The World Chess Championship is about to take place in Merano, a Tirolean town in north Italy. The champion (The American, in his mid-thirties) is defending his title against a new challenger (The Russian, in his early forties). The People of Merano are by and large very enthusiastic about the great event that is taking place in their small community. The American is enthusiastic about the potential financial rewards of the match and about his own skill at bringing what has hitherto been a minority interest sport to the frenzied attention of the world media (Merano).
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 Russian and Molokov/Where I Want To Be)
The Opening Ceremony is a hugely colourful event. Merano has pulled out all the stops. The Arbiter of the match points out with great gusto that his word is final during the series of games while Merchandisers, Press, Politicians, Businessmen and Diplomats all struggle to get everything they can from the excitement building up to fever pitch around the contest. (The Opening Ceremony)
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 players 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. The Arbiter continues to prattle on about the rules. (Quartet - A Model of Decorum and Tranquility)
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. She has worked for the American for seven years, since meeting him during a chess tournament in England. We suspect their relationship is almost like a mother and child, although both are around the same age. Their argument reinforces her belief that the only person she ever really rely on is herself. (The American and Florence / Nobody's Side)
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. Consternation everywhere. (Chess)
Florence and Molokov have an unofficial meeting to discuss the collapse of the match, which no one really wants to abandon. After some spirited insult trading, 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.
At a private room in a restaurant halfway up a Merano Mountain, 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. (Mountain Duets)
The American and Russian argue, trade insults and jokes but thanks largely to Florence's delicate touch, they both agree on a press statement sharing the blame for the breakdown and to resume playing. 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. The cause is all but totally lost. 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. The finish of their argument is a "squalid little ending" to their relationship. Even after Florence has left, the American continues to justify his actions to himself. (Florence Quits) At an unidentified Western embassy some days later, the Russian, the newly crowned World chess champion, asks for political asylum, although he has problems winning the instant support and interest of the civil servants in the embassy. (Embassy Lament) Eventually he gets the form and freedom he wants. Certainly he has made the right decision, he is equally certain of what he will never be able to leave. (Anthem)
One year has passed. The Russian is to defend his title against a new challenger from the Soviet Union in Bangkok, Thailand. The American and some locals discuss the unusual venue for the Championship. (Bangkok / One Night in Bangkok)
Florence and the Russian who have been lovers since his defection, are in the Oriental Hotel, 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. The Russian leaves to discuss tactics with seconds; Florence, alone, speculates about their future together. (Heaven Help My Heart)
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. Their new champion is a rather weird introvert who only seems to be able to function at full steam when talking or playing chess.
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. (Argument) The Russian says he must leave Florence for the duration of the competition. 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. (I Know Him So Well)
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. This information is extremely unpleasant, revealing her father to have been a traitor to his people, not a hero, responsible for a score of deaths. The Russian does not know whether to believe him or not, but throws him out. 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 Deal)
His frustration and rejection by Florence cause the American to explode in a fury of self-pity and anger. (Pity the Child)
The deciding game in the match begins. Memories of former champions are evoked. 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 finds himself amused and delighted by the fact that his various enemies have so misjudged his will to win. He may have failed in his efforts to sort out his private life but he has succeeded in his professional, public life and he now knows that this is the only success he really wants. 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. They both acknowledge, she with bitterness, he with resignation, that henceforth their "one true obligation" is to themselves. (Endgame)
Whereas the Russian for the first time has been able to put his career before everything else, the change has gone the other way for the American. He hardly thinks of Chess now; only that his machinations have failed to alleviate his personal despair - Florence will not return to him even if her relationship with the Russion has foundered. He plans his revenge on both Florence and the Russian, while Molokov, apprehensive about his own future, prepares suitable treatment for his failed protege.
But has that relationship foundered? 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. "Yet we go on pretending, stories like ours have happy endings." (You and I / The Story of Chess) As they finish, the American is seen approaching Florence. He has some news for her...
- Keith Roberts
In Budapest, amid the gunfire of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Gregor Vassy calmly tells his young daughter, Florence, The Story of Chess. As he finishes, Florence is taken away to escape the war-torn country, leaving him behind to fight the Russians.
The sounds of rebellion give way to the furor of a press conference in present-day Bangkok, where the first half of the World Chess Championship is about to be played. The temperamental American chess champion, Freddie Trumper, arrives with Florence, his second, and immediately alienates both the press and his Russian opponents, Anatoly Sergievsky and his second, Ivan Molokov.
Back in his hotel room, Anatoly is told by Molokov that he must play one game with their Ambassador. He ponders who he is, what is expected of him and whether or not it's worth it (Where I Want to Be).
