The World Chess Championship is about to take place in Merano, Italy. The American is defending his title against a new challenger, The Russian The American gives a press conference at his hotel at which he behaves petulantly and aggressively, denouncing his opponent, every other Soviet and the press with equal vigour. His performance is watched on television by the Russian and his KGB-employed second, Molokov, in their hotel. Molokov is inclined to dismiss the American as a nut. The Russian concedes that his opponent is eccentric but realises that every outrageous move made by the American is a calculated one. The Russian reflects upon his own rise to the top
The American stages an effective and insulting walkout during the Arbiter's lengthy recap of the match regulations immediately after the Opening Ceremony. None are more insulted than his own second, Florence Vassy, who is left to defend her player’s indefensible behaviour to a sneering and pompously protesting Molokov. During this exchange she meets the Russian player for the first time. The Russian shows some sympathy for her situation. Florence confronts the American back at their hotel, telling him that she can not tolerate his treatment of her for much longer. We learn that she was born in Hungary, left that country when only two with her mother in 1956 during the uprising and is now a naturalised British Citizen.. She has never discovered what happened to her father who 'disappeared' when the Hungarian uprising was crushed. She is determined to find out.
The first game of the contest begins with an atmosphere of mutual loathing hanging over the proceedings as the two players make their first moves. Tension builds as much offboard as on with both men resorting to underhand tactics to distract or enrage the other. Suddenly, high drama as the two players fling the board up in to the air. They walk out after nearly coming to blows. Florence and Molokov have an unofficial meeting to discuss the collapse of the match. Florence takes the initiative and tells Molokov where and when he is to deliver his player for a secret, off the record, meeting between the two contestants, in order that the match can resume without either party losing face. Molokov attempts to rattle Florence at one stage by implying that he knows some Hungarian history she might want to learn about.
Florence and the American arrive for the secret meeting. The Russian is late and the American leaves the restaurant in mock disgust. Almost at once the Russian and a junior member of his back up team arrive to find no opponent waiting for them, only his opponent's Second. During the conversation that follows, the Russian and Florence are quickly attracted to each other, the almost romantic mood rudely interrupted when the American returns. Some days later, the American and Florence are discussing the progress of the match. Things are going badly for the American who is unpleasantly agitated. He blames Florence for his failure and as they hurl abuse at each other, she tells him that she is going to leave him after the match, even if by some miracle he won it. The American is devastated and alternates between fury and pleading with her to stay. His paranoia about the Reds surfaces - he is convinced that the Soviets have something to do with both his loss of form and Florence's desertion, At an unidentified Western embassy some days later, the Russian, the newly crowned World chess champion, asks for political asylum.
The following year, The Russian is to defend his title against a new challenger from the Soviet Union in Bangkok. Florence and the Russian who have been lovers since his defection, are in Bangkok. They discuss his new opponent and wonder why the American is in town, as he has played no serious chess since his defeat in Merano. They also talk about the refusal of the Soviet authorities to let his wife out of the U.S.S.R.
Molokov and his team are confident that this time around they have a player who is totally trustworthy and can be relied upon (a) to win and (b) to stay in Russia. The Russian is interviewed on Thai TV. To his amazement he discovers that his interviewer is the American who proceeds to ask him about his personal life, about Florence and about his politics - never about chess. The American finally tells him (on the air) that arrangements have been made to fly his wife into Bangkok in time for the match. Enraged, the Russian storms out.
The Russian and Florence watch his wife (Svetlana) on television arriving in Bangkok. The event brings the tension between them to a climax. Florence is left alone with the TV still showing Svetlana's image. She recalls how well she knows the lover who has just left her. Svetlana recalls how well she knows her husband
The American forces his way into the Russian's quarters to offer him a deal. Despite the personal pressures already weighing heavily on the Russian, he has begun the match in great style, winning the first two games. The American now says that if his winning streak should suddenly come to an end then Florence will not be given information he claims to have received from the Soviets about her father. The American then approaches Florence, suggesting that if she would only return to him, not only would they be once again the best chess team ever witnessed, he also would be able to provide her with news (he does not say whether it is good or bad) she has always wanted to know about her past. She too rejects his offer. The deciding game in the match begins. Molokov and the American have a conversation which reveals them to have been in league against the Russian, albeit for very different reasons. Florence, watching the match, although not knowing that her lover been put under pressure to lose, sees his obsession with victory destroying his ability to care for her.
The Russian, defying everyone, plays like a dream and annihilates his opponent. He rejoices in his victory, but even as the crowds acclaim him and as his wife vainly attempts to make some kind of contact with him, he almost immediately feels a sense of hollow anti-climax. He despises himself for the narrow selfish ambitions and desires that satisfy him. So does Svetlana; any chance of reconciliation between them is gone. Florence and the Russian reflect simultaneously but separately, on their story that they thought was a very happy one; like the game of chess the game of love can be played in an almost limitless number of variations. Perhaps this was just one of many games that end in stalemate.
Anatoly – Nadim Naaman
Freddie – Tim Oxbrow
Svetlana – Natasha Barnes
Molokova – Gillian Kirkpatrick
Arbiter – Rhys Barlow
Musical Direction by Simon Lambert
Musical Arrangements by Christopher Peak
Lighting by Ben Rogers