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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 July 2007, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Why do the movies love chess?

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The late Ingmar Bergman's film the Seventh Seal helped cement his reputation as a cerebral director, and might explain why chess is such an enduring theme for film makers.

In the Seventh Seal a Swedish knight returns from the crusades to find his home country ravaged by tragedy and is soon locked in a game of chess with death.

Without giving much away, it's a fairly intense game.

Bergman's arthouse favourite is perhaps the most notorious example of chess on celluloid, but there are hundreds and hundreds of others. From the brainiest to the schlockiest, one of the movie world's favourite devices is chess.

Humphrey Bogart plays chess
Humphrey Bogart was Hollywood's strongest player

And among the chess-playing fraternity there's a whole subculture of "chess in the movies" discussion, with a number of dedicated websites, and Bob Basalla's book Chess in the Movies, providing exhaustive lists stretching up to 2,000 titles.

Perhaps the second best known chess scene is in the Thomas Crown Affair, where Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway enjoy a romantically-charged game.

Satyajit Ray's the Chess Players is another arthouse classic, while 2000's Luzhin Defence had a grandmaster as its central character.

But for many chess aficionados, the best example of the game has to be in the second James Bond film, From Russia With Love, where the Spectre agent Kronsteen ruthlessly beats the Canadian master McAdams.

Plotting moves

This fictional struggle was based on a real and much-discussed game between Boris Spassky and David Bronstein - who inspired the name Kronsteen despite being the loser in the real-life game - in Leningrad in 1960.

Grandmaster, writer and chess entrepreneur Raymond Keene says it is easily his favourite chess scene.

"It leaves off two of the pawns on the queen-side but the way they stage it in the movie is really magnificent, the giant chessboards and the 'Venice' set. When I try and arrange a chess tournament I'm aiming for that. The position itself is very well chosen."

The Chess Players
Blade Runner
Seventh Seal
From Russia With Love
Chess Fever
Thomas Crown Affair

And the chess scene perfectly sets up the character of the evil Kronsteen. He is a chess master so he is someone who plots every move in great detail and thinks a long way ahead.

"Kronsteen works for Spectre. He's an evil genius of vast cunning but he is defeated by Bond's British bravura, attacking each problem as it comes.

"I feel flattered that we chess grandmasters are regarded as geniuses," Keene adds

And the use in From Russia With Love certainly gives us a clue as to the nature of Hollywood's relationship with chess.

Aficionado woe

Hollywood is a place often chided for being disproportionately full of airheads, and movie-makers therefore use chess to add gravitas into movies. And it's gravitas that comes with a bit of interaction. Illustrating the cleverness of your baddie by showing him with his head in an encyclopaedia is not quite so engaging.

But for the "chess in movies" enthusiasts there are problems. Many positions are wrongly set-up with pieces in places they cannot be. Characters playing are always saying "check" to illustrate a dramatic point. But most of all aficionados like to sniff at the regularity with which the board has a black square on the right. In chess the board is always set up with the white square on the right.

Malcolm Pein, who was once asked to devise a chess game for an EastEnders scene, says the mistakes can be annoying, but there are still many chess scenes to love.

"Every time a chess board appears a million chess fans squeal 'the boards the wrong way round'."

Alec Guinness plays chess
Movie chess sets are often excessively elaborate

Sometimes chess is in a movie because a star or director is a player. Humphrey Bogart was reputed to be at the top end of amateur players, and suggested a chess scene for Casablanca. And Stanley Kubrick was so taken with chess that it features in The Killing, Lolita and 2001 and alluded to the game in Paths of Glory.

"The best scenes are where there is some tension between the protagonists. Humphrey Bogart has a special place in my affections because he did love chess. The board was definitely the right way round in Casablanca," Pein adds.

The chess authorities have tried to capitalise on the movies to recruit new players, such as when the game was heavily featured in a Harry Potter movie.

And the fans like most the movies - such as From Russia With Love - that at least attempt to use a real game. Blade Runner features a game based on Anderssen against Kieseritzky in London in 1851, known to some as the Immortal Game, and 1925's Chess Fever which featured Cuban world champion Jose Raul Capablanca playing a champion.

