Chess has been gaining increasing prevalence in the mainstream media for its ability to relate to the human condition. The trials and tribulations of the common man are fitting anachronisms for the movement of the pieces on the board. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the silver screen where Hollywood has brought the game to life through the eyes of the people whose lives it has changed forever. Here are five inspiring movies about people whose involvement with the game perhaps changed the world for others in ways they never could have imagined.
1. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
This is the primary chess film that I remember from my childhood. It is one of the reasons that I ever bothered to play the game. Based loosely on the book of the same name by Fred Waitzkin, Searching for Bobby Fischer is the story of child chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, who rose to prominence in the chess world in the early 1990s. Much of the film centers around Josh’s relationship with his father and the effect that chess has on their family life. It details the heartache and struggle of a young boy who realizes that his father’s love is more important than his love of the game. Josh Waitzkin is currently the official spokesman for the Chessmaster video game series and has written his own book, called The Art of Learning, which integrates elements of martial arts and chess to help people enhance their learning abilities.
2. Life of a King (2013)
Life of a King is a newer chess film that I recently reviewed here on OMC. It is a semi-biopic about Eugene Brown, the founder of the Big Chair Chess Club in Washington, D.C. Brown learned chess in prison and began using the game as an analogy for the challenges of life during a brief stint at a local elementary school. After losing his job, he founded the Big Chair Chess House and began teaching the game to local kids. Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as Eugene Brown and it also includes a very interesting Magnus Carlsen lookalike in the movie’s final tournament.
3. Knights of the South Bronx (2005)
This made for TV movie stars Ted Danson as a substitute teacher at a Bronx school who uses chess to teach his students how to excel at other things in their lives. Based on the true story of chess teacher David MacEnulty, Knights of the South Bronx is as much about the journey of the Danson’s students to learn chess and apply its principles to their lives as it is about his own journey of self-transformation by his love of the game and growing love for the children he teaches. Many of the kids in his class come from broken homes with parents addicted to drugs and alcohol or serving prison time. One particularly moving scene involves a young man who visits his father in prison learns hard life lessons over the board during his visit.
4. Dangerous Moves (1984)
At first glance, it might be difficult to see how Dangerous Moves could be considered an inspirational chess film. However, there are many subtleties to this movie that make it a treat for anyone interested in chess or the drama of human competition. This is a french movie that was released in 1984 and is based loosely on the 1972 championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. The level of chess detail in the movie is exceptional, although it is not without its errors. The devotion to study and preparation before each match is highlighted as the young grandmaster is even filmed playing an opening position in a swimming pool! Although the movie deals heavily with Cold War politics, the politics in the film do not take away from the quality of the competition between the two men. It is more than a chess match between nations as the desire for competitive glory shines through each of them. At its core, Dangerous Moves travels to the core of the human psyche and the desire to win at all costs.
5. Queen to Play (2009)
Although this movie has been out for quite some time, I only came across it late last year and I was very surprised to see Kevin Kline performing a French-only speaking role. In Queen to Play, Sandrine Bonnaire plays a French chambermaid on the island of Corsica. She develops an interest in chess and soon links up with Kevin Kline’s character, an American doctor, to improve her game. Perhaps the most interesting and inspiring part of this movie is the multitude of reactions and especially the skepticism she receives from her family. As I am sure many chess players have experienced from time to time, her family is not entirely supportive (initially) of her pursuits. Chess is viewed as a waste of time and her husband especially begins to see chess as a way for her to become unfaithful to him. Fortunately, there is a happy ending to the story that is well worth the wait.