The Kubrick Files Ep. 2 – What Chess Taught Kubrick About Filmmaking

The Kubrick Files Ep. 2 – What Chess Taught Kubrick About Filmmaking


Chess—a game of strategy, logic, and patience.
In a May 1980 Newsweek article legendary film director Stanley Kubrick had this to say about
the game that had captivated him since he was a child: “You sit at the board and suddenly your breast
leaps. Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it. But what chess teaches you is
that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it’s really a good idea and whether
there are other, better ideas” (Newsweek). Chess has been around since around the late
6th century. For the uninitiated, each player starts with 16 pieces—8 pawns that can move
only one space forward at a time and may only capture diagonally. The 8 pieces behind it
vary in types of moves according to that piece’s class. One of these pieces is the King, which
if captured, causes the opponent to win the game. But what does this have to do with filmmaking? Well, chess was actually part of the reason
Kubrick got into filmmaking. Kubrick: “I was taught to play chess at
the age of 12, but did not play seriously until about the age of seventeen when I joined
the Marshall Chess Club in New York on West 10th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue” (Berenstein
Interview). This is the Marshall Chess Club where Kubrick
played. Chess prodigy Bobby Fischer played here as well when he was only thirteen years
old. It was here at the Marshall Chess Club where Kubrick first met a film critic for the New York Telegram and Sun named
Alton Cook who got Kubrick interested in filmmaking (Bill
Wall). Only a few blocks away from the Marshall Chess
Club is Washington Square Park where Kubrick played chess for quarters and reportedly made
about twenty dollars a week (Bill Wall). In an interview with Jeremy Bernstein, whom
Kubrick often played chess with, Kubrick spoke of his time playing in Washington Square Park. Kubrick: “When I was waiting for things
to happen, you know, waiting to get an answer on something, which went on for months, you
know? Sometimes… I would go there about twelve o’clock and stay there until, you
know, midnight. I’d say, a good twelve hours a day with breaks for food…”
Kubrick: “In the daytime, you’d get a table in the shade and at night, you get a
table by the light. And if you made the switch the right way, you had a good table all the
time” (Bernstein Interview). There is great article by Bill Wall on Kubrick’s
obsession with chess (and I put the link in the description). In it, he talks about how
chess has made several appearances throughout Kubrick’s filmography. An early film of
his titled The Killing features a scene at the Flea House—a New York chess club that
no longer exists (Bill Wall). This character was played by a friend of Kubrick’s who
was a chess enthusiast in real life and was actually killed in a fight at the Flea House
in 1980 (Bill Wall). And in Lolita, this happens: “Oh dear! Oh dear! Ow!” “It had to happen sometime.” I covered the game between HAL and Frank in
another video, but a little known fact about 2001: A Space Odyssey is that the Russian
scientist named Smyslov was a reference to a Russian chess grandmaster named Vasily Smyslov
who was the World Chess Champion from ‘57 to ‘58 (Bill Wall, Wiki). 2001 co-writer Arthur C. Clarke didn’t play
chess, so during production Kubrick often played with his friend physicist Jeremy Bernstein,
who wrote an article in 2010 about his experiences playing chess with Kubrick (Bill Wall). He
mentioned that when they first started playing, Kubrick won the first four games, but lost
the fifth. Bernstein took that opportunity to jokingly tell Kubrick that he was hustling
him all along. Bernstein writes, All during the filming of 2001 we played chess whenever
I was in London and every fifth game I did something unusual. Finally we reached the
25th game and it was agreed that this would decide the matter. Well into the game he made
a move that I was sure was a loser. He even clutched his stomach to show how upset he
was. But it was a trap and I was promptly clobbered. “You didn’t know I could act
too,” he remarked” (Playing Chess With Kubrick). But when it came to filmmaking itself, Kubrick
used what he learned from chess strategy and applied it to the decision making process. In an excerpt from a Rolling Stone interview
in 1987, interviewer Tim Cahill said to Kubrick, “Someone had asked you if there was any
analogy between chess and filmmaking. You said that the process of making decisions
was very analytical in both cases. You said that depending on intuition was a losing proposition”
(Rolling Stone). And Kubrick responded, “I suspect I might
have said that in another context. The part of the film that involves telling the story
works pretty much the way I said. In the actual making of the movie, the chess analogy becomes
more valid. It has to do with tournament chess, where you have a clock and you have to make
a certain number of moves in a certain time. If you don’t, you forfeit, even if you’re
a queen ahead. You’ll see a grandmaster, the guy has three minutes on the clock and ten
moves left. And he’ll spend two minutes on one move, because he knows that if he doesn’t
get that one right, the game will be lost. And then he makes the last nine moves in a
minute. And he may have done the right thing. Well, in filmmaking, you always have decisions
like that. You are always pitting time and resources against quality and ideas” (Rolling
Stone). I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a French
radio interview for A Voix Nue. You may hear some strange sounds occasionally—these are
remnants of a French translation that was cut out of the clip. “It teaches you to overcome the initial
excitement of something that looks good and to analyze it. Even Bobby Fischer or Karpov
can’t see to the end of the game. I mean, they can analyze deeper than anybody else,
but none of them can see all the way. Part of the decision is based on analysis and the
rest is on a feeling” (A Voix Nue). “When you’re making a film, basically,
once you start you have to make most of your decisions on some sort of intuitive basis.
There really isn’t time. You have to make so many decisions that you couldn’t possibly
really sit down and analyze to any great extent, but at least, even if you stop for a minute
you will prevent yourself from making a mistake where something looks initially attractive,
but when you really think about it, it isn’t right. I would say chess is more for preventing
you from making mistakes than it is for giving you ideas. The ideas come spontaneously and
seem to be born whole, but the discipline of examining them and not just saying, ‘oh,
that sounds great,’ I think that’s something which chess teaches you… Most of the mistakes
you see in films are really because people just don’t even- I mean, if they avoided
the mistakes, you wouldn’t see so many things that everybody in the audience sees is stupid,
but nobody seemed to realize it when they’re doing it. I think it’s really because there
is an awful lot of filming that goes on where people literally just don’t think for a
moment. They get an idea and they just do it.” (A Voix Nue). Thanks for watching! I want to give a special
thanks to my patrons. It has been so great chatting with everyone and hearing all the
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64 thoughts on “The Kubrick Files Ep. 2 – What Chess Taught Kubrick About Filmmaking

