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In reality, the endgame of chess is where one player knows he is about to lose and either gives up or clings on to the odd chance that he can find a way out.

In fiction, checkmate more often than not comes as a complete surprise, leaving the losing player baffled and the winning player smug about his intellectual superiority. Often paired with a handsome remark ("I believe, sir, that this is checkmate"). This works very well if the work is emphasizing the loser's obliviousness, but quite a few works use this trope to emphasize the winner's skill and foresight, no matter how unrealistic that might be. (Also, giving the audience a clear view of the board is only optional.)

If the players are main characters and the game is a metaphor for their intellectual discrepancies, the checkmate often follows a conversational bomb ("The world will be sick and I'll be the only one with the medicine") and redirects the protagonists shock and defeat to the level of the game. In other cases the guy with a kiosk on a New York street corner who has a running game of chess is often on the receiving end.

An especially unlikely form is where one of the players announces 'check', directly followed by the other player countering it with a 'checkmate'. This is virtually impossible to perform in an actual game of chess for several reasons:

  • If a player merely moves a friendly piece to block the attempt on their king, the attacker can immediately capture it, reasserting the original check and blocking the attempted counterattack (thus, not a checkmate).
    • Although this wouldn't work if the moving piece wasn't the one giving check in return.
  • If a player moves their king to a safe square, even if this exposes a check attempt on the opponent's king by another friendly piece, the opponent can move their attacking piece to the recently vacated square to block the check attempt (thus, not a checkmate).
  • If a player captures the attacking piece, even if this creates a check atempt on the opponent's king, the opponent will almost always have protected that square with a nearby ally who can immediately capture the player's piece in response (thus, not a checkmate).
  • Speaking of which, advanced chess players are Genre Savvy enough to anticipate all of the above situations in advance.

However, as a check attempt severely limits the opponent's available options (move their king, capture or block the attacker), a classier (and more technically accurate) version is for the player to predict the number of moves until one player is forced into checkmate -- "checkmates Black in three moves", for example.

Related to Chess Motifs.

Examples of Surprise Checkmate include:


Anime and Manga Edit

  • In the Cowboy Bebop episode "Bohemian Rhapsody", Edward is completely surprised when her opponent puts her in checkmate. Her opponent is also surprised when Ed announces a move that will one-mate him, but then decides to not do it. Of course, Edward is an idiot savant with no formal chess training and her opponent is senile, so either of them being surprised at the other isn't really that surprising.
  • Allegedly, Gozaburo Kaiba was a world-class chess player. It didn't stop prepubescent Seto from beating him.
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, when Colonel Mustang is playing a game of chess with General Grumman, the general is totally surprised when Mustang checkmates him. This is rather odd since he is incomparably Mustang's superior at the game: in their previous 112 games Mustang had lost 97, drawn 15 and not won one of them.
    • Though considering he is Roy Mustang, it's entirely possible he'd deliberately played poorly just to surprise him with his true skill that one time.

Comic Books Edit

  • One issue of Black Panther has him facing off against the Kingpin in chess, using the game as a metaphor for their coming conflict. Kingpin gets him in check and talks about how he'll always be several steps ahead, and is then immediately checkmated. When this appeared on Scans Daily a suggestion for followup dialogue was given.

 Kingpin: That's not checkmate. For one thing, that's a bishop. Bishops can only move diagonally. And you even put it on the wrong colored space.

T'Challa: Indeed. You will find that I do not play by your rules.

  • Though not a checkmate, an example between Tony and Reed during Civil War came close enough. The two are having a debate whilst playing chess on 10 different boards or so, and at the end of the conversation, Reed's been put into check on all 10 boards simultaneously.

