Border of order and chaos

Jaideep Unudurti | Updated on December 19, 2014 Published on November 07, 2014

Who will bend: Viswanathan Anand and Boris Gelfand lock horns at the World Championship, in a still from Album 61

For fans, a chess game is a mental duel. For others, it is two people locked in a room staring at each other. Album 61 succeeds in bringing the tensions to celluloid

One man has the crown. The other man wants it. It is the oldest game in the world. Or as Alexander Kuprin put it somewhat more poetically, “How splendid to be king, ruling not by right of succession or chance plebiscite, but by the power of one’s own mind.” Today at the World Chess Championship in Sochi, current world champion Magnus Carlsen will take on challenger Viswanathan Anand. In May 2012, Anand fought a match with Boris Gelfand for the same title. The documentary Album 61, which released at this year’s Hamburg Film Fest, is based on that clash in Moscow.

I call up the director of Album 61, Halil Efrat, who is based in Tel Aviv. “It’s a sports movie without any sports,” he says with a laugh. I get where he is coming from. Two of the greatest grandmasters on the planet slug it out in a battle of the mind. While these mental heroics transport chess fans into frenzy, what does it look like for ordinary mortals? Two middle-aged men locked in a room for seven hours every day. Who spend most of the time looking at each other. For a month. “The biggest challenge was how to make a sports movie for people who don’t understand chess at all. How do you show people just sitting, not moving, looking at each other for hours? How to make a tense film, how do you show the pressure?” Efrat experimented at the start, “I thought maybe I will try to describe what is happening in their minds with visuals. In the end, I invented a lot in the editing room.”

The World Championship is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. Since 1886, there have only been 16 champs. While Anand is a living legend, his challenger Boris Gelfand staged an unlikely career renaissance. At 45, he was thought to be too old. Yet the Israeli slashed his way through a gruelling qualification event beating far younger opponents to become the Challenger. Efrat however says, “For me, it was not so interesting to make a film just about the chess match. It could be a good report, but a good film should have a story behind the story.” This underlying story was discovered during his research. Gelfand’s father, Abraham who was an engineer, had obsessively catalogued his son’s achievements over the decades, compiling them into 60 albums — part photo-albums, part scrapbooks.

“When I saw them in Israel, I decided this is what the film is about, this issue about parenthood — should they choose for the child or let them be free. This was for me most interesting.” Abraham Gelfand didn’t have any dilemma. When he found out that his six-year-old son had a natural affinity for the board game, the decision was easily made. Young Boris was going to become world champion. Abraham pushed his son with utter monomania.

A typical entry reads: Schedule: 07:15 Wake Up, Breakfast 7:25-7:30, Radio Show 7:30-7:35, School: 7:35, Lunch 14:00-14:30, (go out for a walk? no). And this when Gelfand was 8 years old! Abraham eventually ended up with 60 enormous tomes, part photo-albums, part scrapbooks, part logbooks, a life captured in graphs representing everything from emotional and physical to intellectual trends, from biorhythms to analysis of postcards sent by Gelfand from his travels — an enormous compendium whose collation ended only with Abraham’s death. The father’s disembodied voice is the narrator, compulsively tracking his son’s every progress.

The film is crisply shot by cinematographer Vitali Krivich, who isolates his subjects in an invisible board that we cannot see. Life is merely a pale reflection of the struggle on the board. Krivich captures the tiny gestures: The final pat on the back that Aruna Anand gives her husband just before he enters the hall, Gelfand winking at his first grade teacher when he spots her in the audience.

As we plunge deeper into the match, we begin to see the performative aspects. The theorist Alexander Shashin said, “Chess lies at the border of order and chaos”. This chaos comes forth as we scrutinise the players. At first they seemed like motionless gladiators locked in an invisible war. Now we see that it is like a Kathakali performance, every gesture, grimace, tic or mannerism stands between victory and defeat. We see the little gestures that form their repertoire — punctiliously arranging their pieces before the game — each player has his own way of pointing the snouts of the knights. For example, Gelfand’s eyebrows shoot up when he sees a move that he hasn’t expected. Anand’s stone-faced immobility rarely breaks, but when some gesture bubbles its way to the surface, is it something that he wants to be seen?

Album 61 sustains the tension right till the end. As the last game is about to begin, Gelfand’s wife Maya jokes, “At least he is not competing in the world parachuting championships. What harm could come to him here?” She knows, of course. As a chess wife, the board is the most terrifying place on earth. A world championship match is about watching someone’s lifelong dreams get crushed, for entertainment. “It is not about memory or math — you have to break someone’s personality,” as the commentator says.

(Album 61 can be ordered online at

( Jaideep Unudurti writes on travel, chess and popular culture)

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Published on November 07, 2014
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