Solas: Mage to E-7. Checkmate.
The Iron Bull: Rrrrrgh. Nice game.... mage.
Solas: And you as well... Tal-vashoth.
In fiction, checkmate more often than not comes as a complete surprise, leaving the losing player baffled and the winning player smug about his intellectual superiority. Often paired with a handsome remark ("I believe, sir, that this is checkmate"). This works very well if the work is emphasizing the loser's obliviousness, but quite a few works use this trope to emphasize the winner's skill and foresight. (Also, giving the audience a clear view of the board is only optional.) In reality, while superior chess skills do not directly translate to superior overall intelligence, surprise checkmates do happen. Though their frequency is inversely correlated with the players' skill level, surprise checkmates may occur even among grandmasters when they are distracted by conversation or pressured by time controls.
If the players are main characters and the game is a metaphor for their intellectual discrepancies, the checkmate often follows a conversational bomb ("The world will be sick and I'll be the only one with the medicine") and redirects the protagonists' shock and defeat to the level of the game. In other cases, the guy with a kiosk on a New York street corner who has a running game of chess is often on the receiving end.
An especially unlikely form is where one of the players announces "check", directly followed by the other player countering it with a "checkmate". This is very improbable to occur in an actual game of chess for several reasons:
- Barring the unusual case of "discovered check,"note if a player merely moves a friendly piece to block the attempt on their king, the attacker can probably immediately capture it, reasserting the original check and blocking the attempted counterattack (thus, not a checkmate).
- If a player moves their king to a safe square, even if this exposes a check attempt on the opponent's king by another friendly piece, the opponent can move their attacking piece to the recently vacated square to block the check attempt (thus, not a checkmate).
- If a player captures the attacking piece, even if this creates a check attempt on the opponent's king, the opponent will almost always have protected that square with a nearby ally who can immediately capture the player's piece in response (thus, not a checkmate) — barring, again, cases of discovered check.
- And advanced chess players are smart enough to anticipate all of the above situations in advance.
However, a checkmate in response to a check is perfectly plausible, and there are famous cases where it has happened, both in high-level and amateur games.
As a check attempt severely limits the opponent's available options (move their king, capture or block the attacker), a classier (and more technically accurate) version is for the player to predict the number of moves until one player is forced into checkmate — "checkmates Black in three moves", for example. That being said, even though it is expected that any decent player should be able to see at least one move ahead (which is to say that they can accurately predict their opponent's best move), Surprise Checkmate is actually very common in real life and happens all the time in casual matches.
If the scene depicted is about professional chess players playing in a tournament, then Surprise Checkmate is extremely improbable and will appear unrealistic to a savvy audience. If the scene is about regular people playing chess as a hobby, then Surprise Checkmate is not only plausible, but also probable.
This trope's Logical Extreme is "fool's mate," a checkmate in two moves only possible if your opponent (a) has never heard of fool's mate and (b) is unlucky/bad enough to perform the precise terrible opening moves that make it possible.
- In the Cowboy Bebop episode "Bohemian Rhapsody", Edward is completely surprised when her opponent puts her in checkmate. Her opponent is also surprised when Ed announces a move that will one-mate him, but then decides to not do it. Of course, Edward is an idiot savant with no formal chess training and her opponent is senile, so either of them being surprised at the other isn't really that surprising.
- Allegedly, Gozaburo Kaiba of Yu-Gi-Oh! was a world-class chess player. It didn't stop prepubescent Seto from beating him.
- In Fullmetal Alchemist, when Colonel Mustang is playing a game of chess with General Grumman, the general is totally surprised when Mustang checkmates him. This is rather odd since he is incomparably Mustang's superior at the game: in their previous 112 games Mustang had lost 97, drawn 15 and not won one of them.
