The Meaning of Chess in Movies

The Meaning of Chess in Movies


I’m fascinated with chess in movies and not just because I played chess in middle school and competitively in high school and college chess is so interesting because of how much meaning it can have in film whether it’s through analogy, metaphor, or even a plot device filmmakers love using the game to add to their stories in a way no other game can so, let’s play 1: I’ll teach y’all if y’all wanna learn 2: c’mon man nah c’mon we’re right in the middle of a game the most basic use of chess is for an analogy it’s usually used to associate something with patience, or precision boxing’s a chess game, y’know? gotta pick my punches to take ’em down Independance Day sets up the main character as a chess player and he references the game throughout the film ah it’s like in chess first you strategically position the pieces, then when the timings right, you strike the next step is to use chess to show somebody as smart and this is where filmmakers get clever in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hal’s intelligence is established in his ability to beat humans in chess the importance of this scene is somewhat lost on modern movie-goers because computers have been beating the best chess players for the last twenty years but in 1968, it showed that Hal was not only intelligent, but very powerful if you look at the scene more closely, it also foreshadows an important plot point when this supercomputer tells the human the better choice HAL: I’m sorry Frank, I think you missed it Queen to Bishop 3, Bishop takes Queen Knight takes bishop, mate through chess we see the computer disagreeing with the human, and making a better move for him, showing very subtly that the computer can conflict with and outsmart him. this foreshadows the plot quite nicely I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that Hal actually makes a mistake while talking about the game his move suggestion, queen to bishop 3, is impossible in this position so Hal does have the forced checkmate, but is declaring it incorrectly now you could say this was either a mistake on Kubrick’s part, or, more interestingly, Kubrick is very subtly foreshadowing Hal’s eventual breakdown the duel between Hal and Frank Pool brings me to my third point chess works nicely to represent a battle between two people this can be as discreet or symbolic as you like in Sherlock Holmes, the montage of the chess game with actual conflict makes the idea pretty obvious it’s a battle of wits. but the events of the game almost always stand for something more chess is a very versatile game; Pixar made a short with the entire plot revolving around a chess battle for example, it’s popular to use chess to show a person’s sacrifice maybe the most literal instance of this is Harry Potter Knight to H3 Sherlock goes for a queen sacrifice in his game, directly mirroring Sherlock’s plan to stop Moriarity The winning strategy sometimes necessitates sacrifice to go one step further, you can even let the chess pieces themselves serve as metaphors for what’s happening in the movie Magneto fights with the powerful rook and knight pieces, but Professor X wins by sacrificing his powerful pieces, and using his pawns to checkmate these moves reflect each player’s worldview Magneto’s strong pieces represent him fighting with mutants against the humans, while Professor X fights with the pawns, showing his desire to work with and trust the humans this metaphor serves the movie nicely, because in chess a pawn can actually mutate into a knight or rook and this metaphor is further supported when humans are referred to as pawns throughout the X-Men movies in chess, the pawns go first I think chess metaphors are most powerful when they add to the story in The People VS OJ Simpson, Shapiro and Johnny Carson both have chess sets in their offices during the episode where they decide to make their defense arguments center around race in one shot, the chess set is right in the foreground here we see an obvious choice to have this chess set as the focal point in the shot and I think it may mean something of course, I hesitate to read too far into this, but it’s worth nothing that chess is a battle between black and white pieces and in the context of this scene, about black vs white people, that makes for a powerful visual and adds to the idea that this trial was a battle centering on race maybe the perfect summation of all these techniques comes from this chess scene in the tv show The Wire D essentially uses chess to explain the drug trade the rooks are the stash, the queen is the muscle, and the king is top dog they even go so far as to naming the pieces after actual people in their gang But he ain’t got no hussle but the rest of these motherfuckers on the team, they got his back and they run so deep, he really ain’t gotta do shit like ya uncle yeah, like my uncle the pawns are described as the soldiers, and in reality, these kids are the soldiers in their gang and so they naturally identify with the pawns what’s interesting is what Vaulus’s question is after he learns about the panws they like the front lines, they be out in the field so how do you get to be the king? it ain’t like that see, the king, stay the king aight? everything stay who he is as the pawns they always have to serve the king no matter what even if they get to the other side of the board if you catch, the other dude’s king and trap it, then you win alright but if I make it to the end I’m top dog nah yo it ain’t like that through chess we learn about the drug trade, and how its hierarchy is as strict as the rules of a board game no matter what, these characters are trapped in their roles with no way to escape they get sacrificed for the king, and no matter how they play, they never get to be in charge the pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick they be out the game early unless they some smart ass pawns in movies, the use of most games is one dimensional bingo is there to establich you’re in a retirement home if you’re playing Dungeons and Dragons, the characters are stereotyped as nerdy but with chess, there’s almost always more to analyze so get out there and make a move where’s His Majesty? oh, sir, the king is playing chess Chess? I hate chess! thanks for watching

