Ten Best Films Revolving around the Game of Chess
Humans have been playing chess for more than thousand years. The game is more than a pastime or a simple brain exercise. From pawns to queens and kings, chess is a metaphor for life itself. It has power enough to soothe a troubled mind, alter our perception to correlate it in the real world. In movies, a scene involving chess continues to symbolize the character’s intelligence and cunning. The challenges behind film-making itself is a perfect analogy for the numerous maneuvers one takes across a chessboard. Legendary film-maker Stanley Kubrick’s passion for chess is well known fact for cinephiles (a vital scene in The Killing takes place in a chess club and there’s numerous other tribute to the mind game in his works). Who could forget Ingmar Bergman’s classic movie The Seventh Seal where the knight challenges Death to chess match? Shawshank Redemption’s Andy stayed sane by carving the chess pieces. From The Thomas Crown Affair to Harry Potter and X-Men, chess scenes have lingered in movie lovers’ memory. Here’s my selection of some of the good films that revolves around the game of chess:
Queen of Katwe (2016)
Adapted from Tim Crothers’ non-fiction best-seller, Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi. She’s raised by a single mother in a Ugandan slum. One day, Phiona lured by the offer of free porridge gets into small, make-shift chess club. Phiona is introduced to the game of chess and the girl becomes quite skillful at this game. The local youth organizer Robert is amazed by Phiona’s unnatural talent and decides to take her to higher levels of competition. The supposedly minor skill of playing chess gives Phiona possibility for shaping better life. Queen of Katwe is pretty much a formulaic Disney underdog tale, boosted by streaks of realism diffused by director Mira Nair. Although the narrative beats are familiar, it’s always a great pleasure to see the victory over poverty.
The Dark Horse (2014)
New Zealand film-maker James Napier Robertson’s The Dark Horse tells the story of real-life chess champion Genesis Potini. This Maori chess genius, who suffered from bipolar disorder, taught the game to underprivileged kids, raised among alcoholics, drug abusers and hoodlums. The life of Genesis is basically the story of a man who wins over the unforgiving world and his vulnerability through steadfast inner strength (due to his strong connection with the board). So, the director surprisingly focuses on Genesis’ vulnerability and illness as much as his prowess in chess. The result is a less formulaic tale. Cliff Curtis’ method acting for the role of Genesis is incredible. He conveys Gen’s genius and illness with utmost conviction.
Pawn Sacrifice (2014)
“This game…it’s a rabbit hole. After only four moves, there are more than 300 billion options to consider. There are more 40-move games than there are stars in the galaxy. So, it can take you close to edge”. Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice tells the story of one such chess genius named Robert James Bobby Fischer who went closer to that ‘edge’. The film rather than being a biopic of Mr. Fischer is just presented as a dramatization of the events leading to 1972 ‘Match of the Century’ between Russian Boris Spassky and Fischer. The chess games are visualized in a graceful manner that it gets to the heart & soul of the game (although it’s incomparable with the real match). Tobey Maguire as Fischer perfectly brings out the legend’s wizardry as well as the insecurities.
Queen to Play (2009)
Caroline Bottaro’s French movie is set in the island of Corsica, where a chambermaid Helene stumbles upon a couple playing chess. She becomes so intrigued by the game that she buys an electronic set. But she has no one to play, until she finds a reclusive Dr. Kroger – one of her employer. Helene’s passion or obsession for chess gradually heightens. The game has made her bit imaginative and more confident, which of course doesn’t go well with the husband and daughter. It’s easy to predict where everything is headed, yet there is an inherent charm in watching a woman, enlightened by passion. Sandrine Bonnaire offers outstanding performance as Helene.
The Luzhin Defence (2000)
John Turturro’s Alexander Luzhin in ‘Luzhin Defence’ is yet another reclusive, eccentric individual with an unbridled passion for chess. He is often confined to his room, working on different moves. However, in one of chess tournaments he meets beautiful, strong-minded Natalia (Emily Watson). He falls in love with her and she provides a glimpse of outside world; a world he is not well-equipped to deal with. The film is more about the people playing the game than about the game. There are pacing problems in the first-half, but the restrained direction keeps things interesting. It’s also blessed with remarkable, central performances.