- Happens several times in Code Geass, which often uses in-universe chess metaphors. Main character Lelouch is a brilliant chess-player who competes in professional circuits as a hobby. Lelouch later leads a rebellion against the oppressive Britannian Empire, despite the fact that he is an exiled Britannian prince. He has been known to make an impromptu map of a current battle using chess sets which happen to be on hand, and refers to major players in the war using chess metaphors. The problem is...the writers don't seem to understand all of the rules of chess, which can at times be hilarious. Specifically, in one episode Lelouch faces off against the heir presumptive of the Britannian Empire, his half-brother Prince Schneizel, while meeting in a neutral country. To demonstrate that Schneizel is one of the few people who are Lelouch's intellectual equal, the episode has them engage in a tense chess match, fighting each other to a standstill. At the culmination of the game, Schneizel does indeed force a surprise checkmate - by moving his own king into a square directly next to Lelouch's king, violating the basic rule of chess that you cannot voluntarily move your king into check. The crowd reacts as if that was a bold but legal move. Another possibility is that Schneizel is just screwing with Lelouch - the equivalent of a fencer dropping his rapier to his side, daring his opponent to dishonorably make a meaningless victory against a man not seriously trying to stop him anymore.
- One issue of Black Panther has him facing off against the Kingpin in chess, using the game as a metaphor for their coming conflict. Kingpin gets him in check and talks about how he'll always be several steps ahead, and is then immediately checkmated. When this appeared on Scans Daily a suggestion for followup dialogue was given.
Kingpin: That's not checkmate. For one thing, that's a bishop. Bishops can only move diagonally. And you even put it on the wrong colored space.
T'Challa: Indeed. You will find that I do not play by your rules.
- Though not a checkmate, an example between Tony and Reed during Civil War came close enough. The two are having a debate whilst playing chess on 10 different boards or so, and at the end of the conversation, Reed's been put into check on all 10 boards simultaneously.
- In "Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #143", the Joker beats Ra's al Ghul at Chess using the unlikely "check, then checkmate" method.
- When The Incredible Hulk was offered leadership of the Pantheon by Agamemnon, while expressing his doubts, he surprised Agamemnon by putting him in check on a board that had stood untouched in his sanctum for four centuries, underlining his pressure on Agamemnon to be a little more forthcoming. After some soliliquising in response, Agamemnon follows up with a counter-check while putting Banner on the spot.
Agamemnon ..by the by, I'll believe you'll find that you are now in check. Your move, doctor.
- Once More with Feeling: In episode 15, Gendo and Fuyutsuki played a Go match as they argued recent developments, and Fuyutsuki was completely surprised when Gendo put him in checkmate. He surrendered, knowing that resistance was pointless.
- In The Swan Princess, Derek has recently been dumped, and Bromley is taking advantage of his emotional pacing to make extra moves and captures, including Derek's queen. Derek stops pacing, decides what to do, and offhandedly checkmates Bromley. Surprise.
- Mother of all surprises happens in Pixar's short Geri's Game: Geri swindles the opponent by faking a heart attack and rotating the board when his opponent looks under the table. Mother, because his opponent is he himself...
- Knights Of The South Bronx has an especially egregious example: the final game ends with three consecutive checks from one of the boys, followed by a checkmate from his opponent.
- In The Avengers (1998), Steed moves his knight and puts Mrs. Peel's king in check, and she takes the knight with her queen, putting his king in checkmate.
- Blade Runner. Earlier in the movie J.F. Sebastian calls Dr. Eldon Tyrell a genius and says he's only beaten him once. Under Roy Batty's guidance, Sebastian checkmates Tyrell in two moves, and Tyrell is surprised by it. Mirroring the Immortal Game, Sebastian/Batty sacrifices his queen to Tyrell before taking the game. Specifically the last three moves are: Queen to Bishop 6, check. Knight captures Queen. Bishop to King 7, checkmate.
- In From Russia with Love, a SPECTRE agent playing a high-level game of chess receives a secret message that he's needed elsewhere. His next move is so brilliant that his opponent immediately resigns. The opponent is clearly surprised, even though as an expert player he should have been able to see the move coming.
- In From Paris with Love, the protagonist (and operative-in-training) does this to his ambassadorial boss, possibly to note the difference in their games, literally and proverbially.
- Used to define David Levinsen in Independence Day. Levinsen is playing chess with his father, and announces checkmate without any fanfare, even getting up and leaving as his dad is protesting that it's not checkmate. After further (futile) analysis, Dad is forced to concede defeat a short time after David is gone. Later on, David uses a chess metaphor to explain what the aliens are doing as they position their ships. He sees the terrifying checkmate before it happens, in enough time to save several major characters.
