What it means when people play chess in the movies

A symbol of cunning, intelligence and death, the movie meanings of chess are as varied as the actors who've played it, Aliya writes...

You may not know much about shorthand typing, but if you’re a movie fan then you’re a trained professional in reading the dots and squiggles of the screen. Writers and directors use our preconceptions from watching thousands of hours of movies in order to make a more satisfying viewing experience. It’s a kind of shorthand, and it gives us a lot of information. Unfortunately, it can also take the place of decent acting, scene-setting and characterisation. But hey, that’s what we get for being so darned clever at this reading film stuff.

The game of chess has a long history, dating back to the sixth century AD, so it was already well-established in our collective psyche by the time movies came along and started to make use of it. Since the silent era, films have used chess as code for a number of character traits. Here’s a list of the classic ones:

I’m smart and I might be an evil robot

Building on its established reputation of being a game for the elite, chess made one of its first movie appearances in an adaptation of a true story involving the global hoodwinking of the aristocracy.

Raymond Bernard’s 1927 silent film, The Chess Player, tells the story of an inventor who creates an automaton that conceals a Polish nobleman. It’s not far from reality – at the end of the eighteenth century a famous automaton called The Turk travelled the world and won a number of chess matches against the rich and famous, including Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. In fact, The Turk was not an automaton at all, but a machine that could be operated by numerous chess masters. This part of the story didn’t make it into the movie version.

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Still, to come up with the idea of making a false chess automaton and then getting nobility all over the world to buy it just goes to prove how clever that inventor was, making him the perfect subject for the first ‘I’m smarter than you’ chess movie. It was good enough to spawn a remake in 1938 with Conrad Veidt as the inventor.

From there, chess was established as easy shorthand for being deeply brainy. If you’re a clever character, you have a chess set in your house somewhere, whether you get to play it or not. For instance, in Cape Fear (1962) Gregory Peck has a chess set in his office. In Dante’s Peak (1997) Pierce Brosnan has a chess set on his coffee table. Basically, if you were a professional doctor, lawyer or volcanologist, you had a chess set.

Perhaps the most interesting offshoot of the brainy chess player trope is its connection with artificial intelligence, and the threat that it is perceived as representing. In Blade Runner (1982) JF Sebastian and Tyrell play a game of chess via videophone. When Sebastian comes up with some killer moves, Tyrell invites him over to his penthouse – unfortunately the moves were provided by the android creation of the Tyrell corporation, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) who wants answers. Here the creation has out-thought the creator. The moves were based on a real chess game, played between Anderssen and Kieseritzky in an 1851 tournament in London and known as ‘the Immortal game’: Blade Runner is a film with an amazing number of layered meanings throughout.

Yes, computers love to play chess. In WarGames (1983) chess is one of the options available to Matthew Broderick’s character when trying to stop super-computer Joshua from instigating global thermonuclear war. Thank goodness they decided to play noughts and crosses instead. But perhaps the smartest of them all is Hal 9000, who wins against astronaut Dr Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) in Kubrick’s monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hal even points out where Poole is going wrong, being a helpful sort of computer. In fact, Hal cheats during the match. But since Kubrick was a great chess player, we have to assume that Hal’s cheating is not a movie mistake but proof that Hal is so much smarter than Poole that he can smugly declare a win without having to go to the trouble of actually winning, and Poole will accept his judgement. Now that’s clever.

I’m sexy

In 1968, Thomas Crown made chess sexy. It was quite an accomplishment, as traditionally chess was seen as a purely male pursuit. It was objective, and rational, and about the mind, not the body. But suddenly smart and sexy came together for movie women, and Faye Dunaway was able to portray what would have traditionally been a male character – the investigator hot on the trail of the criminal.

The editing of the chess scene is a brilliant piece of work. We get close-ups of his initially defensive body language and chess-playing, leading to aggressive moves by Dunaway complete with attention on the eyes and mouth, and the fingering of pieces; it’s basically sex as a board game, and when Thomas Crown starts to lose, he has the male prerogative of deciding to switch to another game altogether. The scene is so iconic that when it came to the decent 1999 remake with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, they don’t even play chess. Instead they go out dancing instead, which is a lot sweatier and nowhere near as sexy.

