Emily Watson received best actress nominations at the British Independent Film Awards and the London Film Critics Circle Awards.
It's the early 1920s and Aleksandr Ivanovich 'Sascha' Luzhin (Turturro), a gifted but tormented chess player, arrives in a Northern Italian city to compete in an international chess competition. Prior to the tournament he meets Natalia Katkov (Watson) and he falls in love with her almost immediately. She in turn finds his manner to be appealing and they begin to see each other in spite of her mother's disapproval.
Competing alongside Luzhin in the championship is Dottore Salvatore Turati (Fabio Sartor), who is approached by Leo Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), a Russian, who is Luzhin's former chess tutor from pre-revolutionary Russia. Valentinov tells the Italian that Luzhin cannot handle pressure and he intimates he will make sure that his former prodigy will be unsettled off-table giving Turati a winning chance.
The competition starts badly for Luzhin who is unsettled by the presence of his former friend and coach. He struggles through the early rounds but he soon begins to win again as his relationship with Katkov becomes closer and intimate. She then informs her parents that she is going to marry him. Meanwhile, Luzhin goes on to reach the final and face Turati.
But in the finals the Russian Émigré loses out to the time clock, forcing the game to adjourn. However, outside the venue, he is whisked away by an accomplice of Valentinov who abandons him in the countryside. His former teacher knows that this will completely unhinge him because of the memory of his parents' abandonment many years ago. Luzhin wanders aimlessly until he collapses and is found by a group of Blackshirts.
Luzhin is taken to the hospital suffering from complete mental exhaustion. The doctor informs Katkov that he will die if he keeps playing chess as he is addicted to the game and it's consuming his very being. Nevertheless, even while recuperating Valentinov comes around with a chess board encouraging Luzhin to finish the match with the Italian, Turati. Natalia defends her beloved but urges him to break off with the game. Luzhin seems to agree.
Eventually Luzhin leaves the hospital. He and Natalia then agree to marry at the earliest opportunity. However, on the morning of the wedding, Luzhin is put into a car with Valentinov, who tells him that there is the small matter of finishing the competition. In terror, Luzhin leaps from the car. Dazed, cut and mentally confused, he stumbles back to the hotel where he tries to dig up the rest of the glass chess pieces he buried on the grounds years ago, (1:36:39 "I've got the King but I need the whole army...") but he does not find them.
Luzhin, who is in his muddied wedding suit, sits in his room as Natalia and the hotel staff try to open the door. But before they can get in, the troubled chess grandmaster throws himself out of his bedroom window and dies. The tragic death is witnessed by Valentinov who has just arrived by car.
The film then concludes in the competition hall where Natalia completes the competition using her fiancé's notes. She discovers the papers in his pocket and an experienced chess player explains to her the matter of the notes. In an arranged meeting without public she plays against Turati who does exactly what Luzhin expected and loses. Katkov and Turati then leave acknowledging the Pyrrhic victory and the genius of Luzhin.
The chess position they play for the final between Turati and Luzhin is already a winning position for Black (Luzhin), even though Black is down on material. By playing 1. Kg4 (as opposed to 1. Kf2) White walks into a forced checkmate with a rook sacrifice:1. Kg4 f5+
2. Kg5 Kg7 If 2. Kh4 Be7#
3. Nd5 Rh3!
4. gxh3 h6+
5. Kh4 Bf2#
If White plays 1. Kf2 instead of 1. Kg4 this leads to a heavy material loss for White and an easy game for Black:1. Kf2 Rxc3+
2. Ke1 Rxc1+
3. Kd2 Rg1
4. Bxa6 Rxg2+
5. Kc3 Rxh2
and Black is up by a rook.
In the film Luzhin's final moves were made by his fiancé. The tournament had been paused after Luzhin had a nervous breakdown which had been caused by extreme strain. On the same day he was going to get married he committed suicide by jumping from the hotel balcony. His fiancé later found a piece of paper inside his jacket where he had written down his final moves against Turati.
In Luzhin's previous game, on his way to the final, the film shows an inaccurate checkmating move. The scene shows White (Luzhin) play an apparently brilliant combination culminating in a queen sacrifice followed by Rd1-d8#.
However, White's rook on the d1 square is pinned against its king in the corner at h1 by Black's rook on c1, making the checkmate unplayable.
Nevertheless, Luzhin (White) is shown playing the illegal winning move to wild applause from the audience.
The sequence is as follows, Luzhin has just played his rook to e8 (check) although it is not clear if this was a capture or not. Play then continues:1. ... Bf8
2. Rxf8+ Kxf8
3. Nf5+ Kg8
4. Qf8+ Kxf8
White's last move is illegal (see rules of chess).
In the film, the Black rook was erroneously placed on c1 instead of c2, where it was in the actual game this winning combination was played, making it legal, a famous win of Milan Vidmar over future world champion Max Euwe (see below).