- In Blazing Saddles, the Waco Kid is shocked when Sheriff Bart checkmates him to end their game. Better justified than many examples because the Waco Kid is still drunk almost 24/7 at that point in the movie, and thus isn't as sharp or aware as he could be.
- While Macready is playing the "Chess Wizard" computer in The Thing (1982), he appears to be totally surprised when it checkmates him. He retaliates by pouring a drink into its circuits and shorting it out, which is an Establishing Character Moment.
- HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey does the "number of forced moves" version. Notably, it was cheating and not all of them were really forced.
- The climactic chess match in Searching for Bobby Fischer does not end in a checkmate, but the two players keep moving pawns down files well after the losing player should have realized he was beaten. Justified in that the losing player was playing a game he wasn't used to (speed chess), and is also about ten years old to boot: he's an excellent player, but he's still a kid. He just missed it.
- In Cube Zero, Wynn keeps beating Dodd at chess with moves he never anticipated. This is partly explained by Wynn being able to visualize entire chess games mentally.
- In Sadko (better known to Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans as "The Magic Voyage of Sinbad"), Sadko challenges the prince of India to a game of chess. The prince's final move has him convinced that he has won, but Sadko turns around and checkmates him, leaving him dumbstruck.
- Queen of Katwe: Phiona pulls off a few of these. In one scene Phiona moves her queen to the back row to put her opponent in check. Her opponent takes Phiona's queen with her rook then sniffs "You don't know anything." What her opponent doesn't know is that Phiona sacrificed her queen to force her opponent to move the rook, which cuts off her king's escape; Phiona moves her knight and checkmates her opponent on the next move.
- In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Holmes and Moriarty play a game of chess while they discuss the philosophical underpinnings of Moriarty's world power play, all while their agents (Watson and Sim, and Moran and Rene, respectively) covertly wage battle under the cover of a ballroom gathering. Holmes scores this against Moriarty after detailing how his other machinations have led to a police seizure of Moriarty's considerably large war chest and subsequent donation to charity. It also is a Five-Second Foreshadowing of Holmes's feint with the Sherlock Scan hand-to-hand combat projection game that the two then play, hiding Holmes's intent of a Heroic Sacrifice to ensure a finality to Moriarty's demise.
- Dangerous Moves: Liebskind ties the tournament up at 5 games apiece by pulling off a surprise checkmate of Fromm. And if that weren't spectacularly unlikely enough, he does it after Fromm puts him in check with a pawn, by moving a bishop to capture Fromm's pawn, which simultaneously causes a discovered check and mate by Liebskind's rook. The movie at least portrays how shocking this is by having Liebskind scream "MATE! MATE!" in unrestrained joy after he does it.
- Friday the 13th Part 2. Paul Holt and Ginny Field are playing chess. Paul takes one of her pieces, puts her in check and tells her that he thinks he's got her. She takes the piece that he just moved (cancelling the check) and checkmates him. How did he fail to notice not only that (a) she had a piece that could take his but (b) she could checkmate him by doing so?
- The Westing Game: As a child, Judge Ford played against her mentor, Sam Westing. She got a thrill when she managed to capture his queen, shortly followed a dose of humility when he checkmated her in the next turn. This defeat gets referenced later, and she doesn't welcome the nostalgia.
- In the Nancy Drew/The Hardy Boys Super Mystery, "A Crime for Christmas", Nancy beats Frank in a chess game in eight moves. However, he's so preoccupied about his brother Joe's whereabouts that he doesn't even notice.
- Though not chess but with similar sport Cyvasse, in A Dance with Dragons, Tyrion Lannister does this to an opponent he'd previously lost to on purpose in order to glean some vital information from him.
- At the end of The Also People, the Doctor is playing chess with Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, with the rules being that the first person who can announce the number of moves to checkmate wins. In the second game Kadiatu thinks she's doing well, until the Doctor announces "Mate in twelve" ... meaning she can win in twelve moves. Always know exactly what game you're playing before you start.
