How Movies Get Chess Wrong

By Zachary Snowdon Smith

You’re watching a movie that includes a football scene. As a gridiron fan, you’re pleased — at first. Then you notice something’s wrong: Why are there only seven players on either team, you wonder. Why do they seem to be running around at random? And is that a cricket ball the quarterback is passing?

Such baffling errors are what chess fans have come to anticipate when they sit down in a cinema. Even behemoths like Captain America: Civil War don’t check that their pieces are in the right place, committing mistakes that any patzer would catch.

Chess remains one of the most popular games on Earth — 605 million people play according to a 2012 YouGov poll — and it’s one of the few elements of everyday life that ties the U.S. to Nigeria to North Korea and the rest of the globe (along with linking classical antiquity to the Facebook era). Why, then, do filmmakers so often scatter pieces carelessly across the board?

David Edmonds is a co-author of Bobby Fischer Goes to War, the definitive history of the 1972 match that enthroned Fischer as a rare U.S. World Chess Champion. In researching the book, he set aside two months to view every chess movie he could get his hands on. The Bond classic From Russia With Love drew in Edmonds by recreating a position from an actual game noted for its elegance, but then lost him when he noticed the filmmakers had forgotten to include two centrally placed pawns.

If chess is employed in broadly symbolic ways that neglect the game’s actual mechanics, it’s in part because those mechanics are so tricky to convey on film.

“There’s nothing more annoying for a chess player than when they’ve gone through all the trouble to create a chess scene, and then they’ve set the board up the wrong way,” says Edmonds. “In From Russia With Love, they’ve got this multi-multi-multi-million-dollar budget, and they can’t get anybody to set the board up right.”

Filmmakers’ most common blunder may be the sideways board. On a correctly placed chessboard, the square in either player’s bottom right corner will be light-colored — if that square is dark, the board is sideways. Hundreds of otherwise finely tuned films have shown us sideways chessboards, including The Great Escape, What’s New, Pussycat?, Never Say Never Again, The Silence of the Lambs, The Shawshank Redemption, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, 2000’s Shaft, and The Da Vinci Code.

As well as playing on misaligned boards, films often show supposed masters making amateurish maneuvers or announcing nonexistent checkmates. Disney’s Aladdin has the magic carpet playing Genie without a king on the board. It’s clear that filmmakers are often indifferent to the finer points of the game — why, then, do they keep using chess in their movies?

Astronaut Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) is bested by the HAL 9000 supercomputer in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Photo: MGM

Stories most conventionally use chess as a signifier of intelligence. An aptitude for chess is “one mark, Watson, of a scheming mind,” claims Sherlock Holmes in the 1926 short story “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman.” Showing a character achieving a swift checkmate can accomplish the same thing as having them solve a Rubik’s Cube or write equations on a windowpane. When The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander quickly masters the game, it’s not so much about chess as it is about informing the audience of Salander’s outsize intellect.

“In the old days of cinema, the cigarette was a very important signifier,” says Edmonds. “It signified coolness or nervousness; it did lots of things for a film director that didn’t require a great deal of script. The chessboard can do something like that. It can be a very good shorthand. You can cut through whole swathes of character description just by showing somebody playing chess.”

A hero’s chess ability can denote a contemplative and analytical personality as well as introversion or loneliness. Chess-playing baddies may be sneaky and calculating like Blade Runner’s Roy Batty, or grand manipulators like Moriarty and Magneto. Similarly, a game between characters can easily be understood to represent a broader conflict. It requires little insight on the viewer’s part to see that the chess battles in Pawn Sacrifice, based on Fischer’s world championship match against Soviet player Boris Spassky, are as much about the Cold War as they are about Fischer and Spassky.

If these uses of chess are really just shortcuts — convenient devices to communicate that character X is smart and character Y is devious — there are other filmmakers who have used chess more inventively. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley and Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf play an erotically tinged game of chess while Greenleaf bathes: Ripley approaches gamely with a bishop but is firmly turned away by the heterosexual Greenleaf’s pawn.

Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen in ‘The Thomas Crown Affair.’ Photo: Michael Ochs Archives

Edmonds is particularly fascinated by a scene from the 1968 heist thriller The Thomas Crown Affair, in which Faye Dunaway seduces Steve McQueen over a fireside game of chess: “Do you play?” asks McQueen significantly. “Try me,” Dunaway responds.

“It’s quite interesting,” Edmonds says, laughing. “It’s about the least likely means of seduction you can actually imagine — and the most unsuccessful, I would think.”

The idea is certainly played for humor in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, which parodies the Thomas Crown’s seduction scene by having femme fatale Ivana Humpalot lick her chess pieces and thrust them down her décolletage.

When astronaut Frank Poole loses to HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it not only demonstrates the computer’s mighty intelligence; it may also contain a subtle hint of HAL’s unpredictable behavior. Although HAL announces that he will achieve checkmate in two moves, which persuades Poole to resign, the position would actually have allowed Poole to postpone checkmate by up to four moves. With director, producer, and writer Stanley Kubrick being a one-time chess hustler who spent the production of Dr. Strangelove battling across the board with George C. Scott, it seems doubtful that he would have missed HAL’s error. Fans continue to speculate whether HAL in this scene is actually showing a hint of the instability that will end with his setting Poole adrift in space.

