24 May 2012

Getting it Wrong

The first rule of chess concerns the orientation of the chessboard: "light on right". The purpose of this rule is not clear to the beginner, even to many beginners with a lifetime of experience playing the game with other novices. But, to a player who follows games that have been recorded in chess notation, the two rules, "light on right" and "queen on color" are essential. Thus, it is often disheartening to the chess player to observe the uncanny ability of filmmakers and television directors to beat the odds and place the board incorrectly at least 65% of the time.

Yesterday afternoon, I watched an old PBS documentary by the notorious purveyor of error, Ken Burns. I was interested in the contribution to transportation history of Horatio's Drive (2004), a story of the first person to drive an automobile from one coast of the United States to the other. In May 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson placed a $50 bet in a club in San Francisco that he could drive to New York City in three months. After many trials, and $8000 in expenses, he made the trip in 63 days.

Unfortunately, in the opening scenes, in the effort to describe the place of the bet at the University Club in San Francisco, the documentary presents a nice wooden set (I'll wager that it was manufactured in the past decade prior to the film) on a wooden board (also relatively new) that was set up incorrectly with a dark square in the right corner.

Horatio's Drive (2004) Screen Shot
There were other gaffes as well. A few minutes into the film, the narrator claimed that "hundreds of thousands" of people migrated across the continent by wagon in the 1840s. Beginning in the 1840s the cross country migration by wagon, replaced by rail transportation into California in 1869 and to northern parts in 1883, may have included hundreds of thousands, but this tide may not have topped fifteen thousand in the 1840s.


  1. Watched an episode of Showtime's Californication this evening. There was a chess set at the edge of a scene. The board was oriented incorrectly.

    1. In a later episode, the board appeared again. This time it was oriented correctly. Someone must have pointed it out when the earlier episode aired.