This gets taken up a level when the Doctor predicts the fifth game as soon as Kadiatu reaches for a piece ... and then the sixth game before she's even done that. And then they're just staring at each other as the Doctor rattles off predictions. Eventually Kadiatu gets a surprise checkmate when she just says "Twenty-one", and the Doctor is so surprised he glances down at the board to check.Doctor: You beat me! I don't believe it.
Kadiatu: Cheer up, it was bound to happen sooner or later.
Doctor: Not to me, it doesn't. You just said the first number that came into your head.
Kadiatu: Ah, but it was the right number.
- In Wolf Hall, this is usually averted with Thomas Cromwell's chess games (when he plays his protege Rafe, they frequently stalemate because of how well they know each other's game). He does get a surprise checkmate against Tom Seymour in Calais. Seymour first says "how did you do that?" and later claims that it only happened because Cromwell distracted him by talking about Jane. So they play again, and Cromwell beats him again.
- Though Catur (An indian precursor to Chess) rather than Chess itself, a somewhat justified example occurs in Birthright (2017) between Sabrina and Taurau. Taurau fools Sabrina into thinking he's using a completely different strategy, and distracts her with conversation to keep her from noticing her mistake until it's too late.
- In Card Force Infection, Yuu and Chaud play a game of chess with a special rule, each player is allowed to come up with a special movement rule for any piece they want, and may reveal this rule at any time. Yuu uses his rule move his own king into checkmate. Chaud is caught completely off guard.
- Babylon 5 - after a debate on belief between a monk and a military officer, the monk makes a surprise checkmate which he attributes to divine inspiration.
- In an early episode of Dark Angel Max and Logan are playing chess. Max makes her move and announces "Check." Logan tries to move, and Max announces that he can't make a move because it was actually checkmate.
- Averted by Reed in an episode of Criminal Minds when he announces "mate in 12".
- In the teaser of an episode of Seinfeld, George gets one of these from the girl he's dating and breaks up with her because of it.
- In You Wish, Gillian wishes for telepathy so she can deal with her kids better. She changes her mind, but she and Genie finish up the episode with a telepath vs. telepath chess game. She takes the wind out of his sails with the check-followed-by-checkmate variant.
- At the end of "Man Hunt" in NUMB3RS, Don and Alan team up against Charlie, who thinks nothing of grading his students' papers while they play. When Don points out that Charlie misspelled "anomaly," Charlie gets indignant, and he sticks to his guns over the next few moves, even when Alan reminds him that he's not infallible. Eventually, Don gets the dictionary, and before Charlie can collect his wits, Alan delivers checkmate. Admittedly, this is what it takes to beat Charlie at chess: two people playing him at once and a distraction.
- In Doctor Who "Nightmare in Silver" this is used on Artie, who is specified to have fallen for the Fool's Mate mentioned in Real Life. Subverted with The Doctor, who is told that he will be checkmated in five moves by the Cyber Planner. He responds by claiming that there's a trap that will give him victory in three moves. His opponent sees no way this can be done, but is worried by the claim and deactivates the Cybermen to use their processing power to see how this could possibly be the case. It turns out the moves The Doctor was speaking of weren't chess moves at all - it takes him three actions to remove the Cyber Planner from his mind, rendering the game meaningless.
- Hancock's Half Hour: the episode "The Radio Ham" ends with Hancock's opponent checkmating him, causing Hancock to furiously shove all the pieces on to the floor. Interestingly, there were many pieces on the board (unlike many checkmate situations, where there will only be a few), and Hancock's previous move ended in "check".
- Star Trek: The Original Series. In his introductory scene, Captain Kirk beats Spock at three-dimensional chess despite the fact that the Vulcan is a better player. It's implied Kirk was making erratic moves to throw Spock off his game.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation gets as close to this trope as you can possibly get with Data (so call it a subversion) by having Counselor Troi surprise Data with a move that would lead to check mate several moves later. For someone like Data, being completely unable to anticipate an endgame one move ahead of its execution is still unrealistic.
- Star Trek: Voyager: The series finale "End Game" sees Icheb beat Tuvok in a futuristic strategy game with a surprise checkmate. In this case it's meant to show that Tuvok, an expert with a heretofore unbroken winning streak, is starting to suffer from a Vulcan Alzheimer's-type disease.