100 thoughts on “The Meaning of Chess in Movies

  1. At 1:35 there isn’t a mistake in the computer stating the queen move. The move is simply stated in descriptive notation, an old chess notation that was used to record moves. Today we commonly use algebraic notation as it’s less of a pain to read and write especially compared to descriptive. When the computer says “Queen to bishop three”, this would be ‘Q-B3’ in descriptive but in algebraic it would simply be Qf3. To avoid confusion as to which B3 square it’s referring to in descriptive they’ll further specify which B3 by adding either QB3 for the queen side bishop (c3) , or KB3 for the kingside bishop (f3). Hope this clears up that potential misconception.

  2. Stanley Kubrick is capable of subtly conveying entire history differently through his movies (like the fake moon landing) without uttering a single word so that he doesn't get in trouble. I don't think he made such an obvious mistake with HAL especially him being a chess enthusiast. It's done purposely to convey something & that's quite obvious !

  3. 3:10 I think you meant Johnny Cochrane, not Johnny Carson. Unless there was a scene that I missed when OJ Simpson goes on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the middle of his murder scandal.

  4. I never, understood saying a piece name to represent a square. They made algebraic notation for a reason…

  5. "Chess is a battle between black and white"
    >The chess board in the scene has clear pieces. For both sides, in fact. How does one tell them apart?

  6. With help from TvTropes, I have an interesting example from John Carpenter's The Thing. In the beginning, Kurt Russell's character R.J. MacReady is playing against the computer, which declares Checkmate (and cheats in the process). MacReady's reaction? He pours his drinking into the computer, breaking it. This shows that not only is he intelligent, but he is also capable of thinking outside of the board to win, if need be.

  7. The jazzy song in the beginning is called "Night in Tunisia." We played it at the seventh and eighth grade jazz concert last Thursday.

  8. I am a professional chess player, and it's hilarious how poorly most chess games made and represented in almost every movie. For about 100 dollars, a professional would give advice in 5 minutes to create a real game for the plot (with queen sacrifices or anything dramatic if that's what the director wants).

    It's a common misconception that you have to understand your opponent on high levels to beat him/her, but since everyone follows the same rules, that's not the case, not even for the lower level professionals. Both players calculate the variations by expecting the best moves for their opponents (preparing for the others too, of course), and the game mostly ends if one of the players miscalculate, missing the best move during the calculation. There are several advantages and disadvantages to consider: for example, one might have better gasp on the center of the board, but in return, his king doesn't have a solid cover. One of the players think that the king's position won't be a problem, since he has the centrum and his pieces are more mobile, and the other player thinks that he can attack the king, forcing out the pieces from the center to protect him. One player's goal will be achieved, the others' will fail.

