The Real-Life Chess Game That Inspired ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’

Lord Ravenscraft is a video essay series created by Eric Ravenscraft. You can watch the latest full episode on YouTube.

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies don’t get the credit they’re due. Especially A Game of Shadows. The latter of the two films had the gall to end, not on a CGI battle, but on a chess match. Not just any chess match, mind you, but the game Sherlock and Moriarty play is a variation of a famous (in chess circles anyway) game played in 1966.

The game in question was played between Grandmaster Bent Larsen and then-World Chess Champion Tigran Petrosian, at the Second Piatigorsky Cup in Santa Monica. This game is most well-known for the moment, on move 25, when Larsen sacrificed his queen to Petrosian.

Not to put his opponent’s king in check.

Not to capture some valuable enemy piece.

But to capture a pawn. One pawn. That’s it.

However, the point of the sacrifice wasn’t the immediate benefit. Making the hard choice to give up his queen gave Larsen the opening that he needed to win the larger game. In fact, if both players played their best moves from then on out, it was no longer possible for Petrosian to win the game at all.

This dramatic sacrifice was shocking enough to make headlines at the time, but it also made for the perfect inspiration for the game Sherlock played against Moriarty in A Game of Shadows.

In the film, Sherlock tries to uncover Moriarty’s plot to take over several industries that manufacture supplies for war on an industrial scale. The professor’s final move is to kick-start the first-ever World War (in 1891, mind), by using one of his henchmen to perform a political assassination, making Moriarty fabulously rich in the process.

During the climactic scene, Sherlock and Moriarty sit casually playing a chess game on a balcony overlooking a waterfall, while the pieces they’ve already put in motion play out in the other room. And, after Moriarty is convinced that he’s won, the two start calling their moves out loud.

From this point onward, the onscreen moves correspond to one possible variation of the Larsen vs. Petrosian game. While the real-life grandmasters would never allow such a dramatic version of the game to play out, the possibility we get to see play out is one of the most striking, elegant versions of the game that could have come out of the match.

In my video, I break down this scene, move by move, with some help from Sam Copeland of Chess.com and “The Best of Chess” on YouTube.

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.

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