Florence has become increasingly frustrated by Freddie's cheap theatrics and the crass commercialism of his agent, Walter. She asks herself why she should endure such abuse (How Many Women).
Prior to the commencement of the Championship, the Arbiter and the merchandisers sponsoring the event all join in singing the Chess Hymn. During the first game, Freddie, accusing Anatoly of cheating, creates a scene and storms out of the arena, leaving Florence, the Arbiter, Molokov and Anatoly to find a way to resume the game (Quartet).
Later, in his hotel room, Freddie berates Florence for cooperating with the Soviets. Warning him that she has had enough, she tells him they are expected to meet with Anatoly and Molokov that night. He will have none of it (You Want to Lose Your Only Friend?) and leaves Florence alone to consider her situation (Someone Else's Story). Shadowed discreetly by Walter, Freddie explores the seamier side of the local nightlife (One Night in Bangkok).
Florence joins Molokov and Anatoly at the restaurant, but Freddie is nowhere to be found. Frustrated, Molokov leaves to see if his men can find him. Left alone, Florence and Anatoly, against their better judgment, find they are attracted to one another (Terrace Duet). Freddie bursts in on them and is infuriated at the sight of them kissing.
It is a few days later. Freddie, still burning from what he sees as Florence's betrayal of both him and the memory of her father, is losing the match. When Florence offers some constructive criticism he orders her to get out. Her confusion gives way to anger and resolve as she packs her bags to leave Bangkok and Freddie (Nobody's Side).
In the underground garage of the arena Florence is given a letter from Anatoly by Walter (who, as she had suspected, works for the C.I.A.) stating that Anatoly, in spite of the fact that he is married, wishes to defect because he loves her. Together Anatoly and Florence escape. Upon their arrival at the airport they are faced by members of the press, who question Anatoly's reasons for defecting. He answers them with his stirring Anthem.
Two months later, the second half of the World Chess Championship is about to take place in Budapest. The timing of the match coincides with a summit meeting between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the spirit of glasnost, the Soviets have allowed the defector Anatoly to return behind the Iron Curtain to play chess as an American. While a choral group practices for the summit (Hungarian Folk Song) Anatoly asks Florence how it feels to be in Budapest after so many years away. She confesses sadly that although it is her homeland, she has no memory of it; she has only the address of what was once her home and the faint hope that her father may still be alive.
Florence encounters Molokov in a church, where he offers to help find her father or at least to find out what became of him. Florence considers the changes she has made in her life over the past two months (Heaven Help My Heart).
At the hotel Freddie becomes furious with Walter when he discovers that Florence and Anatoly are staying there also. Walter gets Freddie to channel his anger into shaping up for the match (No Contest).
Florence learns that Anatoly's wife, Svetlana, is in Budapest. Anatoly allays her fears, assuring her of his love. Later he visits Svetlana at her hotel. He is torn between love for Florence and compassion for his wife (You and I). Molokov tells Anatoly of the hardships that are being imposed upon Svetlana and other members of his family who are left to suffer the shame of his defection.
At the match Freddie is beating an emotionally torn Anatoly. Outside of the arena Walter and Molokov discover that at times opposing sides can help each other out. The Soviets would like Anatoly back. What can they offer in return? Molokov gives Walter an envelope with information about Florence's father. Perhaps some sort of trade can be arranged? Walter is only too eager to help.
At dinner Anatoly tells Walter and Florence he is exhausted and needs a week to rest. Florence doubts that Freddie would consent but agrees to try to convince him. Svetlana and Molokov enter the restaurant. After they are introduced, an embarrassed Florence asks to be excused. Svetlana finds her on the terrace. They discover they share a great deal in common. Both of them seem destined to lose the man they love (I Know Him So Well).
Interrupting a television interview, Florence asks Freddie for the break in the match. He spitefully refuses, and she leaves. In front of the hot lights of the cameras Freddie breaks down and reveals what has made him the turbulent soul that he is (Pity the Child).
Thanks to Molokov, Florence is taken through the winding streets of Budapest to meet a man who might be her father. When he sings her a tender Lullaby (Apukád eros kezéd), she is sure of it.
The exhausted and confused Anatoly is the subject of speculation by the K.G.B., the Arbiter, the C.I.A., the press and the merchandisers. Anatoly enters the arena and begins to play. At the height of the match, deciding to accept the K.G.B. offer to return to Russia so that Florence may be reunited with her father, he knowingly makes a wrong move - and Freddie is the victor (Endgame).
At the airport Florence has a tearful goodbye with Anatoly (You and I). Once he is gone, she is told that the man she met was not her father after all. Instead, Anatoly had been traded for a captured C.I.A. agent. Betrayed by her own country, having lost both her father and the man she loves, Florence is left alone to face whatever the future may bring.
- Bill Rosenfield