Film Edit

  • Knights of the South Bronx has an especially Egregious example: the final game ends with three consecutive checks from one of the boys, followed by a checkmate from his opponent.
  • In The Avengers 1998, Steed moves his knight and puts Mrs. Peel's king in check, and she takes the knight with her queen, putting his king in checkmate.
  • Blade Runner. Earlier in the movie J.F. Sebastian calls Dr. Eldon Tyrell a genius and says he's only beaten him once. Under Roy Batty's guidance, Sebastian checkmates Tyrell in two moves, and Tyrell is surprised by it. Mirroring the Immortal Game, Sebastian/Batty sacrifices his queen to Tyrell before taking the game. Specifically the last three moves are: Queen to Bishop 6, check. Knight captures Queen. Bishop to King 7, checkmate.
  • In From Russia with Love, a SPECTRE agent playing a high-level game of chess receives a secret message that he's needed elsewhere. His next move is so brilliant that his opponent immediately resigns. The opponent is clearly surprised, even though as an expert player he should have been able to see the move coming.
    • See the discussion here at 250, implying the opponent may have thrown the game. It also discusses how this game differed from its real-life model (despite the research being done, implying it was intentional).
    • In the book, the agent in question was already one move away from forcing his opponent to concede when he received the message, and everyone present knew it. He was questioned by his superiors about the fact that he didn't report in until after he finished the match. Kronstein replied that if he left a tournament when he was minutes away from victory after receiving a note, everyone would assume the note was from the KGB (As his public knew he wasn't the kind of person who'd leave a match unfinished), which he was obliged to conceal. He then covered up his rather abrupt departure after the match by publicly claiming that the note said one of his children was seriously ill (moving said child into the hospital for a week to support this alibi).
  • In From Paris with Love, the protagonist (and operative-in-training) does this to his ambassadorial boss, possibly to note the difference in their games, literally and proverbially.
  • Used to define David Levinsen in Independence Day. Levinsen is playing chess with his father, and announces checkmate without any fanfare, even getting up and leaving as his dad is protesting that it's not checkmate. After further (futile) analysis, Dad is forced to concede defeat a short time after David is gone. Later on, David uses a chess metaphor to explain what the aliens are doing as they position their ships. He sees the terrifying checkmate before it happens, in enough time to save several major characters.
    • Truth in Television, as many players will utterly deny being in a mate, proposing move after move that the winner will then point out to be invalid moves as they fail to remove the deadly check or relocate the king into a different check.
  • In Blazing Saddles, the Waco Kid is shocked when Sheriff Bart checkmates him to end their game. This is particularly hard to believe because it occurred when there were very few pieces on the board and it should have been easy to see the mate coming.
  • While Macready is playing the "Chess Wizard" computer in The Thing, he appears to be totally surprised when it checkmates him. He retaliates by pouring a drink into its circuits and shorting it out.
  • HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey does the "number of forced moves" version. Notably, it was cheating and not all of them were really forced.
  • The climactic chess match in Searching for Bobby Fischer does not end in a checkmate, but the two players keep moving pawns down files well after the losing player should have realized he was beaten.
    • Justified in that the losing player was playing a game he wasn't used to (speed chess), and is also about ten years old to boot: he's an excellent player, but he's still a kid. He just missed it.
  • Derek has recently been dumped, and Bromley is taking advantage of his emotional pacing to make extra moves and captures, including Derek's queen. Derek stops pacing, decides what to do, and offhandedly checkmates Bromley. Surprise.

Literature Edit

  • As a child, Judge Ford played against her mentor, Sam Westing. She got a thrill when she managed to capture his queen, shortly followed a dose of humility when he checkmated her in the next turn. This defeat gets referenced later, and she doesn't welcome the nostalgia.
  • In the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys Super Mystery, "A Crime for Christmas", Nancy beats Frank in a chess game in eight moves. However, he's so preoccupied about his brother Joe's wereabouts that he doesn't even notice.

Live Action TV Edit

  • Babylon 5 - after a debate on belief between a monk and a military officer, the monk makes a surprise checkmate which he attributes to divine inspiration.
  • In an early episode of Dark Angel Max and Logan are playing chess. Max makes her move and announces "Check." Logan tries to move, and Max announces that he can't make a move because it was actually checkmate.
  • The Frasier episode Chess Pains culminates in this trope.
  • Averted by Reed in an episode of Criminal Minds when he announces "mate in 12".
  • In the teaser of an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry gets one of these from the girl he's dating and breaks up with her because of it.
  • In You Wish, Gillian wishes for telepathy so she can deal with her kids better. She changes her mind, but she and Genie finish up the episode with a telepath vs. telepath chess game. She takes the wind out of his sails with the check-followed-by-checkmate variant.
  • At the end of "Man Hunt" in Numb3rs, Don and Alan team up against Charlie, who thinks nothing of grading his students' papers while they play. When Don points out that Charlie misspelled "anomaly," Charlie gets indignant, and he sticks to his guns over the next few moves, even when Alan reminds him that he's not infallible. Eventually, Don gets the dictionary, and before Charlie can collect his wits, Alan delivers checkmate.

