be aided by technology that blind players in the past did not have access to, the undertaking is immense. Much is the task that McDonald undertakes in the documentation about three junior players.

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Algorithms focuses on three young players, Darpan, SaiKrishna and Anant, all of whom show great promise especially under the tutelage of Indian hero Charudatta Jadhav, the founder of the All India Chess Federation for the Blind and himself a chess champion. All of them are hoping to represent India in the upcoming World Championships in Greece. Jadhav aspires to have blind chess players on par with totally sighted players and he constantly stresses that in his advice to the young men. Some of the boys’ backgrounds are fleshed out in interviews with their parents, who are very involved in the boys’ chess playing, which is quite evident in the opening scene. Darpan, who ends up being the main focus of the film, has a particularly sad tale of how he was struck blind, something that still causes his mother and immense amount of grief, so much that she can’t bear to hear husband tell the story and leaves the interview. Despite this, I don’t think we ever get a fully fleshed out sense of each boy. We see them playing chess, talking about chess, discussing missed opportunities and such, but we don’t ever get a sense of who these kids are outside of the black and white squares where they battle.

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McDonald  sets up the film so perfectly in the opening scene with a match between SaiKrishna and Darpan where we get the sense of a rivalry starting, but that never materializes which really left me wanting more. The film ultimately lacked an emotional center which would seem to be key for a film like this. With so much lore in recent years starting with Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky in 1972 leading to Kasparov vs. Deep Blue, there is an expectation that there is some underpinning base that creates drama in the chess world. Perhaps that’s unfair of me, but that’s my expectation. In watching Charudatta dealing with the boys, I was gobsmacked at how passive-aggressive he was with them. While this might be a cultural difference, I couldn’t help but to feel incredibly sad for the boys. I will say that I really loved his choice to shoot the film in black and white, which mimics not only the colors of the chessboard and pieces, but also reminds us that in these boys’ lives, nothing is simply black and white, that shades of gray exist in everything they do.

While this film seems incomplete, the subject matter is still immensely fascinating. Watching the blind players feel for the the pieces on their boards in an effort to figure out their next moves was impressive. That they can plan out their moves without seeing the board is equally impressive and leads me to recall the scene in Searching for Bobby Fischer where young Josh Waitzkin‘s teacher knocks the pieces from the board and asks him to plot the four moves to checkmate. If you’re a chess junky, this film is likely right up your alley despite its deficiencies.

This film opened at Quad Cinemas in New York City this weekend and will be released on DVD by First Run Features in the future.

About Jeremy Harmon

He is Jeremy Harmon aka Spirit of the Thing aka Harmonov. Once a Van Damme/action movie devotee, he now prefers to delve into small budget, independent and foreign films. Jeremy maintains that Slap Shot is the best movie ever. Follow him on Twitter @harmonov or read his new blog @ http://spiritofthething.wordpress.com/