Chess in Cinema


As metaphor, microcosm, or harbinger of future conflict, chess has been put to great use by directors and screenwriters.



Throughout film history, chess has been used far more often as a symbol than as a subject. The game itself may be too silent and slow moving to keep viewers entertained, but chess' complexity and multiple layers of meaning make it an ideal visual shorthand for film directors. Here are some quirky and classic examples of chess in cinema.


Future chess


One of the most popular ways chess is used in the movies is as a visual prop in science fiction, typically to show the evolution of artificial intelligence. Perhaps the most iconic example of this is from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL 9000, the sentient computer system of the spaceship Discovery, is shown playing chess against astronaut Frank Poole—a foreshadowing of sorts for the conflict between HAL and astronaut David Bowman.


Sometimes science-fiction chess shows how human games have evolved. The Star Trek TV and movie franchise is one of the best examples. Leonard Nimoy's character of Mr. Spock is often shown playing three-dimensional chess.


Another movie variant is holographic chess, as seen in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Warned by Han Solo that Chewbacca rips arms out of sockets if he loses, C-3PO advises R2-D2, "Let the Wookiee win."


Rivals, masterminds, and fate


Chess is also used in the movies as a microcosm for larger puzzles and rivalries, or to visualize the discipline and calculation of an introspective character. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, for example, the devious Matt Damon is seen playing chess against Jude Law's character, whose identity Damon/Ripley will cunningly assume. And in the final scene of the movie X-Men, rivals Magneto and Charles Xavier are shown playing chess in Magneto's plastic jail cell.


In the movie Superman II, Superman's nemesis Lex Luthor escapes from prison by creating a 3-D holographic image of himself playing chess. Luthor was played by Gene Hackman, who appeared in another film where chess served as an important symbol. In Night Moves, Hackman plays detective Harry Moseby, who is obsessed by a chess match in which a chess champion lost because of his inability to spot a trap. The match comes to represent Moseby's own wasted life.


Moseby would have agreed with science fiction author H.G. Wells, who once wrote, "There is no remorse like the remorse of chess." In the Jack the Ripper time travel movie Time After Time, the character of Wells, played by Malcolm McDowell, chases Jack—his former chess opponent—into the 20th century.


Not all chess masterminds are bad guys. Case in point: analytical genius Sherlock Holmes. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes, played by Peter Cushing, is shown puzzling over a chess move. Ironically, Cushing's nemesis in the movie Dracula, Christopher Lee, would later take on the iconic detective role in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady, in which Holmes plays chess against his assistant Dr. Watson.


Chess has also been used in movies to symbolize the conflict between good and evil or life and death. In Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, a medieval knight challenges Death to a chess match in order to prolong his life. On a campier note, chess represents fate in Jason and the Argonauts, in which humans are depicted as chess pieces being played by the gods.


Movies about chess


The Luzhin Defence
Very loosely based on Vladimir Nabokov's brilliant novel The Defense, The Luzhin Defence stars John Turturro as a chess genius who falls in love with an aristocratic beauty (Emily Watson).
Searching for Bobby Fischer
A wonderful, well-acted film about a real-life chess prodigy and his parents' attempts to balance chess with a normal childhood.
Geri's Game
This four-minute short about an elderly man playing chess against himself won an Oscar in 1998 as best animated short film. It can be accessed online or on the DVD of A Bug's Life.
Dangerous Moves
Winner of the Oscar in 1984 for best foreign language film, Dangerous Moves uses a chess tournament between a Soviet master and his former pupil as a Cold War metaphor.
Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine
Documentary about Chess World Champion Garry Kasparov losing to the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue.


--Joshua Avram

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