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Chess Movies

by Albert Silver
12/27/2013 – In the recent article Chess in Movies, many readers clamored about the terrible omission of films actually about chess. This was deliberate, as it had been designed solely to be on films in which chess made a distinct appearance, but was not the star of the show. In this follow-up, the subject is precisely films where chess is central to the plot. Added to the list are reader recommendations.
 

In the recent article Chess in Movies, many readers clamored about the terrible omissions of films actually about chess. This was not an oversight, but deliberate, and was designed solely to be on films in which chess made a distinct appearance, but was not the star of the show.

In this follow-up, the subject is precisely films where chess is the main object or central to the plot. Most of these films are in English, and there is no question that a number of foreign films may have been overlooked. Though this list does not claim to be exhaustive in any way or form, if you feel a film has been particularly wronged by not appearing here, please use the feedback link at the end.

And now for the list, in no particular order:

The Luzhin Defense (2000)

Although not the earliest film of the list, Vladimir Nabokov's novel is certainly
the most famous, and this adaptation must come first

La Diagonale du Fou (1984)

 

This famous film called "Dangerous Moves" in English, depicts chess in a story inspired by a
mishmash of Fischer-Spassky, and Karpov-Korchnoi with heavy political themes intertwined.
Michel Piccoli's performance is superb, and it won the 1985 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Life Of A King (2014)

 

The date listed above is not a typo. This movie has not yet been released, nevertheless,
the theme is indisputable and the star Cuba Gooding Jr. is one of the greats

Knight Moves (1992)

 

Christophe Lambert plays a chess grandmaster in a big tournament, whose
lover is found painted up with the blood drained out of her body. He cooperates
with police and a psychologist to try and catch the killer.

Rondo (1966)

 

Every Sunday, the lonely bachelor and sophisticated judge Mladen (Stevo Žigon)
comes to play chess with his friend, the sculptor Fedja (Relja Bašić), and gradually
he falls into an affair with Fedja's wife Neda (Milena Dravić). The chess board is
the center of the film, the moves mirroring the emotional developments of the
characters. Rondo is still considered as one of three biggest classics of Croatian
1960s modernism.

Weiss und schwarz, wie Tag und Nacht (1978)

 

This TV film released in 1978 in German by Wolfgang Pedersen recounts the
tale of a scientist who creates a super chess program, which is beaten by the
world champion, a Russian, who ridicules it. The genius scientist sets out to
avenge his program by becoming a chess grandmaster and beating the world
champion himself.

La Joueuse (2009)

 

Middle-aged chambermaid Hélène's (Sandrine Bonnaire) newfound obsession with the game
of chess leads her to seek the tutelage of a reclusive American expat (Kevin Kline), trans-
forming both of their ho-hum lives in the process. Kevin Kline acts and speaks his lines in
French, and quite well too.

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

 

This film is adapted from Fred Waitzkin's excellent book by the same name, and
describes his son's talent for chess, and how this affected them as he developed

Knights of the South Bronx (2005)

 

A business man (Ted Danson) decides that he wants to teach school in the
inner city and chooses a tough school in the South Bronx. He teaches the
children how to play chess, and along the way they learn about life.

Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977)

 

The film, called The Chess Players in English, shows in parallel the historical
drama of the Indian kingdom Awadh (whose capital is Lucknow) and its Muslim
Nawab Wajid Ali Shah who is overthrown by the British, alongside the story of
two chess-obsessed noblemen.

Fresh (1994)

 

Although not about chess per se, it can nonetheless be considered a chess film. It depicts
a young boy, talented chess player, who is drawn into the world of drug dealing, while he
learns hard chess lessons from his father, played by Samuel Jackson.

Xadrez das Cores (2004)

 

The title of this Brazilian short (in full above) translates to “The Chess of Colors”.
Cida, a black woman, goes to work for Maria, a bitter old widow who is extremely
racist. Cida takes the constant verbal abuse in silence, needing to pay her bills,
until she avenges herself on the board. The movie is very well made, with clear
allegories between chess and their relationship. Highly recommended.

Queen Sacrifice (1988)

 

This 30-minute short directed by Julian Richards portrays Davey, a talented
young chess player and Wil Bevan, his history teacher are in Bournemouth for
the British Chess Championships. When Davey meets up with Helen, a punk
girl from London. Wil is faced with the problem of steering his charge through
the championship and the trauma of first love.

Chess Fever (1925)

 

Chess Fever (Russian: Шахматная горячка) is a 1925 Soviet silent comedy film
directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky. It is about the Moscow 1925
chess tournament, and combines acted parts with the actual footage from the
tournament. The hero's preoccupation with chess leads to him missing his own
wedding ceremony, but marital peace is restored with the help of World Chess
Champion, José Raúl Capablanca.

Schachnovelle (1960)

 

This film is the adaptation of Stefan Zweig's masterpiece Schachnovelle or "The Royal
Game", which was published in 1942 after his suicide. It is possibly the greatest work
of fiction around chess, and suffice it to say if you have never read this novella, then
find it and read it!

Uncovered (1994)

 

This film is an adaptation of an excellent mystery thriller called "The Flanders
Panel
" written by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Julia, an art restorer living in Barcelona,
discovers a painted-over message on a 1471 Flemish masterpiece called "La
partida de ajedrez (The Chess Game) reading "Qvis Necavit Eqvitem", written
in Latin (English: "Who killed the knight?"). A word of warning: the movie is
nowhere near as good as the book. Thanks to Bahram Shahi for the tip.

Computer Chess (2013)

 

A 1980s-set story centered around a man vs. machine chess tournament. It depicts the
nerdy environemnt quite well, and is more about the characters than the actual machines
or the tournament. Thanks to Jack Spear for the heads up.

The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973)

 

Though I have not seen it personally, reviews agree about the intrinsic chess
element, and as our reader Bahram Shahi explains: "The Thief..." does not have
much on IMDB by way of description/movie plot.  You must watch the movie to
fully appreciate how interwoven with chess it is....especially at a time when PCs
where not even born!

Lang Leve de Koningin (1995)

 

In this Dutch film, a queen invents a game so that her husband the king, bored, does not
start a war. It is an opportunity for Sara, who thinks she isn't as smart as others, to learn
to play chess and, at the same time, to find her father. Warm thanks to Salvador Canjura
from El Salvador and Bert Botma, the Netherlands. Bert comments, "It lacks the unrelenting
gravitas of "Schwarz und Weiss wie Tage und Nächte" but it really is a nice film, both funny
and touching."

For anyone wishing to really dig up all there is about chess in motion picture, there is the labor of love "Chess in the Movies" by Bob Basalla, highly recommended for the chess bibliophile.

Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was champion of Rio de Janeiro with a peak rating of 2240, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News.
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