Newspaper Comics Edit

  • FoxTrot. Roger loves chess and invariably loses, despite his eternal hope that he'll win next time. Crowning example: he lets Jason have the first move, and Jason proceeds to rattle off a winning string of notation (The four-move Scholar's Mate, if you're paying attention) without Roger setting up the board.

 Roger: Methinks my game may be getting a bit too predictable.

    • The exact surprise can vary. For one Sunday comic, Roger spends multiple panels realizing the game is over no matter what he does. Andy wearily says, "Face it, Roger -- you win." He begs for one more game anyway.

Video Games Edit

  • Chess games, Natch. As well as Shoji.
  • A meta example is used perfectly in Mass Effect 2 by Morinth, who could be best described as a psychic sex vampire. She has a chess board set up in her apartment which she loves because her favorite games are ones where "the opponent is sure they are going to win until they are gutted". This describes not only her killer methodology but also how she views other people.

Web Comics Edit

  • Early in Pawn, Baalah plays her first (and so far last) game of chess with Ayanah. Baalah puts Ayanah in check, and one turn later, Ayanah checkmates Baalah.

Western Animation Edit

  • In the Teen Titans episode "Overdrive", Cyborg is able to checkmate Raven who freezes in shock.
  • Justified in the Xiaolin Showdown episode "Oil in the Family," in which Raimundo and an intelligent, British-accented T-Rex play a game of chess with giant, dinosaur-themed pieces. The T-Rex isn't playing to win: it's trying to trap/knock out Raimundo with the giant chess pieces so it can eat him. Raimundo, meanwhile, is focusing on the checkmating the T-Rex to win the showdown.
  • In Men in Black's animated series, Jay loses at least twice to an imprisoned Alpha, but this may have been because Jay was trying to pump Alpha for information and not focusing on the game. This becomes a Chekhov's Skill -- Alpha won both games with the same distraction tactic, and when he escapes and starts an attack, Jay realizes there's more to the plan. Alpha's retreat includes a transmission, complimenting Jay on managing a stalemate.
  • In one episode of Futurama, two robots are playing chess. All the pieces are in their starting position, and the robot playing white announces a checkmate in some large amount of turns. The astounded robot playing black exclaims that he's lost again and offers the robot playing white a rematch.

Real Life Edit

  • Most of the time a "Surprise Checkmate" only happens when a player is in time trouble. (Time trouble does not happen in fiction often). However, there are examples of it happening when a player is not in time trouble:
  • Pretty much any time a 4-move checkmate or one of its variants happens is a surprise to the losing player.
    • And sometimes, it's a surprise to BOTH players, like in this game. White wins a piece in move 14, but opens up the opportunity for a four move checkmate.
  • Obviously occurs far more often when one player is a new to the game.
    • The Fool's Mate[1] is a perfect example, though it only rarely happens because it requires a novice player to make a critical opening move mistake.[2] Players caught off-guard by this rather surprising mate never fall for this one again, nor will any spectators who see it happen to the novice player.
    • The Scholar's Mate, or Shepherd's Mate, is another beginner's mistake that, unlike the Fool's Mate, is extremely common.
  • Although it's rare, there have been games at the master level where a check was answered by a checkmate. Chessgames.com lists six such games between 1850 and 2002.

Notes

  1. 1. g4 e5 2. f4 Qh4++
  2. While opening with 1. g3 ... 2. Bg2 is a hallmark of hypermodern play and a valid way to build a solid pawn structure while maintaining central square protection, opening with 1. g4 (or "The Grob") is widely considered the worst possible opening move as it loosens the entire kingside structure and prevents the critical h4 square any sort of defensive coverage