Chess Board Ethics: A Popeye

I know: it’s doubtful that Popeye even knows how to play chess. But it’s Saturday night, as usual only the hard core is visiting Ethics Alarms, and this particular blot of laziness and incompetence has been driving me bananas for decades. Today was the final straw.

On a new Amazon Prime BBC documentary series “A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsely,” the final episode had Lucy talking about the gamesmanship going on in “Golden Age” British murder mysteries. As she rattled on, we saw a mid-game chessboard, and a hand was seen moving a piece. The chess board was set up incorrectly. The board, which we were shown from the White player’s perspective, had the black square in the right-hand corner.From the first time you learn how to play chess, the little rhyme “White on the right” is drilled into your skull. (It’s the opposite of checkers.) If the board has a black square on the players’ right, it violates the rules, and the game is invalid. Nobody who knows how to play chess would make such a tyro’s error, and yet I see it all the time—in movies, on TV shows, in ads where a chess game is involved. In the BBC example, dozens of people must have seen the mistake and failed to catch it.

I admit it: I look for this blunder now. The gaffe symbolizes for me all the laziness, ignorance, carelessness and lack of integrity in the world. It should never happen, ever; if it does, it means that nobody cares enough to make sure the project is done right.

I started paying special attention to this particular botch when my wife and I were invited to a dinner decades ago at the home of a woman who worked for me. Prominently displayed in the couple’s living room was a fancy chess board and pieces. It was set up incorrectly. That was signature significance: my staffer’s husband didn’t play chess, he just wanted people to think he did. I knew then that he was a fake. Sure enough, the husband proved to be an insecure, posturing jerk, desperate to impress without the goods to do so legitimately.

Chess is having a resurgence, thanks to the hit Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” (where, thank God, the boards were always set up correctly). I can’t be the only one who notices when a movie’s or TV show’s staff hasn’t done their research. Chess is thousands of years old and arguably the most important game in world history. It deserves proper respect, and so do audiences.

White on the right.

If this post stops just one human being from making that stupid mistake, my life will not have been in vain after all.

24 thoughts on “Chess Board Ethics: A Popeye

      • So true. Look at the prevalence of mistakes with “two”, “too” and “to”. Is it lazy ignorant or a dangerous combination of the “two”?

        I don’t watch much television as I find it to be vapid. I do sometimes watch Hallmark romance movies with my wife. These things always follow a formula, though the location might change
        A number of them are about the prince and a commoner who fall in love and there’s always a moment in which he is going to a ball or some other function in a military uniform. Usually wearing a red sash and two small medals.
        Recently I saw one of these “princes” wearing a US Marine Corps Dress Blue uniform with Lance Corporal chevrons. No Marine Corps emblems, but still, how tone deaf must the people in the costume department have been to have done that?
        You may have guessed that I was in the Marine Corp and it irked me.

  1. I guess I’m one of the hard core! While I know about the “right on white” rule in chess, I could see myself forgetting that if I was in charge of a movie set, if a ton of other stuff was going on and I only had a quick glance at the board.

  2. Okay, now my turn to complain about my pet peeve–the misuse of “who” as the object. I can’t help correcting this error and in any two hours of watching TV whether movies, series, news or the History Channel, I must have to correct the speakers 3 or 4 times on average and out loud. Reflecting on my age, I guess I’ve crossed over to become a crotchety old fogey. PS Jack–I like reading you on Saturday nights because I get to catch up on the week’s stories and gather material for the next week.

  3. For me, what immediately takes me out of “the moment” when listening to or reading someone’s statement is the use of “should of” in place of “should have”. Example: “We should of taken this person in the baseball draft”. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me and indicates that this person is much too intellectually lazy to be taken seriously.

  4. I have played chess a number of times over the years and never really paid attention to the rule, which is to say I was not aware of it. I always went by the rule that the crease in the chess board divides the two opponents.

    But, what you raise more generally is the notion of the importance of details, particularly those that are not mentioned. If you merely skim commentary on the Marvel movies, you can waste whole days or more reading commentary about the importance of any little detail in any given scene. For example, in one scene of Iron Man 2, I think, I photo is taken of Tony Stark; that picture shows up in the background in a scene several years later. It has no significance in the later scene except that, if you noticed it, the texture of the world is a little bit deeper and realistic.

    But, it takes effort to do that, because it is not critical to the story. If you have the story, you could slap things together, Ed Wood style, and not really think about the details.

    Dickens seemed to do this, but, in a different way. He did notice the details and, because he was writing the story, he had to bring them up. But, they served the same function. Every little tic, or mannerism someone would have would get described. These descriptions did not serve any purpose to the story, but they did make you see the character a little bit more. They were not merely talking heads. (Of course, it also upped his word count.)


