Top 10 greatest chess scenes in movies

27 Jan. 2019 | by Peter Wong

For chess enthusiasts who are also fans of cinema, movie scenes that prominently feature the royal game hold a special appeal. Many people have produced lists of the most famous of such scenes, clips of which are typically found on YouTube. Surprisingly, however, no-one has attempted to put these chess sequences together in a single video. So I decided to do just that – choosing the ten best film depictions of the game (in my view), ranking them, and collecting them in a HD-quality video. The result is now on YouTube: Top 10 Greatest Chess Scenes in Movies. Because I wanted the selected scenes to be more-or-less self-contained and not mere snippets, some segments are longish (though none exceeds four minutes) and the whole compilation is 27 minutes in length. You can also jump to individual segments using the heading links provided below.

10. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

A blitz game between Sherlock Holmes and his archenemy Professor Moriarty serves as the climax of this film directed by Guy Ritchie, a keen chess player. (He also made Revolver (2005), a crime thriller that references chess even more heavily, but it’s not as good.) The original scene goes for ten minutes, too long for our purposes and I had to edit out some non-chess related parts; that’s why this segment may feel a little disjointed at times. That the game played – based on Larsen-Petrosian, 1966 – develops into a form of blindfold chess is a plus, as this sort of feat is rarely displayed in movies.

9. X-Men (2000)

In the sci-fi X-Men series about mutants with superpowers, chess makes frequent appearances, sometimes at key moments. A few years ago I even created a YouTube video gathering these Chess Scenes in the X-Men Films. The game is mostly used to represent the rivalry between Professor Xavier and his “frenemy” Magneto, and this sequence from the first X-Men film is no exception. Apparently neither of the two actors involved (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) knew how to play chess and an over-qualified GM was brought in to teach them!

8. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

If anyone could make a chess game seem glamorous and sexy, it’d be two movie stars of the calibre of Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. In this heist film, he’s a rich executive who masterminded a bank robbery and she’s an investigator on his trail. No one in their right mind would actually pay attention to the chess moves in this scene. Did I mention that the game opens with the Ruy Lopez?

7. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

This film about the real-life prodigy Josh Waitzkin, based on one of my favourite chess books, is excellent but I’m not a fan of how his main rival is portrayed. That’s why I didn’t choose the Championship game between them that ends the movie. Instead I picked a terrific scene of the young Josh playing his hustler friend (Laurence Fishburne) in a New York park. Here the editing, music, and Oscar-nominated cinematography combine to perfectly capture the fun of speed chess.

6. Blade Runner (1982)

This cult movie posits a dystopian future in which androids are nearly indistinguishable from humans but are manufactured as slaves. Chess is used as a plot device here, as the leader of a group of rebel “replicants” (Rutger Hauer) exploits an ongoing game to gain access to the head scientist who created him. That the replicant also outwitted his genius maker in chess is obviously meant to suggest his superior intelligence over humans. The moves announced in this scene reproduce the ending of the Anderssen-Kieseritzky Immortal Game.

5. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

Chess acquires the big-budget, CGI-laden treatment in the first Harry Potter film. This movie franchise has been such a phenomenon in popular culture that the scene of giant “Wizard’s Chess” demands a good placing on my list, even though the film itself, aimed at youngsters, is not much to my taste. IM Jeremy Silman devised the critical position, in which Harry’s friend Ron sacrificed himself to help Harry to deliver mate. Check out Silman’s revealing article on his experience as the chess consultant on the film (linked below).

4. Pawn Sacrifice (2014)

Perhaps the more you know about the details of Fischer’s life and his World Championship match with Spassky, the more you’d be distracted by the inaccuracies of this biopic. Still, screenwriters are not giving up their artistic licences anytime soon and if we treat this as a feature film (not a doco), it is well-made and enjoyable. Take the Game 6 scene, which begins deliberately to convey the intensity of top-level play and the public’s captivation with the match. It then builds up to a dramatic finish that tells us something about the protagonists: one is an impeccable player, a little dazed by the world’s reaction to his brilliance, the other a perfect gentleman.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Legendary director Stanley Kubrick was a chess lover who incorporated the game in many of his works, including The Killing (1956) and Lolita (1962). But the best-known of these chess moments comes from 2001, in which an astronaut relaxes by playing with HAL, the sentient onboard computer. HAL is a memorable character who always speaks pleasantly, whether he’s beating you at chess or going on a murderous rampage. Though nowadays we are used to programs demolishing human players, back in 1968 the idea would have been far-fetched, so the film is kind of prescient.

2. From Russia with Love (1963)

This early James Bond film opens in a beautiful setting of a match between a Czech grandmaster and his Canadian opponent. The lavish interiors of the playing hall must have cost a small fortune to produce, for a scene that lasts for only two minutes or so. The Czech turns out to be the chief planner of the evil SPECTRE organisation, thus his chess prowess is meant to establish him as a master strategist and formidable foe for Bond. Given the popularity of the Bond films, the position seen on a demonstration board – modelled on the Spassky-Bronstein, 1960 game – could be considered the most famous chess diagram ever.

1. The Seventh Seal (1957)

Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s tale set in medieval Europe is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. A battle-weary knight (Max von Sydow) returns home from the Crusades only to encounter Death in human form. The Grim Reaper is ready to claim his life but the knight challenges him to a game of chess, as a delaying tactic (a bit like not resigning in a lost position?!). This cinema classic contains imageries that have become iconic, especially those of the knight facing off Death across a chessboard, and its influence can be gauged by how often its scenes are referenced and parodied in modern culture. An easy pick as No.1 on this list!

The Seventh Seal segment consists of three separate chess sequences and solely because of its total length, this video is blocked on YouTube in a few European countries. If you’re affected and cannot view it at Top 10 Greatest Chess Scenes in Movies, here’s a link to a slightly shortened version (unlisted on YouTube). Its only difference is that it contains two rather than all three excerpts from The Seventh Seal.

Further reading and viewing

These articles discuss and analyse the specific chess positions featured in many of the above scenes, some with notes on the goofs detected. Chess errors are almost customary in movies, and these great scenes are far from immune.

Lastly, an insightful video from ‘Now You See It’, a film analysis channel on YouTube.