In Boaz Yakin’s Fresh, the game of chess is more like an apt metaphor for protagonist’s plan than a life-changer. 12 year old Michael is the local drug runner nicknamed Fresh. He witnesses the cold blood murder of two children during a shootout in the hands of a gang. He cleverly orchestrates plans for revenge as well as to get himself and his drug-addicted sister out of the trap. Michael occasionally learns the vital chess lesson from his homeless, speed-chess champion dad (Samuel Jackson). He takes on his father’s lesson about ‘king’ and plays a high-stakes, real life chess. Although the initial scenes play to the conventions of hood-drama sub-genre, the later part works well as a thriller, defying viewer expectations.
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Seven year old Josh is fascinated by the speed chess matches, played at New York’s Washington Square. The boy actually turns out to be a real chess prodigy. Josh’s well-meaning father decides to get a mentor and makes his son play in competitions. Josh starts playing with his elderly friend/street chess master Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) and is tutored by a bitter, ex-chess champ (Ben Kingsley). Josh wins a lot of trophies. But he is soon confused and conflicted about his chess instincts when an invincible contender comes into play. Renowned scriptwriter Steven Zaillian (Awakenings, Schindler’s List) made his directorial debut with Searching for Bobby Fischer. Zaillian is gifted enough to find the meaningful, relatable thread in Josh’s dilemma. He makes this film more than a story about chess prodigy.
Dangerous Moves (1984)
French film-maker Richard Dembo surprise winner of 1985 Foreign Language Oscar offers one of the best looks at the sport of chess. Characters playing chess aren’t visually appealing compared with other films of sport genre. Viewers could feel a lack of urgency or the dramatic tension (since chess is not a spectator sport). Dangerous Moves upends all these general problems to create tight and an intriguing movie experience. The film is set in Geneva, 1983 during a fictionalized chess championship. The key players are aging Soviet Union chess champion Akiva Liebskind and a young, Soviet dissident Fromm. Fromm’s obsession to create right set-up to achieve victory reminds of the real, bizarre things went with infamous 1972 chess match between Spassky and Fischer.
The Chess Players (1977)
Legendary Indian film-maker Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players (aka ‘Shantranj Ke Khilari’) is set in Lucknow, 1856. The story revolves around King of Oudh who due to an ancient treaty remains in power, although the provinces all around are taken over by the British. In one of the vital narrative threads, two noblemen of the Oudh province, meet up daily and indulge in their passion for chess game. They are clever enough to have learned all the tricks of the game, yet like their king they are oblivious to real chess moves made by the British. As always, Ray tells the story with a humane touch, presenting chess game as a metaphor for the cunning tactics of English rulers.
The Chess Player (1927)
Raymond Bernard’s silent French movie was a fascinating costume drama of its era. Now it looks dated, but still could be appreciated by those who love the cinematic craft. The story is set in Vilnius Poland, 1776 (Russian-occupied Poland), which was ruled under the iron hand of Empress Catherine. An eccentric Hungarian invention named Baron hides a noble Polish guy inside his famous chess-playing automaton, Turk. The ensuing situations lead to a match between the Empress and Turk. Despite the elaborate plot structure, The Chess Player isn’t a very complex tale. It’s an entertainer with simple themes of patriotism. Yet, it’s still worth seeing for the magnificent production design and interactive visualizations.
Special Mentions: Dutch children’s s drama Long Live the Queen (1995), short/documentary Odysseus Gambit, the excellent silent Russian comedy/short Chess Fever (1925), and 8 * 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements (1957) – a wonderful, surrealistic experimental film by Jean Cocteau, Hans Richter, and Marchel Duchamp.
Important chess documentaries: Brooklyn Castle, The Grass Arena, Bobby Fischer Against the World, and Kasparov and the Machine