    • It is indeed often a fine line between deliberately ignoring details that get in the way of pace, drama and art, and simply not caring enough to get it right. There was a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode where you could see the zippers in the back of the monster costumes, and the hosts kept repeating the mantra, “They just didn’t care” about the film-makers.

      Spielberg is a master of skipping details that enhance the punch of a dramatic moment, as he calculates that the audience member seeing the film for the first time won’t notice an obvious logical problem, and the reaction to the initial viewing is worth it. In “Jaws,” for example, he uses the detached dock as a stand-in for the shark, but ignores the fact that the shark is on the other end of a 50 foot chain in FRONT of the dock that is “chasing” the dumb fisherman. The shark would have caught the guy, but since all the audience sees is the dock, the ploy works. Best of all is the great climax in “Jurassic Park”—nobody sees a 40 foot T-Rex that is literally right beside them until it snatches a Raptor mid-leap! And how did the T-Rex get into that building in the first place? Earlier, her every step caused the ground to shake, but this time, it was tip-toeing or something. The point is that those weren’t mistakes, they were valid trade-offs by a careful film-maker.

      • Also called “plot holes.” That’s why subcreation is more important than a lot of folks think, and why retconning can be difficult. That’s also why sticking closely to the historical record is a lot more important than a lot of folks value. That said, plot holes are something usually discussed, at the earliest, on the way out of the theater, AFTER the viewer has paid for the experience.

      • That MST3k episode? I’m almost positive it was “Attack of the Eye Creatures”. Even the title screen of that movie was wrong (“Attack of the the Eye Creatures”).

        My uncle was a man you would have enjoyed knowing. He was an absolute stickler for detail and precision. If something wasn’t done to spec or to measurement or to plan, he would have it redone. Over the years much was made of my uncle’s “overbearing exactitude”. Others joked about how he was too picky, too fussy, too finicky.

        Me? I appreciated my uncle’s desire to do everything with excellence, whether it was work, his home, or the cars he restored. When he died a few years ago, I realized that his attitudes had become something of an anachronism. His wish for “following the plumb” had been replaced by “good enough” and “close enough for rural work” and “it’s not perfect, but it’ll do.” It must have killed him to watch, as much as the tumors that finally conquered him.

        It’s sad what we tolerate, how much “less than” we accept from our builders, the Hallmark Channel, our politicians, and even ourselves.

  5. Having worked in props in theatre, I notice stuff all the time; usually things (and sometimes slang, word usage, or gestures) that are historically inaccurate.

    Side story: Working props for a show, I was asked to place a post-it on the page containing a bible verse that the actor had to read. Living in an area where people know their bible, the director wanted to make sure that the actor didn’t open the bible to a place that the audience would know was wrong; therefore the post-it marking the proper place. Having a hunch, I took it a step further and decided to google when post-its were invented. They were invented a couple of years prior to the setting of the play but I figured it was unlikely that a young girl in rural Texas would have been able to get her hands on them. The actor got a paper clip instead. Keeping in mind the “30 foot rule”, I’m sure no one would have known the difference. But I knew the difference.

    Oh, and JG? I’m silently correcting news anchors all the time.

  6. Thanks for the post. I share this pet peeve. Before the pandemic I noticed this error on display at the newly renovated Ballston Common Mall in Arlington VA. The pieces were two to three feet tall and the board was on the floor. Additionally, the board was next to a wall. To play correctly one of the players would have to stand on the side of the board. The other solution would be to play with black in the lower right corner and the queen not on her own color. The board has since been removed. I don’t know if they figured it out or just decided it wasn’t fitting their current decor scheme ( they made other changes to the decor as well).

      • Hi Jack, I just saw this error in a place close to where we both live. There is a new venue in Tysons corner called Capital One Hall ( it’s a nice venue). The roof of the building has an area called the perch. It features miniature golf restaurants and food trucks. It also has 2 oversized chess boards set up wrong. Given your affinity for theater you are likely to visit at some point. I don’t know whether my heads up is a favor or an aggravation.

  7. Not directly on point, but as I was reading along with the Eucharistic Prayer III this morning I noticed three typos in the script. The first was an odd hyphen of “Jesus”. The second was a misspelling of “forever” as “for ever” and the third was the improper use of “to”. Details matter.


  8. How long before someone declares this racist because if “white is on right’, black is sinister?

    -From the ‘Everything is Racist’ files.

  9. Well, today I learned.

    I was taught in the second grade. This rule was not mentioned.

    My saving grace, however, is that all my chessboard folds in half, and it would be unseemly to be the seem in the middle of setup; it clearly divides the halves between the players!

    • Also, as Bob points out, I knew the queen goes to the left of the king on her own color, so I guess I did indirectly know the rule after all! (phew!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.