Chess in the movies

by Albert Silver
12/21/2013 – Chess and Hollywood have long been close friends, and even when the silver screen was not showing movies that were outright about chess, they never hesitated to slip in some scenes with chess. Here is a look at the films where the royal game makes a cameo appearance, but is not the outright star. Each movie listed includes the key scene and a bit of commentary. Expanded list with reader feedback.

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Chess and Hollywood have long been close friends, and even when the silver screen was not showing movies that were outright about chess, they never hesitated to slip in some scenes with chess. Here is a look at films where chess makes a cameo appearance, but is not the outright star.

Many thanks to readers who sent suggestions and comments. The list has been greatly improved with their help.

The Killing (1956)

 

Stanley Kubrick was a well-known chess aficionado, and not only had a chess
board with pieces on all his movies sets, but would drag actors, personnel, and
even reporters into a game. In "The Killing" (1956) a key scene takes place in
a chess club, with a perfect line "Shut up, patzer!"

2001 A Space Odyssey

 

In the science-fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), astronaut Frank
Poole plays a game against the ship's AI computer, HAL 9000

Blade Runner (1982)

 

In the timeless masterpiece Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott, chess opens more doors
than just the mind. Blade Runner was initially shown without the voice-over narration by
Harrison Ford and was slammed by an uncomprehending press who viewed it two weeks before
the release. Terrified, the studio added it before it hithte theatres, and no one could understand
what the reviews were complaining about. Ridley Scott's avantgarde vision was for a visual telling.

Young Victoria (2009)

 

In the film Young Victoria (2009), about the early reign of Queen Victoria and her famous
romance with Prince Albert, they play a game and she tells him how she feels as if she is
but a piece in a game

WarGames (1983)

 

WarGames was an iconic film, bringing to the fore the potential dangers of
letting a computer be the decision-maker in a war situation. The final scene
and line "How about a nice game of chess?" are a part of movie history.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

 

The chess scene from Ingmar Bergman's classic "The Seventh Seal" is quite
possibly the most famous movie chess scene of all time. The challenge by the
Knight to Death for his life on a wager of a game is wondrous to behold.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

 

The new action spin on Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law features
chess on several occasions, and even sports a chess clock as they first appeared. Kudos
to whoever gave them that proper guidance.

From Russia with Love (1963)

 

In the classic James Bond film "From Russia with Love" (one of the best), with
Sean Connery and Daniela Bianchi, one of the criminal masterminds is the
dastardly Kronsteen who is shown playing for the title against MacAdams. The
position in the movies was taken by the awesome game Spassky-Bronstein,
without two pawns, thank you Gabriele Mileto - Venice, Italy. The chess
tournament set appearing at the beginning of the film cost $150,000 at
the time, and the ceiling top of the chess set was actually a matte painting.

Independence Day (1996)

In the big screen blockbuster "Independence Day" (1996) the scientist responsible for saving
the human race is shown playing chess with his father in the park

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

 

In the first Harry Potter film, chess is present on a grand scale as the heroes need to play
a deadly game of chess. Thanks Karl Ludwig, Germany.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

 

The depiction of chess with pieces going for each other was a fallback on past films and
even software (Battle Chess anyone?), but great fun all the same.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

 

It is possibly unique in the history of film, when chess becomes a key element in a grand
seduction, but both Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, at the height of their careers
(and looks), pull it off with sensuality and class

X-Men (2000)

 

After a successful first film and start of a franchise, X-Men concludes with both
hero and villain, played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (best friends in real
life), facing each other at the board

Star Wars (1977)

 

Though not chess in the purest sense, the famous holographic game between
R2D2 and Chewbacca had children and adults dreaming of the day chess would
look so cool. "Let the wookie win"

Casablanca (1942)

One of the greatest films of all time, and with an incredible number of lines that are still
quoted today. Humphrey Bogart was a singularly strong player, who made money as a
street chess hustler before becoming the superstar he was. Ingrid Bergman, was the perfect
co-star. Play it again, Sam. 

Stalag 17 (1953)

 

This great tale of a World War II POW camp by one of Hollywood's greatest
directors ever, Billy Wilder, is not a dark horror story but a light-hearted suspense
film with great performances by William Holden and even an appearance by
Otto Preminger, also a great director. Chess appears regularly in the barracks
(see the 5:00 point). If you have not seen it, this is a must. Click for full movie.

Revolver (2005)

 

This 2005 flick was written by the tireless Luc Besson, auteur of masterpieces such as Nikita
(see the 1990 original) and Léon, and was directed by Guy Ritchie, an excellent British director.
In this scene, there is no need to ask about the importance of chess. Thanks to Alberto B. Queiroz,
São José dos Campos, Brazil.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

 

This classic film based on a story by Stephen King, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman
is quite simply the highest rated film ever, based on popular vote. And with good reason as
it comes with brilliant performances, flawless directing and pacing, and a story of redemption
to inspire any. Chess and carving chess pieces were Andy's means to stay sane. Thanks to
Shep Stevens, Connecticut, USA for the reminder.

One, Two, Three (1961)

 

This light-hearted comedy by the great Billy Wilder has a famous sabre dance,
bringing about difficulties in a chess game at hand. Thanks to Mauro Taiuti, Italy.

The Thing (1982)

 

The famous remake by John Carpenter of a team of Polar researchers who find something
from elsewhere, with memorable special effects. Kurt Russell plays a game against a chess
program (Sargon II or III from the looks of it), and has a special antidote against mate. Thanks
to Alberto B. Queiroz, São José dos Campos, Brazil.

Whatever Works (2009)

 

In this recent comedy by Woody Allen, Larry David plays a crotchety aging man who gives
a hilarious chess lesson to a young student at the park. Many thanks to Eamon Duede,
(Chicago, USA) for sharing.


Topics movies

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 had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications.
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