- In The Big Bang Theory, when Leonard is trying to teach Penny to play chess, she walks all over him with a surprise checkmate.
- The same happens in Frasier, where Martin whitewashes his son with a series of unexpected checkmates. Frasier also had it happen to him on Cheers against Woody of all people.
- The Flash (2014):
- Barry's friends help him train his powers by playing chess, ping-pong and Operation with him simultaneously. Wells proves that his super-multitasking still needs work by checkmating him (though Barry "crushed it" in the other two).
- Wells does this again in a flashback while playing chess with Hartley / Pied Piper. He manages to go from being in check to checkmating his opponent in one move.
- An episode of Psych had a couple of subtle examples. One is where young Shawn is seemingly distracted while his dad is trying to teach him chess before Shawn beats him in the flashback. The same happens when the two are playing the end of the episode (with the bet being if Shawn wins, he gets to use his dad's truck for a week while if Henry wins, Shawn has to wash said truck). Shawn wins again; the surprise comes from Shawn's casual demeanor and Henry looking surprised in both accounts.
- Happens twice in Stargate Atlantis, once by Sheppard against McKay and by Zelenka against a bit-character. However, the first example is justified in that McKay underestimated Sheppard.
- In episode "The Most Dangerous Match", Clayton fails to see the checkmate that Dudek drops on him. It's a casual game in a hotel room instead of a formal match, but still, they're both grandmasters. In Real Life a grandmaster would not be surprised in that way.
- Gets goofier later, when Clayton, playing chess against a crowd of comers, wins one game by castling his way into a checkmate.
- And it gets really, really goofy right after that, when Clayton loses another game by stumbling into the Fool's mate, the quickest and absolute dumbest way to lose a game of chess. The idea is that he's getting rattled by Columbo's relentlessness, but come on.
- In one episode of Greenhouse Academy, expert chessplayer Max is on the receiving end of one from Emma, an amateur. This is meant to illustrate that he underestimated her (which she may or not have subtly goaded him into doing), but you'd still think he'd see it coming.
- Red Dwarf: In "Queeg", the climactic chess battle between rival computers Holly and Queeg for control of the ship vs deletion ends with Queeg triumpantly announcing "Bishop to knight five. Double check and mate, sucker!" to which Holly can only meekly reply "Oh yeah. I didn't see that." Justified by the fact that Holly is suffering from Computer Senility and can barely even remember how to play chess, even confusing it with poker early on. Except not. It's actually because Queeg is Holly, and the entire match was staged.
- FoxTrot. Roger loves chess and invariably loses, despite his eternal hope that he'll win next time. Crowning example: he lets Jason have the first move, and Jason proceeds to rattle off a winning string of notation (The four-move Scholar's Mate, if you're paying attention) without Roger setting up the board.
Roger: Methinks my game may be getting a bit too predictable.
- The exact surprise can vary. For one Sunday comic, Roger spends multiple panels realizing the game is over no matter what he does. Andy wearily says, "Face it, Roger — you win." He begs for one more game anyway.
- A meta example is used perfectly in Mass Effect 2 by Morinth, who could be best described as a psychic sex vampire. She has a chess board set up in her apartment which she loves because her favorite games are ones where "the opponent is sure they are going to win until they are gutted". This describes not only her killer methodology but also how she views other people. You can then turn the tables and "checkmate" her to her complete shock by resisting her seduction and bringing in Samara.
- In Dragon Age: Inquisition, Solas and Iron Bull can play chess in party banter, with the board existing only in their memory. Solas does it to assuage Bull's fear that he will become a mad Tal-Vashoth after abandoning the Qun. They end up re-enacting the Immortal Game (see under Real Life). This also foreshadows Solas' long-term strategies; the winning move was actually a seemingly pointless pawn movement mid-way through the game.
- In Chapter 2 of Rakenzarn Tales, after beating the chapter's boss, the scene cuts back to the guild where Sonic and Daffy are playing chess. When Daffy thinks he's finally won, Sonic pulls this on him.
- In The Invisible Hours, Thomas Edison loses a chess game by Fool's Mate to a mechanical turk. This helps to establish that Edison is not as clever or capable as he thinks.
