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10 Essential Movies About Chess

Searching for Bobby Fischer Photo: Paramount Pictures

After being sidelined for months because of COVID, sports made a comeback over the past several months, instituting new protocols to keep players safe and fans entertained during a pandemic. But it’s not just football and basketball that have returned to the spotlight; a large crop of viewers have spent the past several weeks obsessing over a very different game. Netflix’s acclaimed miniseries The Queen’s Gambit stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth, a brilliant, troubled orphan who turns out to be a chess prodigy. The adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel has become a phenomenon: Not only is it a hit for the streaming service, but The Queen’s Gambit has sparked a newfound interest in the sport, with sales of chess sets skyrocketing.

This shouldn’t be that surprising considering that chess has always enjoyed a special, elevated place in the culture. With a reputation for catering to shrewd, brainy practitioners, the game cultivates an air of regal, cosmopolitan sophistication. (For proof, look no further than the fact that intellectual filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick would play chess on set.) Let other sports rely on brawn and speed — chess is about strategy and mental acuity. Every contest is a battle of wits. Who can resist the opportunity to show off how much smarter they are than their opponent?

No wonder, then, that the movies have often been attracted to chess stories, although they do present a problem: They’re not especially visual. How do you dramatize a game that’s not breathlessly exciting in the same way that, say, boxing or football is? It’s tricky, but the following movies managed to pull it off. Once you’re done bingeing The Queen’s Gambit, check out these ten films that illustrate just how cinematic and visceral the game of kings can be.

10. Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine (2003)

After the Cold War chess battles (which we’ll get to), the next (and perhaps final) big drama in chess was Man vs. Machine — specifically IBM’s Deep Blue program, which promised to beat even the greatest chess champions. Enter Garry Kasparov, the revered Russian champion, who went head-to-head with Deep Blue in a series of matches in 1997. We won’t spoil what happens, but, well, let’s just say that Skynet is coming. This documentary of the saga is straightforward and entertaining, if a little too forgiving of Kasparov’s claims of cheating, and there’s an aspect of it that’s a little sad: If the machines are beating us at chess, what is left for us to conquer?

9. The Luzhin Defence (2000)

Based on a Nabokov novel, The Luzhin Defence stars John Turturro as Sascha Luzhin, a mentally troubled (in the world of movie chess, they almost always are) champion who falls in love with a Russian woman (Emily Watson) and keeps trying to escape the game to be with her … but the game, and the politics that surround it, are too powerful to get away from. Turturro goes into full paranoid-savant mode, which is fine, but it’s Watson who’s the star here, particularly in the film’s final scenes, which tie together an otherwise disparate and disjointed story.

8. Pawn Sacrifice (2011)

The world of chess will forever be shadowed by the presence of Bobby Fischer, the Mozart-like savant who was heralded as an example of American superiority over the USSR. (Later in his life, he became a ranting anti-Semite and was thought to suffer from undiagnosed mental problems.) In Pawn Sacrifice, Tobey Maguire plays Fischer in his prime, winning championships but beginning to collapse into his delusions. The film is a good showcase for Maguire, who’s terrific, but it’s a little too conventional and safe to truly capture just how far down the rabbit hole Fischer was going. However, it does point out how Fischer’s ability to hold the American imagination would never, ever let up.

7. Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)

Here’s the documentary version of the same Bobby Fischer story, and it’s richer for having a broader scope and a larger variety of perspectives. The movie does its best not to focus just on Fischer — it gets across how difficult he was to be around, even before the madness — but it can’t help but be drawn in by him regardless. Bobby Fischer Against the World ultimately is worthy as a bit of a CliffsNotes version of the whole Fischer story, but perhaps that’s all that movies might be capable of providing. His mind can only be visited, not truly understood. Seeing how it worked out for him, that’s a mercy.

6. Brooklyn Castle (2012)

Sort of a crowd-pleasing mix between Hoop Dreams and Spellbound, Brooklyn Castle follows students at a middle school in Brooklyn whose chess team turns out to be, against all odds, one of the best in the country. It’s basically a sports movie, culminating in the Big Tournament, but it’s an expertly made one — and deeply felt. The documentary won’t really teach you anything about chess, but you’ll fall in love with every single one of these kids.