Lonely men
Evil geniuses
Romantic interaction
Planning ahead
Achievement through struggle

Prospero's Books is said to allude to "the Game of the Century" between Donald Byrne and a young Bobby Fischer in 1956.

And ultimately, chess fans love the movies, because they add a glamour that chess struggles to find on its own.

Go to a real chess tournament and you don't immediately sense an ambience of espionage and romance.

So maybe the occasional "black on the right" and misplaced queen is an acceptable price to pay.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Don't forget Alan Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad." It's one of the most chess-centric movies out there--right down to the production design.
David Walker, Columbia, MD, USA

Though chess may indeed be used as a cinematic metaphor for cleverness, the Oriental game of go (a.k.a. weiqi or baduk) seems to be used when directors want to go a step further. Western movie references to go seem to go back to 1957 (Robert Mitchum in Heaven Knows Mr Allison) and it's a central theme in A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Pi (1997). There are, of course, a massive number of references in Japanese, Chinese and Korean films. The monthly go magazine Gekkan Go World is currently up to No. 52 in a series on Japanese films that feature go boards strongly (Soko ni go ban ga atta).
John Fairbairn, London, UK

I always liked the chess game in The Thing where Kurt Russells character is resoundingly beaten by the computer and doesn't take it too well.
Nelly, Liverpool

Chess scenes in movies & TV are almost always moronic. Usually it's used for comic bathos: the arrogant male fool (of a Hancock type) thinks he's winning against a minor character (female/ child) who then immediately proclaims an entirely unforeseen 'checkmate'. This is a terribly repetitive cliche. One example is George losing to his girlfriend in Seinfeld. How often is checkmate unforeseen in real matches?!

One of the best movie chess games is that played between Alec Guiness and Ernie Kovacs with shot-glass pieces primed with strong alcohol, in which the pieces taken have to be drunk, with predictable results!
Francis, Seaford, UK

Satyajit Ray's movie "Shatranj ke Khiladi" (The Chess players) is one of my alltime favorites. A beautiful allegorical tale where two nobles spend their time playing chess while life around them is crumbling down. The wife of one nobleman is having an affair and another is so consumed by the game that has no mood to sleep with his. Their state, Oudh, meanwhile is taken over by the Raj. The way chess is used as a means to convey the flaccidness and weakness of the aristocracy in 19th century India is nothing short of brilliant and is a measure of the genius of Ray.
Padmanabha Kamath, Redmond, USA

Many years ago I saw a German film at a theater in Paris with the English title,"Black and White as in Day and Night", featuring Bruno Ganz as a chess player who descends into madness and, as I recall, blows up the chess board of his final match and is eventually institutionalized. Great stuff!
Chazmet, Birmingham, Michigan

I'm a filmmaker as well, and a strong "A" class player, so I might give you a run for your money, Mr. Bartlett. I have written a feature length screenplay about the life of Paul Morphy, if anyone is interested.
John Goldner, Montreal, Canada

Mathew Taylor may like to know that the chess game used in the Laurence Harvey Columbo episode is indeed of master quality. It was won by Wolthuis against Alexander at Maastricht in 1946, and the moves can be found on New In Chess website and other databases. In the TV episode the game is interrupted, and on resumption the Russian challenger Dudek (Jack Kruschen) demonstrates how he can win to the mortified world champion Clayton (Harvey). In the actual game Alexander resigned at this point, having seen what was coming! Kruschen's performance as the jovial Russian challenger on the come-back trail who loves good food and attractive female company even more than chess is the funniest and most accurate portrayal of a chess master I have ever seen in films or on TV.
Mike Trolan, Alnwick, Northumberland

Nobody mentioning Mr. Spock in Star Trek, and his three dimensional chess set, especially in the episode, Charlie X? For shame!
Brian Carr, St. Helens

One of the best: "Dangerous Moves", starring Liv Ullmann and made in 1984. It is a drama surrounding the World Chess Championship.
Doug, Coos Bay, Oregon, USA

In the 1920s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes observe that excelling at chess was "one sign of a scheming mind".
David Boothoryd, London

In 'Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey', Bill and Ted are challenged to a game with Death for their lives, referencing the Seventh Seal directly. Death suggests they play chess as the game but neither Bill nor Ted fancy it and they play battleships instead. Real gravitas.
TDS, London

