Saturday, 14 November 2015

Chess in the movies

Theme: Chess in the Movies for Tuesday's Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom.

In many ways, chess has been integral to films. The 64-square board game has featured umpteen times in all kinds of movies, from mystery and fantasy to horror and espionage. It is one of a handful of games and sports frequently seen in a cameo role, others being golf, snooker, and cards.

There is something fascinating about chess that appeals to a lot of people including film-makers, even if not everyone understands the game or knows how to play. It has an air of allure about it which, I feel, has to do with intellect, chance, suspense, winning, subtlety, intelligence, strategy, plot, thrill, and style associated with chess as well as films.


The game can make quite an impact in a film and on the viewer. For instance, the symbolic match between the characters of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class, in front of a fireplace, resonated with me because that’s the kind of setting in which I’d love to play the game. The two brothers, Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (alias Magneto), play in a relaxed environment even though they have serious issues to deal with, such as preventing World War III.

Chess blends perfectly with most plots and settings, be it in a comedy with Charlie Chaplin, science fiction with Leonard Nimoy, fantasy with Daniel Radcliffe or action with Jason Statham.

Although chess is incidental and mostly used as a prop or a backdrop, it glamourises films more than any other game or sport. It is an equaliser, a diversion, a fairy tale, even if for a short cinematic moment.

Here is a chronological list of movies that have featured chess. Some of these films, like Shatranj Ke KhilariSearching for Bobby Fischer, and Queen to Play, are actually about the game. 


Charlie Chaplin in The Masquerader, 1914
Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, 1942
Vladek Sheybal in From Russia with Love, 1963
Woody Allen in What's New Pussycat?, 1965
Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek, 1966-1969
Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen
in The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968
Timothy Dalton in The Lion in Winter, 1968
Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, 1971
Saeed Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar
in Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Ke Khilari
(The Chess Players), 1977
John Cleese in Silverado, 1985
Max Pomeranc in
Searching for Bobby Fischer, 1993
Samuel L. Jackson in Fresh, 1994
Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint in
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 2001
Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen
in X-Men 2, 2003
Jason Statham in Revolver, 2005
Robin Williams and Christopher Walken
in Man of the Year, 2006. While Williams
was a prolific chess player in real life,
I'm not sure if this is a scene from the
film or they played on the set,
as actors often did. 
Kevin Kline and Sandrine Bonnaire
in Joueuse, or Queen to Play, 2009
Steven Seagal in Born to Raise Hell, 2010
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender
in X-Men: First Class, 2011
Cliff Curtis in The Dark Horse, 2014
I haven’t seen many of these chess-o-pics. How about you? Which are the other chess flicks I missed?

27 comments:

  1. Good timing as I am reading QUEEN'S GAMBIT about a female chess prodigy.

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    1. Patti, thank you. I read about the book a while ago. I'm assuming you are referring to Elizabeth Freemantle's novel and not the one by Walter Tevis, I will take a look at both.

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  2. I never would have thought there were so many movies featuring chess. We recently watched a Midsomer Murders episode that centered around chess competitions.

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    1. Tracy, I didn't realise it either. I was reading up on the game when I chanced upon an article about chess in the movies. Chess is everywhere.

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  3. The one I remember most is the Wizard's chess Ron's plays in one of the Harry Potter films.

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    1. Col, I remember that life-threatening chess match Ron has towards the end of HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS. I'd hate to play chess like that!

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  4. Who knew? So many movies with chess. Thanks for listing 'em, Prashant.

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    1. Oscar, you're welcome. I did not know either. My passion for the game got me thinking about chess in the movies.

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  5. Great list - I love chess scenes too, so I really enjoyed this post.

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    1. Thank you, Moira. I plan to watch some of these films that look good for reasons other than chess.

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  6. One of my favorite story collections is "Pawn to Infinity," a collection of SF stories involving chess or similar game

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    1. Charles, thanks for mentioning the sf collection. I don't think I have read about the game in science fiction.

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  7. I am quite impressed, Prashant! I didn't know there were so many instances of chess in films! You've done a wonderful job of gathering all of these examples. I only wish I played better than I do.

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    1. Margot, thank you. I wish I had seen all these films and reviewed them in short. Some of these look really good. I don't play chess as often as I'd have liked to. In any case, when I do play it's usually online with faceless people and vice versa.

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  8. There was chess playing in the early part of INDEPENDENCE DAY as well. Very interesting set of films. SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER may be my favorite, for film and the excellent soundtrack by James Horner.

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    1. Richard, thank you. I have been meaning to see SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER ever since one of our blog friends, Yvette, brought the film to my notice.

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  9. Some really wonderful examples there Prashant. I would add the human chess pieces in SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH as well as the crucial chess piece in STALAG 17. I remember some large chess pieces in a Harry Potter too but my favourite may well be a classic COLUMBO co-starring Laurence Harvey as a murdering chess master in "The Most Dangerous Match".

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    1. Sergio, thank you. Barring HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS in which Harry and Ron play a violent game of chess with giant moving pieces, I haven't seen any of the other films you mentioned. STALAG 17 rings a bell.

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  10. My favorite is SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISHER, a film that's worth re-watching or watching for the first time, for sure. I think there's a film based on Bobby Fisher's life that's either in production or coming up in the new year. Read something vaguely, but I might be wrong.

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    1. Yvette, thanks for bringing SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER to my notice, as I noted in my response to Richard's comment. Until then, I hadn't heard of the film. I'm still looking for a DVD.

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  11. MIA: The Ingmar Bergman film. Alas, I forget the title.

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    1. R.T. I have barely seen Ingmar Bergman's films and I know what I have been missing.

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  12. Arthur Penn's Night Moves, where three knoght moves that were never made are the key to the film.

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    1. Roger, thanks for visiting and commenting. I'll look up the film.I haven't seen NIGHT MOVES, starring Gene Hackman, one of my favourite actors, or THE SEVENTH SEAL.

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  14. This is very interesting. I recently read a novella by Stefan Zweig, The Chess Game which you might likel.

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    1. Mel, thanks for the heads-up. I will check out the novella.

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