5. The Dark Horse (2014)

Cliff Curtis, forever underrated, plays Genesis “Gen” Potini, a Maori man who might be the greatest chess player in New Zealand’s history but also suffers from severe bipolar disorder. Gen ends up, as we see often in chess movies, coaching youngsters to play chess to keep them out of gangs, but the twist here is that Gen is breaking down mentally while still trying to keep his team of kids together. It’s an amazing performance — Curtis gained nearly 60 pounds for the film — in what many consider one of New Zealand’s best films. (It was a massive hit there.)

4. Queen of Katwe (2016)

Based on a true story, Mira Nair’s sensitive drama stars newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi, a young Ugandan woman in a poor community who has an aptitude for chess. Encouraged by her kindly mentor (David Oyelowo), she enters into competitions, discovering a larger world outside of Katwe. Queen of Katwe was produced by Disney, and there’s definitely a programmatic, feel-good polish to this underdog tale. But that formulaic bent is lessened by Nalwanga’s appealing presence — not to mention the movie-star charisma of Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Phiona’s supportive widowed mother. The movie isn’t so much about chess as it is a timely reminder that imperiled individuals have to struggle to pull themselves out of poverty — and that sports can sometimes be their only avenue.

3. Computer Chess (2013)

Before his Support the Girls won Regina Hall the New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress award, mumblecore filmmaker Andrew Bujalski made this profoundly weird, totally hypnotic comedy about a 1980s programming “competition” in which various awkward geniuses attempt to defeat the emerging technological dominance of the Computer. The movie, heavily improvised using mostly nonactors, keeps flying off in its own bizarre directions, and it’s never less than mesmerizing. Shot entirely using period-specific Sony AVC-3260 video cameras, the film is blurry and confusing and immersive in every way. Bujalski, an absolutely fascinating filmmaker, pointed to an exciting new direction here, and we’re pretty sure this is still his best film. You won’t learn anything about chess, but you won’t care.

2. Fresh (1994)

Boaz Yakin’s tender, compelling film is remarkable in many ways, but in particular, it does as great a job as any on this list at weaving the actual strategy of the game of chess into its plot. Fresh (Sean Nelson) is a 12-year-old kid who works as a drug-runner for a local dealer (Giancarlo Esposito) but finds himself falling deeper and deeper into the complications of the drug trade. But, as we realize in a famous monologue from Samuel L. Jackson, playing his alcoholic father who is also a chess master, there is always a way to win if you just know how to play the pieces on the board.

Roger Ebert wrote, “Seeing the movie at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, I thought I was hearing some chess advice. Seeing it the second time, I realized that the actual outcome of the movie was being predicted.” It’s that meticulousness in Yakin’s screenplay that makes the film work, and makes the conclusion so satisfying. Fresh still holds up wonderfully. And the case that chess is life has never been made more succinctly.

1. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

Writer-director Steven Zaillian didn’t know much about chess when he was given author Fred Waitzkin’s book about his son, Josh, a chess prodigy. Zaillian, who would win an Oscar the following year for his adaptation of Schindler’s List, felt a connection to this father-son story: “There’s more of me and my family in Searching for Bobby Fischer,” he said later. “It’s a much more personal movie.” Maybe that’s why Searching feels less like a “sports movie” and more like a family drama and a character piece. Joe Mantegna is terrific as a dad who wants to encourage his boy’s (Max Pomeranc) gift — but after introducing him to the cutthroat coach Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), he starts to wonder if winning really is the only thing. The film goes deep into the strategy and philosophy behind chess, as well as pondering whether Bobby Fischer should be a role model or a cautionary tale. But you can come into Searching just as ignorant about chess as Zaillian was when he began this journey and still come away immensely satisfied. Some of the movies on this list are good chess films; this is just a great film, period.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

10 Essential Movies About Chess