- Early in Pawn, Baalah plays her first (and so far last) game of chess with Ayanah. Baalah puts Ayanah in check, and one turn later, Ayanah checkmates Baalah.
- In Episode 14 of Code MENT:
Lelouch: A bold move. But you're about to be eaten alive, my little guppy friend-
Lelouch: FUCK YOU!
- In the Teen Titans episode "Overdrive", Cyborg is able to checkmate Raven who freezes in shock.
- Justified in the Xiaolin Showdown episode "Oil in the Family," in which Raimundo and an uplifted T-Rex (via the Eagle Scope) play a Showdown game of chess with giant, dinosaur-themed pieces. The T-Rex isn't playing to win: she's trying to trap/knock out Raimundo with the giant chess pieces so it can eat him. Raimundo, meanwhile, is focusing on the checkmating the T-Rex to win the showdown.
- In Men in Black: The Series, Jay loses at least twice to an imprisoned Alpha, but this may have been because Jay was trying to pump Alpha for information and not focusing on the game. This becomes a Chekhov's Skill — Alpha won both games with the same distraction tactic, and when he escapes and starts an attack, Jay realizes there's more to the plan. Alpha's retreat includes a transmission, complimenting Jay on managing a stalemate.
- In the episode of Futurama "Mars University", two geeky fraternity robots are playing chess. All the pieces are in their starting position, and the robot playing white (Oily) announces checkmate in 143 turns. The astounded robot playing black (Fat-Bot) exclaims that he's lost again.
- Most of the time a "Surprise Checkmate" only happens when a player is in time trouble. (Time trouble does not happen in fiction often). However, there are examples of it happening when a player is not in time trouble:
- In Japanese chess Habu, an enteral Meiji, walked his king into a checkmate in a winning position.
- The infamous Kramnik/Fritz mate-in-one.
- Two more cases of grandmasters walking into mate-in-one can be found here. For one of them, it was also a Surprise Checkmate for the winner, who in time trouble had just been looking for random checks to win some time.
- Pretty much any time a 4-move checkmate or one of its variants happens is a surprise to the losing player. And sometimes, it's a surprise to BOTH players, like in this game. White wins a piece in move 14, but opens up the opportunity for a four move checkmate.
- Obviously occurs far more often when one player is new to the game.
- The Fool's Mate note is a perfect example, though it only rarely happens because it requires a novice player to make a critical opening move mistake.note Players caught off-guard by this rather surprising mate never fall for this one again, nor will any spectators who see it happen to the novice player.
- The Scholar's Mate, or Shepherd's Mate, is another beginner's mistake that, unlike the Fool's Mate, is extremely common. The mate stems from the fact that f2 and f7 are very weak squares, defended only by each side's king.note
- Before the Obvious Rule Patch, there has been at least one incident where a player outright cheated with a shortened version of Shepherd's Mate, namely 1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Nc6 3. Qxf7++ This Loophole Abuse was only possible because no one had expected someone using an illegal move to achieve checkmate. The only possible moves to defend against this were 2. ... Nh6? (a questionable move at best) or 2. ... Qe7
- Although rare, there have been games at the master level or higher where a check was answered by a checkmate. Chessgames.com lists six such games between 1850 and 2002. Even computers can fall for this one.
- The Immortal Game, referenced in Blade Runner, culminated with the sacrifice of a queen leading to check mate one move later.
- A player who's in serious trouble (as in, almost dead lost) may sometimes attempt to "swindle" a win with a surprise mating attack. The Other Wiki gives many historical examples that worked. The "Immortal Losing Game" is perhaps the most famous failed attempt, as the swindler tried several times to set one up, only to get thwarted by his opponent each time.
- In 2021, WFM Alexandra Botez played against Jonathan Corbblah in a friendly match and delivered a surprise checkmate. In fact, she even bragged "I'm gonna politely take my time here until you decide to resign." before making her mating move and winning the game.
- International Master and YouTuber Levy Rozman once showcased a game played by one of his subscribers that not only ended in a Surprise Checkmate after check, but also the checkmating move was literally the only available legal move the player could make. Essentially, one player forced their opponent to checkmate them. Such an occurrence is extremely improbable, which caused great amusement to the audience.