    There was an exceptionally ridiculous scene in Culombo, where the killer/world champion failed to notice something a kid would notice in a split second. Even for an avarege player, some things are instinctive, they can't lose the queen in one move for example, they instantly notice that it's in danger. Mistakes like that is like a professional basketball player throwing the ball 20 meters above from 3 meters.

  9. Yeah but that's just a result of culture and doesn't have alot to do with the gamr itself. Same could be said about Go, Backgammon, Shogi etc.

  10. I know it’s been a year since this was uploaded but I saw a chess board in the room of the dying dude in Jurassic world fallen kingdom. Does that mean intelligence or is the struggle between him and the other guy or is it just there. If someone somehow comes across this and knows the answer that would be great

  11. In the clip from The Wire, I was surprised that no one mentioned that pawns can be promoted to any piece (usually the queen) if the pawn can make it all the way to the other side of the board.

  12. You missed the greatest chess game in movie history, in The Seventh Seal. Also, a movie that I recommend is the great Indian director, Satyajit Ray's The Chess Players.

  13. Really? No REVOLVER movie references? ok, maybe are too obvious, but damn! the hole film is about the chess game in life!

  14. Please work with the movie "Revolver". It is quite convoluted, however it is a representation of power and intellect. It uses the typical trope of conning and exacting power over an opponent. I have read Sun Tzu's "Art of War" and the "48 Laws of Power". I feel Revolver is able to depict strides for power with chess as a great literary tool to explain it. It also struggles with morality and essentially praising "turning the other cheek". Like I said its convoluted, Guy Ritchie tried to make a deep and intense film and if you see it as that it makes more sense. In my opinion, Revolver's use of chess in relation to the con and manipulating people, really helps the viewer set himself into being the intellect that wishes to manipulate others. Your video on gangster films reinforces this concept. …
    If you would enjoy doing so, please explore the theme of the hero/anti-hero outsmarting their opponents.

    On a small side note, great fan of your content, keep up the good work.

  15. Just so everyone knows, the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, does not contain a mistake. Queen to bishop 3 means queen to F3 (F is the bishop file/column). Also, Hal doesn't really make a better move for the human. He says what's about to happen. Queen to F3 is Hal's move and then he calls out the forced mate (calculating Frank's moves).

  16. Fresh (1994) is my favorite chess movie. Incidentally it also symbolizes the players in the drug game,like in the The Wire example

  17. In Season 2, Episode 4 "Triggerman" of the Series Person of Interest, you can see Carl Elias 'playing' chess against Harold Finch. However this game is more of a way of covert communication between these two characters. In the scene you can actually see Harold Finch interpreting and analyzing the moves, Elias makes and by that foreshadowing what will happen.

  18. Blade Runner: Tyrell vs JF Sebastian.
    Seventh Seal: playing chess with Death himself.
    Shawshank Redemption: Andy's chess board…
    It would've been fun if you had mentioned these examples.. Maybe another time. Great vid tho

  19. Props to this video for inspiring me to play chess again
    10,000 games later and my love of the game is growing every day!

  20. I wish other games would get this kind of treatment. The example you gave of D&D being used just to establish people as nerdy is especially disappointing. You can tell the audience so much about a character by the character they choose to build and play in a D&D game.

  21. The Sopranos uses chess to foreshadow Jackie Jr.'s death… Just before his murder scene, Jackie is playing chess with a young girl… The girl's father comments "I think you're done for. Look at the way she's developing her knights"

  22. Idk if you'll ever see this comment, way late to the video. But you should look into the chess game at the start of The Thing. I always thought it was a metaphor for the upcoming battle between McReady and the monster. With the computer being the "cheating bitch" and the monster not playing by conventional means

  23. The move was possible, even though it is queen to king‘s bishop 6 instead of 3.
    It was no alternative for Frank, it was HAL‘s next move…

  24. 3:20 you talk about how chess is a metaphor for the racial divide, but didn't even mention the fact that the chess set being used is stylized to be clear and frosted pieces, not black and white.

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