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Unfortunately, empowering women by letting them play movie chess was a fairly short-lived invention. Admittedly, in Pretty Woman Julia Roberts gets to play chess but loses fairly horrendously, insisting that she just likes moving certain pieces for no reason at all. Not a triumph for feminism.

In Two Weeks Notice (2002) an endearing Hugh Grant is lured into playing strip chess with his plotting assistant, played by Alicia Witt. And in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) we go full circle and get the parody of the Thomas Crown scene, except this time they end up licking the pieces. It’s not sexy either, but at least it’s funny.

I’m superhuman and/or an incarnation of Death

Death and chess belong together in movie terms like Astaire and Rogers. If you’re a filmic incarnation of the Grim Reaper, you’ve probably got a mean endgame. But you don’t always have to dress in black and carry a scythe.

A Matter Of Life And Death (1946) is one of the great Powell and Pressburger films, and it was made at a time when the world was trying to come to terms with the end of World War Two. David Niven plays Peter Carter, an airman who miraculously escapes from a horrible death. But he wasn’t meant to escape. Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) has failed to collect Peter’s soul and take it to heaven, and now 71 must try to outwit Peter in order to complete his task.

Peter is a chess player, and so, of course, is Conductor 71. Here chess is a metaphor for that most complex of games – life. When 71 borrows a book on the subject of chess moves, and then returns it later, we know we are really dealing with the issue of Peter’s borrowed time.

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The complexity of chess, and the feeling that only someone superhuman could call themselves a master of it, persists throughout the movies. In The Seventh Seal (1957) Antonuis Block (Max Von Sydow) challenges Death to a game of chess without a hope of winning, and gives us the key movie image of man’s useless struggle to survive. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone (2001) shows us Harry, Ron and Hermione outwitting a life-sized magical chess board to proceed on their journey, thereby reassuring us that they’ll go on to defeat even the terrible Voldemort. Six films later, admittedly.

And in X-Men (2000) two of the most powerful mutants, Professor Xavier and Magneto, play chess against each other in those rare moments when they’re not at loggerheads over the ascension of the next stage of evolution. Only the very best movie heroes have a chance of winning at such games.

And, of course, in the world of Star Trek, we have Tri-Dimensional chess, just in case you thought 2D chess wasn’t enough of a challenge. You don’t have to be Vulcan to win at it, but it helps.

I’m disconnected from reality and/or I’m a deeply evil human

Otto Preminger’s 1952 film noir Angel Face is the story of Diane Jessup (Jean Simmons), a rich young woman who is devoted to her father, and hates her step-mother with such passion that she’s prepared to involve laid-back chauffeur Robert Mitchum in her plans for murder.

We see Simmons playing chess with her father early on in the movie, and doing a good job of it too, so we know that she’s smart (see point one). But here chess represents something else; she picks up the queen and examines it thoughtfully, in a detached way, and we understand that to her murder is no more than a game. She’s preparing a series of moves to eliminate the queen from the board.

Supervillains play chess, of course – how else can they keep their evil minds exercised? Lex Luthor plays in prison at the beginning of Superman II (1980) against his assistant, and even makes a hologram of himself playing in order to fool the guards during his escape. Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) was a Grandmaster and the head of planning for SMERSH in From Russia With Love (1963). Cold-hearted genius goes hand in hand with a predilection for board games in Hollywood.

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A more interesting treatment can be found in Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film, The Chess Players. Set in the 1850s, the story revolves around two Indian noblemen who are obsessed with chess to the exclusion of all else, not realising that the British are threatening to annex their region. They have no interest in the day to day struggles of their people; even when they are thrown out of their homes they continue to play. It’s a beautiful film, as slow and deliberate as the game itself. It sets out to prove that the theory of game play is no substitute for living a real life.

One final point – in a lot of the examples I’ve mentioned, and in countless other films that use the same chess tropes, the board is set up incorrectly, or the moves shown don’t make any sense if you were playing a real game. But that’s the way of cinema, isn’t it? The illusion is the important thing. And besides, it makes me feel better that the actors, directors and producers involved aren’t all chess geniuses. We can definitely have too many smart evil sexy androids, don’t you think? The world is safer this way, trust me.

See also: Is Computer Chess the ultimate geek indie comedy?