Blindfold chess scenes in movies and TV shows
18 May 2022 | by Peter Wong
In popular culture and films in particular, chess has become a shorthand for “a battle of wits between two intelligent characters.” As such, chess-playing scenes are plentiful and I had no shortage of highlights to choose from for my earlier list, Top 10 greatest chess scenes in movies. Screen depictions of blindfold chess specifically, however, are comparatively rare. My new video compilation of Blindfold chess scenes in movies and TV shows, with eight clips (unordered), incorporates almost all instances that I could find. This is surprising in a way, since playing chess without sight of the board is such a marvellous feat that it serves as an entertaining spectacle, even for people unfamiliar with the game. Probably such portrayals are uncommon for they risk implausibility, in that performing blindfold chess requires more than a “smart” character but someone actually at (or close to) the professional level. Indeed, many of the selected scenes feature top players – fictional or based on real people – whose mastery of the game is well conveyed by how casually they rattle off their moves.
Speaking of how the moves are announced, Descriptive notation is often employed in these clips, rather than the familiar Algebraic type. This is accurate for the periods in which the films or TV shows are set. In English-speaking countries at least, Algebraic notation did not become standard until the 1970s.
About blindfold chess itself, the definitive book on the subject is Eliot Hearst and John Knott’s Blindfold Chess: History, Psychology, Techniques, Champions, World Records, and Important Games (2009). Its full text seems to be available from the Internet Archive, and I’ve read only the Introduction so far. Here’s a line that’s a bit amusing as it anticipates the drama series, The Queen’s Gambit: “Even in regular tournaments there are a number of grandmasters who occasionally cover their eyes, stare into space, or look at the ceiling while deciding on their next move.” The authors pick Alexander Alekhine (the fourth World Champion) as the best blindfold-player of all time. Appropriately enough, the video begins with The Queen’s Gambit and finishes with Alekhine giving a blindfold simultaneous exhibition. (Note that you can access individual clips by clicking a title heading below.)
The Queen’s Gambit (2020)
The hit TV series starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a chess prodigy needs little introduction. In the first segment, the precocious Beth (played by child actress Isla Johnston) deals the finishing blows to the local chess coach with her back to the board. In the second part, the grown-up Beth and her rival Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) passes time in a car trip with a blindfold game, and we see how he tries to instil more discipline in her approach to study.
The Luzhin Defence (2000)
A screen adaptation of The Defence (1930) by Vladimir Nabokov, the literary author who also composed chess problems. It’s the story of Aleksandr Luzhin (John Turturro), an eccentric grandmaster who in this scene performs a blindfold simul in the classical way, with his eyes actually covered by a cloth. There’s a hint on how the socially inept Luzhin earns a living, as betting is involved on the outcome of a game.
Pawn Sacrifice (2014)
This biopic of Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) focuses on his 1972 World Championship match with Boris Spassky. Bobby plays a casual blindfold game with his second, the GM Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard). As mentioned in the dialogue itself, they were recreating a Morphy vs. Anderssen game from 1858, and the brief scene covers moves 15 to 20. A couple of these moves were left on the cutting room floor, however, so there’s a “continuity error” if you were to compare what was said to the actual game!
The Mentalist (2010)
Simon Baker stars in this popular series as a super-observant crime consultant. Here he comes across a puzzle expert (Fisher Stevens) and their blindfold contest proceeds through the episode like a running gag. The game they carry out is none other than the famous Round 6 of the Fischer-Spassky World Championship match, the same one depicted in the climax of Pawn Sacrifice (scene No.4 in the Top 10 list). [All chess scenes in the episode are gathered in this YouTube video.]
Critical Thinking (2020)
This film tells the true story about a U.S. high school chess team filled with underprivileged teenagers who battle their way to the national championship. Their chess coach is played by John Leguizamo, who also directed the movie. When a new student (Jeffry Batista) arrived at the school, the whole team is delighted to learn that he’s rated 2300, and he demonstrates his skills by giving a blindfold simul.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
In this action-adventure film, the conflict between Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his archenemy Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) is encapsulated by a chess bout. Although the game begins normally as a five-minute blitz, the board and pieces soon become redundant. Since this scene already featured in the Top 10 list (as No.10) with a proper edit in that video, for this clip I have included only a small section.
The Catcher Was a Spy (2018)
Based on a biography of the baseball player Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), who during WWII became a spy for the U.S. government. The film dramatizes his mission to investigate Germany’s atomic bomb program and to potentially assassinate its head, the physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). In this scene, the two meet for the first time and they test each other out with their verbal chess moves. According to this Bill Wall page, the real Heisenberg was indeed an avid chess player capable of blindfold play as a youngster.
White Snow of Russia (1980)
This Soviet film about the life of Alexander Alekhine was adapted from the novel White and Black (1965), by Alexander Kotov. Yes, it’s the same GM Kotov who gave us the classic guide, Think Like a Grandmaster. The scene shows Alekhine (Aleksandr Mikhaylov), a Russian emigrant, challenging to take on 32 Nazi officers at once without sight of the board. [The full scene is available on YouTube.] In real life, Alekhine set various world records for simultaneous blindfold games, culminating in the 1933 Chicago exhibition against 32 (non-Nazi) opponents.