The American television show "The Wire", about the drugs wars in Baltimore, has a brilliant episode in which one of the more senior members of the drugs gang, D'Angelo Barksdale, is teaching several of the younger members how to play chess. As he verses each of the youngsters on the moves each piece can make, he uses analogies from the world they understand: running drugs. The last piece he teaches them about is the pawn, which is plentiful and quick to expire, just like the young men who D'Angelo is teaching.
Steve, Edinburgh

How could one NOT include the Louis XVI's human chess game scene from the Mel Brooks classic, "History of the World: Part One"?
Dennis Pepperack, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

As for "What chess scenes convey," how about "you are an unsophisticated slob." I recall in Kubrick's Lolita, mentioned above, the wonderful scene where chess is made to exemplify the sophistication of Europeans (James Mason) and boorishness of Americans (Shelly Winters). "So this thingy moves like this, and you're trying trying to take my queen?" "That is my intention, yes, Charlotte."
Lorrin Kim, Honolulu, HI

I was surprised you did not mention one of the most memorable chess movie ever made. Fresh (1994) was the debut film of writer and director Boaz Yakin. Set in the violent and gang-ridden projects of New York City, Fresh tells the story of Michael, nicknamed Fresh (portrayed by Sean Nelson), a 12-year old kid running drugs for the local drug lords (notably, Giancarlo Esposito). Inspired by the chess lessons of his father, an alcoholic speed-chess master (Samuel L. Jackson), Fresh devises and executes a brilliant plan to extricate himself and his drug addicted sister (N'Bushe Wright) from their hopeless lives.
Stephen, Washington DC

"Searching for Bobby Fisher" was a good chess film about a young boy from NYC, based on a true story.
Ernest Hayfield, New York, NY, USA

I suppose it's just prejudice that's keeping the X-men movies off the list. You'd think a film with Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart playing chess in a plastic cell would be mentioned in a BBC article. Oh well. 2007 and mutants still being held down by the man.
Derek Jeremiah Reid, Los Angeles, CA USA

Kubrick's '2001' has one of my favourite movie chess scenes involving the infamous HAL9000 computer playing the game. Filmed in 1969, the movie was way ahead of its time in so many respects, but that it included a computer that can beat a human at chess! Brilliant inclusion on Kubrick's part, I loved it.
Derek Kornelsen, Calgary, Canada

Columbo: The Most Dangerous Match, 1973, with guest star Laurence Harvey, also featured chess. Perhaps a chess expert could comment about how well the chess was played in this episode - when it's shown every so often on TV, I've often wondered!
Mathew Taylor, Leeds, UK

There's a chess game between a police sergeant and Alastair Sim's hitman character in the comedy film "The Green Man" from the 1950s.
Alan T, Salisbury UK

Independance Day. Jeff Goldblum figures out the plan of the alien baddies for invading Earth. He likens the invasion to a game of chess, meaning the aliens ships being placed over the cities are preparing for the fatal strike. Checkmate!
Mike, London, UK

Quite a few Hollywood personnel are big chess fans. Sharon Stone is rumoured to have once put a chess set down in the middle of her table at a posh Beverley Hills restaurant and demanded the waiters put the food around it to save from spoiling her game. Guy Richie is also famed for his love of chess and from what I hear he spent more time playing chess than actually directing his film Revolver which featured the game.

I believe I am the strongest chess playing film director around. My low budget flick "The Zombie Diaries" may not have the slick and glamour of Richie's productions, but I openly challenge him here to play me and promise a good hammering. That goes for anyone else in the industry too!
Michael Bartlett, Letchworth, UK

I recall a psychological thriller called "Knight Moves", starring Christopher Lambert as a chess grandmaster suspected of murder in the middle of a tournament. He has to find the real serial killer who is leaving bodies in the pattern of chess moves all over town (think of the grid system that US cities are planned on). Well worth watching if it crops up on late night TV.
RJP, Cambridge

You missed out Austin Powers 2, which had an amusing chess scene (ripped from the Thomas Crown Affair) involving 'squeezing' a pawn like a spot. All very funny, at least to my puerile little mind!
Ed, London

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