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Chess in (Every) Film

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Okay, this is getting out of hand. It seems every movie I watch these days has at least one chess scene. Sometimes incidental (prisoners are always playing in the prison scenes, etc.). But really, if Americans played as much chess as you'd think from watching Hollywood it would be more popular than that other common movie pastime, shooting people. I mention it again tonight because both movies I've seen on cable tonight had a chess scene. "The Lookout" contains a game between the brain-damaged protagonist of the film and his father. "Fast Food Nation" has a more incidental clip of a game between the Ethan Hawke character and his niece. There are all sorts of reasons why a chess habit is a useful trope but in most cases it just turns out the director or the actor play and thought it would be a cute prop. Either that or there's a conspiracy afoot.


The thing about chess scenes in movies which bothers me the most is this picture of two people facing each other in deep thought and then suddenly one of them gives a check and sits back with a smile and declares mate. The other guy gazes at the board with pure disbelief like this has come to him as a big surprise. Something which he couldn't expect to see in his wildest dreams...

I was originally trying to post this comment in today’s thread, but couldn’t access it. As a result, I posted it in the earlier thread, Chess in Film, from last October.

At the risk of posting the same comment twice (I’ll add a few more details here) there was one great film from the mid-1960s in which chess was prominently featured. Unfortunately, this movie seems to have been largely forgotten, due to the fact that it was filmed in black and white. There are no VHS or DVD copies at Amazon. The film was Return from the Ashes, released in 1965, and directed by J. Lee Thompson, who also directed The Guns of Navarone.

The film is set in 1946. Maximilian Schell stars as an East European grandmaster caught up in the turbulent politics of World War II, and its aftermath. One wonders if Alekhine may have been the inspiration for this role. Schell plays the grandmaster as a manipulative womanizer. His wife, played by Ingrid Thulin, is a successful doctor, who is Jewish, and is imprisoned by the Nazis. Believing her dead, Schell takes up with a young, sultry mistress, played by Samantha Eggar. Then, 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. She and the grandmaster will set up a gun in such a way as the wife will be killed while they are seen together in a public place, establishing an alibi. Schell double-crosses the plan, intending to get rid of both his wife and the mistress. 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. At the chess tournament, he establishes his alibi by getting into a drunken brawl. But incredibly, the wife is saved. When the grandmaster returns, he finds what appears to be his wife’s dead body. He cleans the gun, places it in her hands, and calls the police to say that she has just committed suicide. But just as he is hanging up the phone, he looks her way again, and the body is no longer there! She has walked away unharmed, and he will be tried for attempted murder, as well as the death of the mistress.

This is one movie that really deserves to be remade.

At least the "brain damaged protagonist" was the good guy with a conscience. (He got a head injury in a car accident.) If I remember correctly, the chess was used in the film to show the protagonist had lost some of his mental capacity because of the accident, he could not play a decent game of chess anymore.

I don't know if this counts, but there was an episode of Columbo that had an Eastern European (I think) grandmaster playing a game (or a match) against an American in Los Angeles. Does anyone remember more than I do? This was, I believe, about 25 years ago, but I seem to remember that playing chess was portrayed quite realistically and sympathetically.

I am sorry for responding to my own post. Wikipedia, of course, has a synopsis of the episode. I had not thought about checking it before posting :(


And it is 35 years!

Chess appears so often because a lot of people are weak at chess but wish they were strong players. They chose not to play only because they are weak.

So the count of chess enthusiasts is partly a matter of semantics. The frequency of chess in movies argues for a broader semantic.

Chess TV (or whatever) show ideas need to reach all those chess wanna-be's.

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I recently saw the movie "The Luzhin Defense" that you all and Sting talk about so much. (I had to do something with my NetFlix gift certificate.)

My movie review?: I trust the book was more enjoyable to read than the movie was to watch.

Dave50's movie plot sounds interesting.


On tv too. A recent episode of the new Terminator Series had scene about chess and computers. (Yes, I have a lot of free time these days.) In fact, in the background there was a poster on the wall of Kramnik vs Deep Fritz. No classic lines like "I'll be back." though.

The new Terminator series makes a computer/chess programmer the creator of the first "thinking" computer which of course leads to ultimate destruction of humanity by machines. The programmer's computer is named Turk. Rather clever and fun I think. Chess in TV can't ever be realistic---but it can treat the chess community with respect. This show did I believe.

The Columbo episode is a lot of fun. Of course the american is patterned a little after Fischer.

The way the (American) commentators pronounce players names on those videos is the funniest thing. Toe PAH Lovv and Rah JAH Bovv indeed.

Wouldn't the appropriate Terminator chess line be: "I'll be Black!"? :)

Re: "The Luzhin Defense"
I found the book, "The Defense" to be better than the movie (it is Nabokov after all) and certainly the ending darker (that's Hollywood for ya!). What I found most interesting about the movie was that grandmasters have said that the depiction of Luzhin's comprehension of the tactics on the board is the closest to what GM's see as has been depicted on film. Not too surprising given Jonathan Speelman's involvement as a consultant on the film, but impressive nonetheless.

Good one, Zinger! LOL! Wish I'd have thought of it first.

But do they set up the board correctly ... ?

Topalov and Radjabov are both accented on the second syllable.

I found the main scene in the Columbo episode silly. The two grandmasters meet at an Italian restaurant and decide to play a game but they have no set. So they improvise and use the checkered tablecloth as a board and salt and pepper shakers as pieces.

Even sillier was an episode of Mission Impossible where one of the agent's cover was as an East European grandmaster. Barney assists him with a computer and he beats his opponent with the Scholar's Mate.

I haven't seen it in many years but I think "Night Moves" with Gene Hackman had chess scenes that made sense and fit into the plot.

I remembered that Mission Impossible episode so well that when I needed to drum up publicity for anti-cheating reform a couple years ago, I used a synopsis of that episode as the lead for the press pitch I wrote...and then wound up using it as the lead in the March 2007 Chess Life cover story. I was 12 or 13 when the show aired, and was wild about chess although I don't think I'd played in a tournament yet. It made a big impression on me...and yes, in the recent articles I made sure to point out that Martin's character demolished his grandmaster opponents in four moves, and that the silicon-monster plot device was applauded by the general public at the time but was ridiculed by the chess public, since back then the best computers could barely compete with club players, let alone grandmasters. (I think the top computer program in the mid-60s was rated around 1500.)

There was a brilliant chess-themed move in the late '90s, I think - not too far in time from Searching For Bobby Fischer - but its character was entirely different. I'm talking about "Fresh." It's about street gangs, and a pre-teen kid who in essence plays life-chess using people as his pieces - but for a good cause (rescuing his older sister from the neighborhood pimp/drug kingpin).

Anyone remember it? If you've never seen it, I'd recommend putting it at the top of your Netflix list.

Wonder Works Family Movie, 1987:

The Mighty Pawns

with cameo appearance by occasional Daily Dirt contributor Hal Bogner.

THAT'S entertainment.

The Terminator series has definitely set the new standard for chess on TV. So far in season one we've had at least two chess-related episodes, including:

- A discussion of Kramnik vs. Deep Fritz;
- The Turk reference;
- An episode about a computer chess tournament;
- Our hero, John Connor, using the term zugzwang.

Clearly, there's a serious chess player on the writing staff.


I remember "Fresh" with Samuel Jackson, it was well done. If you or anyone else appreciates classical music, "The Red Violin" with Jackson is even better.

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on February 22, 2008 2:33 AM.

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