Magneto vs. Xavier. Image created with Jin

We see a subtler thematic use of chess in the final scene of X-Men, where Professor Xavier plays against an incarcerated Magneto à la Holmes and Moriarty. While Magneto, playing white, begins with stronger pieces, Xavier executes a bold checkmate relying on his pawns. As YouTuber Jack Nugent points out, Xavier’s canny use of pawns and Magneto’s overreliance on powerful pieces like rooks mirror the contrast between Xavier’s willingness to cooperate with humans and Magneto’s ultimately unworkable mutant supremacism. And as if to drive home the point, in X-Men: The Last Stand, Magneto remarks, “In chess, the pawns go first,” as he sacrifices his minions in a human wave attack.

The Thing is not where you might look for nuanced chess symbolism. The 1982 body horror film opens with the hard-bitten R.J. MacReady playing against a “Chess Wizard” desktop computer in the isolation of an Antarctic research base. The Chess Wizard ably checkmates MacReady (despite the pieces teleporting around nonsensically between shots). “Cheating bitch!” rejoins MacReady, and he destroys the computer by pouring a glass of Scotch into its circuitry. As the researchers fall prey to a Lovecraftian alien, MacReady decides to burn down the base, condemning himself to death by exposure, but, with luck, destroying the invader as well. It’s a reckless decision, but far from a surprising one: MacReady’s battle with the Chess Wizard has already shown us that he would rather flip the board than accept defeat.

If chess is employed in broadly symbolic ways that neglect the game’s actual mechanics, it’s in part because those mechanics are so tricky to convey on film. A typical viewer may know how the pieces move but will be at a loss to understand the subtleties of a position at a glance. Films like Pawn Sacrifice often rely on sledgehammer editing or cutaways to characters delivering simplistic pronouncements like, “Fischer’s moves are unprecedented in chess history!” to let us know how the game is going. Jeremy Silman, who designed the wizard chess game seen in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, lamented on his blog: “Unfortunately, movie dynamics once again turned a well thought out chess situation into mumbo-jumbo (though it looked very energetic on the big screen).”

Finn (John Boyega) contemplates the dejarik board in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Chess has given filmmakers a unique set of symbols with which to work. But why only chess? Why don’t we see other board games proliferating through cinema in the same way? Why does the image of Holmes and Moriarty playing checkers seem so silly? And why can’t Snakes and Ladders symbolize the sweep of the Cold War or backgammon stand in for romantic flirtation?

“I was obsessed with this question of how chess could endure for so many centuries and across so many societies, remaining popular in literally all age groups,” says David Shenk, author of The Immortal Game, a popular history of chess. “It’s mind-boggling that a game could be so universal… Aside from chess and beer, it’s almost impossible to find common things that stretch across such large historical spans.”

Symbolic use of chess didn’t begin on the silver screen. In The Immortal Game, Shenk surveys chess symbolism from the game’s sixth-century origins to modernity. Medieval Europeans saw chess — with its royalty, knights, clergy, and peasantry — as emblematic of the stability of the feudal hierarchy. With the approach of the Enlightenment, storytellers drew less attention to the superiority of the king to the pawn than to the fact that all the pieces, large and small, ended up in the same bag at the game’s end. In modernity, films like The Mighty Pawns and Queen of Katwe emphasize the potential of the lone underdog pawn to become a queen and conquer the board.

Shenk thinks the archetypal nature of chess is part of what gives the game its symbolic fertility. In the same way that ancient archetypal figures like Hercules or Prometheus live on in metaphor, the queen and the pawn, the checkmate and the stalemate, are all easily mapped onto day-to-day situations.

“There’s something about how the game draws an outline of a social and military structure that’s so elemental. There are only six pieces; a five-year-old can understand it.”

“What makes chess one of the most enduring and also ubiquitous sources of symbols, from country to country, from age to age, is a combination of simplicity in its rules and almost infinite complexity in how it actually plays out,” says Shenk. “There’s something about how the game draws an outline of a social and military structure that’s so elemental. There are only six pieces; a five-year-old can understand it. The simplicity of that representation is so powerful.”

Themed chess sets demonstrate the archetypal character of the pieces in another way. The king, powerful but remote from the action, can be represented by Gandalf, Napoleon, or Obi-Wan Kenobi. The army of indistinguishable pawns find their form in orcs, stormtroopers, or anonymous infantrymen. The decimating power of the rook is embodied by the Tower of Orthanc or AT-AT Walkers. Themed sets show that chessmen are not merely neutral pieces of equipment for gameplay devoid of personality. To create, for instance, a Simpsons-themed chess set with Homer as a pawn or Lisa as the queen would clearly be absurd.

