Chess is a game of redemption and nobody knows about redemption more than ex-felon Eugene Brown. After spending a significant portion of his life incarcerated in a federal prison after a botched bank robbery, Eugene learned the depths of chess philosophy behind bars. According to him, chess was a distraction from the depressing and dangerous world of prison. These days, Eugene is the founder of the Big Chair Chess Club in Washington, D.C. where he teaches critical life lessons to inner city youth using the principles of chess.
In 2013, the life of Eugene Brown hit the silver screen as the movie Life of a King starring Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Warning: Contains Movie Spoilers
I first learned about Life of a King in mid-2013 after seeing it posted in a forum on Chess.com. I was excited to see the movie and regularly reviewed local movie times to see when it was playing. Unfortunately, the movie never made it into any of our local theaters before it was released on DVD and Netflix. The promotional material for the movie contains a number of still shots that show Cuba’s character, Eugene Brown, in prison learning and playing chess. However, that sequence of the film makes up less than five minutes of the intro and only a select sequence of flashbacks. I believe that the transformation of Eugene from a gangster into a respectable chess player would have given the movie some valuable context. Life of a King is as much about a large, hand-carved chess piece (see in one of this post’s movie stills) given to Eugene at the beginning of the movie as it is about Eugene himself. The piece is given to Eugene by his prison friend and chess mentor (eloquently played by Dennis Haysbert) and serves as a symbol of hope for the rehabilitated man.
Eugene leaves prison and immediately has trouble finding work because of his scandalous past. After lying his way into a job as a janitor, he is given a unique opportunity to supervise the school’s detention room and uses the time to begin teaching the detention dwellers how to play chess. Most of the children in the class come from broken or abusive homes and have little to look forward to in their futures. Eugene uses the various elements of chess to teach basic life skills such as respect for rules and the need to be on guard against impulsivity. One unique challenge that he faces in the classroom is some of the player’s dissatisfaction with the fact that white has the first move on the chessboard. Black should always go first, replies one of the children. Eugene’s eloquence is at its best in these tense moments and he is highly effective at reshaping the way that the class views themselves and the rest of the world. One student in particular shows an exceptional gift for chess, but refuses to acknowledge his skill.
As the children progress in their chess skills, some of them begin to dream of playing competitively. Eugene teaches them the basics of time controls and tournament etiquette, which is soon put to the test in a series of local tournaments. The importance of treating life as a chess game and obeying the rules are emphasized as one child forges his name on a tournament entrance form, wins the tournament, and is subsequently disqualified. The film soon progresses from a focus on Eugene and the class as a whole to the establishment of the Chess House and the rapid development of several of the children.
Eugene and his chess crew survive the dangers of inner city life and the film’s climax brings us to a USCF tournament. This is where the game of chess as a competitive sport is presented exceptionally well by the filmmakers. The tournament is filled with advertisements for real chess websites and resources such as the USCF, Chess.com, Chesskid.com, and others. In the climax scene, Eugene’s star pupil deals swift blows to his tournament opponents and soon finds himself face to face with a Magnus Carlsen lookalike chess genius. As the two play a final-round match in front of a packed room, perhaps one of the best moments comes at the end of the match when the Carlsen-clone approaches the student and compliments his game. The student responds by telling him that he does not appreciate being patronized. With a smile worthy of Carlsen or even a smug Fischer, the genius responds by saying, “Trust me, I would never do that.”
At first glance, Life of a King may appear to be nothing more than a typical American chess movie. This is an unfair assessment as it is so much more. The struggles of Eugene Brown and his chess players is a story that continues in cafes, homes, and prisons around the world. Life of a King is a testament to the human spirit and the spirit of the 64 squares that have brought change and meaning to the lives of so many.
Life of a King is rated PG-13 for some violence and drugs. It stars Cuba Gooding Jr. and Dennis Haysbert.