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Chess in Film

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Watching the odd and wonderful 1946 David Niven movie "A Matter of Life and Death." It has a surprising amount of chess. Niven was an aficionado, as various anecdotes attest. In this film he plays a few moves with the love interest, but later it gets geekier. The French "conductor" ghost in charge of taking Niven off to the next world (long story) appears and picks up Niven's copy of Alekhine's "My Best Games of Chess - 1924-1937." When Niven comes in the Frenchman says the book is quite good, and then tries to convince Niven to come along quietly by saying he often spends time playing against Philidor, "the greatest chessplayer of all time. A Frenchman, of course." The French reaper even steals the Alekhine book when he pops off again. Niven complains about this to the doctor, who assumes he's hallucinating.

Later, the doctor dies and meets the Frenchman in the next world (they never really say "Heaven") and the Frenchman gives him the Alekhine book (Niven had told him it belonged to the doctor). The book makes another appearance at the very end of the movie. The French ghost tosses it to them as they retreat back to the living world. Then it magically appears in Niven's overcoat pocket to serve the "was it a hallucination or did it really happen?" motif of the film. A close-up of the cover (white with red lettering and a red knight on the cover, don't see it online (link below, ht r) is one of the last shots of the film.

This film isn't listed at the Chess in the Cinema site [It's there, just listed under its alternate title, "Stairway to Heaven," though they don't 'mention the book. ht Sara], which is one of the better ones out there. Lots of chess in movies past and present, but I can't recall another prominent appearance of a real chess book. Plus, I'm a sucker for any sighting of a camera obscura.


Are you sure that's the book?

I seem to remember (perhaps wrongly) that it was indeed a collection of Alekhine's games; but not being able to tell that it was 1924-37.

Yep, I'm sure. I was trying to freeze it clearly when it first appeared only to find that there are several long and very clear shots of the cover later on, especially the end. I have the book, but not that edition.

All in all a good morning. Great David Niven movie I'd never heard of and Terrace Bagels has homemade pumpkin cream cheese back for the season!

Dad and I caught this movie on Turner Movie Classics a week ago. The website though lists it under Stairway to Heaven: http://movie-chess.hemobile.de/showfilm.php?filmfile=4660.txt&pfad=4049

We didn't catch the whole thing so I'm hoping I'll find it on Netflix or through Blockbuster.

I believe it was originally released as "Stairway to Heaven" in the US, but "A Matter of Life and Death" in the UK. Great film (as are many of Powell and Pressburger's).

The book is a Bell and Sons edition. They published a lot of books here in the UK with that same standard cover (red knight on a pale background); I have copies of "My System", "The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings" and probably others I can't remember right now with exactly the same design.

Great discussion! Funny that this comes shortly after we discussed the book as one of Kasparov's favorites, and the fact that it is no longer in print (at least not in the US).

An image is here:

Mig, you really need to pick up Bob Basalla's "Chess in the Movies" a 400 pp 8" x 11" monster of a book. I actually caught this film having read about it in the book.


This is not exactly a film, but chess is a big part of the script in one of the funniest episodes of "Frasier", called "Chess Pains".

Great movie. I haven't seen it since I was a teenager, at which time I was bothered that neither Niven's character nor the guardian angel were familiar with the Pariser Zeitung articles....

Check out the 1941 movie "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," which has nothing to do with chess.


I'm going to nit pick. "My Best Games of Chess - 1924-1937." is very good but imo 1909-1923 is even better; of course the "prop" for the movie would be more current. Also, Philidor is the greatest player of all time (and no I'm not French) if one uses the difference of strength (rating) between players of each individual period, Fischer would be second. It's moot at best.

How about the old silent movie Chess Fever by Pudovkin (1925). It's got José Raúl Capablanca in it and is a comedy. It's on DVD for the die heard fan.

Chess Fever is available on Google Video:


In Blake's 7 Season 2 "Gambit" we have two games of chess played out in front of us.

In the first white brings out his queen early forcing black's king into the middle of the board in the opening. Black then sacrifice queen and rook before mating with two bishops, king and various pawns.

The second is a more boring game until white sacrifices a bishop on h7 and forces the black king into the corner with his queen thereby gaining a draw by repitition.

I am sure these are famous games (especially the first) please help with identifying them.


There was one great film from the mid-1960s that prominently featured chess, which unfortunately has been largely forgotten. The film was Return from the Ashes, released in 1965, and directed by J. Lee Thompson, who also directed The Guns of Navarone.

Maximilian Schell stars as an East European grandmaster caught up in the turbulent politics of World War II. Schell plays the grandmaster as a drinker and womanizer. His wife, played by Ingrid Thulin, is a successful doctor, but who is Jewish, and is imprisoned by the Nazis. Believing her dead, Schell takes up with a young, sultry mistress, played by Samantha Eggar. Incredibly, his wife survives the concentration camps and returns home, only to find that she is now part of a love triangle.

The mistress then comes up with an imaginative plan to murder the wife. Schell double-crosses both of them. First, he murders the mistress by drowning her in a bathtub. The murder scene is subtly sexy, as the grandmaster kisses his mistress’ toes before drawing her more deeply into the bath. The police accept that her death was accidental, since she had been drinking and taking sedatives. Then Schell carries out the mistress’ original murder plans himself. He sets up a gun in a safe, to which his wife has the combination, with the expectation that she will open it while he is off at a chess tournament. But of course, in a movie from the 1960s, he can’t get away with more than one murder.

So why was this film overlooked? It was in black and white. This is one movie that really deserves to be remade.

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Though I have never taken special notice of chess or chess games in movies, it is interesting to know that there is an actual following for such things. The people who document the appearance of chess in movies must be really big fans of chess.

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