While the mechanics of checkers and backgammon usually prove too abstract to furnish useful metaphors for real-world occurrences, games like Monopoly, Stratego, and Risk run into the opposite problem.

“What could you do with Risk as a symbol?” asks Shenk. “Except for it to be a symbol of exactly what it is, which is all these countries fighting each other. You can’t take Risk and turn it into a symbol for mathematics. You can’t take Risk and turn it into a symbol for schoolyard power dynamics. It’s just too limited by its specificity. Whereas you can take chess, in any social or power situation, and easily start using it as a symbol, and it’ll work — it’ll actually be useful. This is why you have Bob Dylan and every other writer who’s ever lived using pawns as a metaphor for peasants or serfs. It doesn’t have enough specificity that it gets in the way of those moving symbols.”

Chess can also provide a familiar point of reference for films with exotic settings. The clothing, food, language, and religion of medieval Europe, for instance, would be confusingly alien to most modern U.S. viewers. In The Seventh Seal, set in medieval Sweden, Ingmar Bergman gives viewers something familiar and relatable to hold onto in the form of chess. Few other commonplace elements link 14th-century life to that of the 21st century.

Sci-fi media tend to use chess to an opposite purpose: to show that, in their fictive worlds, even such familiar things as chess are different and unusual. Star Trek, for instance, uses tridimensional chess to illustrate the sophistication of the show’s universe compared to the audience’s. Dejarik, the Star Wars chess analog played using holographic monsters as pieces, helps build an exotic atmosphere; in a galaxy far, far away, even the chessboard is full of aliens.

“When chess came along, it was a fun game to play, but it obviously immediately became so much more than that,” says Shenk. “Humans, above all, are abstract thinkers, so we’re constantly searching for symbols to represent ideas. We’re desperately hungry for that.”

Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) duels with Death (Bengt Ekerot) in ‘The Seventh Seal.’ Photo: ullstein bild via Getty Images

In books and on-screen, chess masters are solitary intellectuals, cold manipulators, and inspiring underdogs. Probably the best-known stock character, however, is the mad genius.

“The ‘mad genius’ thing is irritating but understandable because there probably is a slightly higher percentage of chess geniuses who are crazy compared to the rest of the population, but it’s a very, very tiny difference,” says Edmonds. “It’s a tedious stereotype… Chess remains very male and it remains quite nerdy, but the vast majority of chess players are perfectly normal human beings.”

Of course, it doesn’t help that Fischer, perhaps history’s best-known chess player, so closely resembles the prototypical mad genius — a prodigy who, at 14, won the U.S. Chess Championship and by middle age was calling for the imprisonment of all Jews in order to forestall Jewish world domination. (In his 2011 Fischer biography, Frank Brady shows that some of the more extreme characterizations of Fischer’s derangement — such as that Fischer feared his dental fillings could influence his thoughts — are thinly evidenced.)

Paul Morphy, the first true chess celebrity in the Fischer mold, has also contributed to the template. Descriptions of Morphy’s behavior run the gamut from mild eccentricity to jabbering psychosis. In the screenplay for Pawn Sacrifice, one character claims that Morphy experienced hallucinations and “killed himself in the bathtub surrounded by 12 pairs of ladies’ shoes,” worrying that Fischer’s involvement in chess may destine him for something similar. The prosaic fact is that, in 1884, Morphy died of a “congestion of the brain,” or a stroke, while bathing. Tales of Morphy’s shoe fetishism are questionable at best.

“And so it is that much of chess history is not history at all but lurid figments,” remarks chess historian Edward Winter in an article on Morphy’s purported insanity. “Anyone criticizing such output risks being labelled a spoilsport or humourless pedant, but a far heavier price is paid by our game’s greatest practitioners, for they are condemned to star ad infinitum in seedy anecdotes which are the product of mindless inter-hack copying or brutal distortion.”

John Turturro as the tormented Grandmaster Luzhin in ‘The Luzhin Defense.’ Photo: Sony Pictures

Along with Pawn Sacrifice, the figure of the tormented grandmaster features in Brainwashed and The Luzhin Defense, the latter adapted from the Vladimir Nabokov novel of the same name. Throughout the film, the titular grandmaster Luzhin grows more and more unbalanced, eventually coming to see reality as a colossal chess game from which Luzhin resigns by leaping from a high window. (In defense of Luzhin, Nabokov’s novels teem with both chess players and madmen; the emergence of a chess-playing madman was practically a statistical inevitability.)

The cinematic conventions surrounding chess may be cliché, one-dimensional, or simply nonfactual, but they also tend to enhance the game’s prestige. Paul Morphy the self-destructive loner is far more glamorous than Paul Morphy the well-mannered aspiring lawyer, genius or not. It’s difficult to think of many anti-Semite conspiracy theorists who have remained so durably sexy as has Bobby Fischer. The flattened and often warped depiction of chess in movies has, at least, done something to maintain the game’s public mystique.

“The problem with chess as a signifier is that it then becomes a caricature,” says Edmonds. “But I never resent chess being put into a film. I always like to see it there because it’s a free advertisement for the game, as it were.”