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Lights, camera, checkmate

A chess player in the movies tries the game in real life

Author Peter Keough Illustration Peter Oumanski

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CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – Gerald Peary was winning. After not playing a game of chess in 53 years, the film critic had visibly rattled Dmitri, the taciturn Russian master who plies his trade at the Au Bon Pain outdoor café across the street from Harvard Yard. Emboldened, Peary sent his queen into the fray, and Dmitri was in retreat.

As Peary put it later, “The Feeling” had returned.

Strictly speaking, Peary, 69, has played chess recently, but only in a movie—Andrew Bujalski’s comedic indie darling Computer Chess. Acting is another talent Peary let lie fallow—he hadn’t done any in more than 40 years. Still, he got good reviews. The Boston Globe described his portrayal of a 1980s chess master as “delightfully played.” Surely taking up the game again would be no more difficult than acting.

So it was that Peary agreed to challenge the 70-something Dmitri, who looked daunting in his army fatigues emblazoned with the logos of automotive products, and whose reputation as a shock-and-awe chess player was equally disconcerting. But he charged only $2 a game, and then only if he won.

A small audience of tourists, locals and students gathered to watch. Peary recalled some tactics and strategy, but he was not clear on the “pin” and the “fork.” The latter did him in. Cocky from his promising start, he overlooked Dmitri’s knight, which suddenly, fatally, pronged both his queen and rook.

Even though he lost the game, that heroic thrust early on, that whiff of victory, had rekindled a spark in the former high school chess club president. “There are moves in chess that are given two exclamation points,” he said, handing the Russian his cash. “I had a moment like that in this game. It’s almost erotic. It’s the power of chess.”

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