  1. Thank you for the video. Very interesting. I did not know about the passion Kubrick chess. Too I love this game .

  2. Thank you for video, and special thanks for subtitles! (English is not my native language and it`s hard to understand aurally) 🙂

  3. Another Christmas morning!!! Love your work sir, please keep it up. It is truly appreciated. We need to get the word out about CT

  4. Great video !
    Although to be nitpicky, the french interview is an interview with Michel Ciment, probably at Kubrick's home, recorded just so Michel could write a better article + written interview for a French magazine later on, It wasn't for the radio I believe.

  5. Great video, thanks! Subtitles are very usefull (i don't speak english much and sometimes it's a ploblem to follow). Make more!

  6. I have always dreamed of being a director and am about to release my first full feature film  in the next few months, and I wanted to tell you that this channel has given me so many ideas and been such a help to me. Thank you for posting all these great videos you have. You are really helping a lot of cinefiles, whether they be film makers themselves or aspiring critics or just casual viewers with a passion. Thank you for all the great work you do. Keep it up, my friend 🙂

  7. Kubrick is one of my favourite directors, his style is very different from the other directors, it was very interesting to learn a little of the facts of his life and work. Thank you for high-quality video.
    P.S: Sorry for my English. I'm trying to learn English and use your videos , they are very interesting but it is not always easy , but thank you for the information.

  8. just want to thank you for your videos.this channel is one of the most interesting things on youtube i have ever seen!

  9. depends on the context… If the film should be serious… analyse mistakes
    if not… play on the mistake… exaturate them so they seem intentional

  10. This is my favourite channel on Youtube now. I am amazed and grateful for the depth of your analysis. Thank you so much.

  11. YouTube kept recommending me part 3, but I figured it would be best if I watched part 1 and 2 first. I'm really glad I did, great video series, you've earned a subscriber

  12. A sophisticated game for a sophisticated director making sophisticated movies. Now I get Kubrick's comment he wish to make a movie a year like Woody Allen but he couldn't. Paraphrasing.. I wonder if he ever had the chance to play against the great Bobby Fischer.

  13. Disappointing: an interesting idea and indeed Kubrik was good at chess. But absolutely no explanation of any visual influence on his work, just on the process of film-making (time pressure) – which is such an obvious constraint on all human action that its a point not worth making particularly when other points COULD have been made re: visuality such as tone, contrast, space waste of time to watch this. Disliked.

  14. The chess board at 5:21 makes no sense to me. It looks like the beginning of a game where the white rook stands in the wrong position and the white queen is out of the game. What is going on there?

  15. In chess, what happens sometimes, is that you have an idea that looks good at first and ends up being bad, but it can open up your horizon for new ideas, possibly better ones, that you wouldn't have seen otherwise. In this analogy one could say that seeing or making mistakes can in some cases open a door to greatness, but it's still a matter of discipline and intellect to spot that greatness behind the mistake.

  16. The African-American man shown playing Kubrick is Tony Burton who played boxing trainer Duke in the Rocky films. During the filming of The Shining, Burton beat Kubrick in a game of chess. Kubrick was so incensed that he expanded Burton's part in the movie so he would have to stay on the set and give Kubrick another opportunity to get revenge.

  17. Great video. The background music is nice, but often makes it hard to hear Kubrick during the radio interviews. Love your channel.

  18. Kubrick is the Lady Gaga of cinema. Brimmed with occult symbolism, huge production budgets, and boring to the gates of hell.

  19. @ 5:16 can you imagine playing a game with Shelley Duvall? jeeez that would be the longest three minutes of your life

  20. Chess, like golf, taught me a great deal about how people think.

    QUESTION: Not being a student, but an admirer, of Kubrick is there any notation anywhere of him ever catering ideas of making a Western?

  21. Ed Bishop Pan Am Pilout/UFO TV Strayker
    King of the Westerns
    King of the Cowboys Roy Rogers
    Queen of the B's Marie Windsor
    King and Queen of TV Lucy Ricky Desilou Startrek LockWood
    Pawn Shop Pulp
    Sir Arthur C Clark Knighted , Camelot Crater KIng Arthur
    Sir Alec Guiness Knighted, Plays Jedi Knight Doubley Kight Saber Saw
    Sir Mick Jagger Knighted I see a Red Door FMJ
    and on and on You are playing Chess

  22. yeh i have to play chess to be great director like stanley kubrick but sorry my game is 9ball billiard like great filipino billiard genuis like kubrick , EFREN" MAGICIAN " REYES (1999 CARDIFFWALES UK 9-BALL BILLIARDS WINNER ,AGE 49YRS OLD) ALSO PLAY CHESS IN HIS YOUTH AND IMPLEMENT IN HIS BILLIARDS WINS ALSO INNOVATOR , MAYBE CHESS & BILLIARDS LOOK DIFFERENT FORMAT BUT STILL SAME USING STRATEGY & DECISION MAKING!

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