I was recently watching an old television show from 1967, when one of the characters asked, “What kind of men are always above board?” The answer: chess men. Never mind that the program was Batman or that the character was Frank Gorshen’s irrepressible Riddler. In theory, chess could be considered the ultimate meritocratic competition. In practice, for a quarter century now and counting, human beings have lost their standing as the rulers of the game as computers have far outpaced us in this arena. However, this development has served both to reveal the depth of the game and to refocus our attention on the human significance of chess on several levels. Through stories imagined and true, it is possible to see beyond wins and losses to understand how chess paired with culture can serve as a window into human agency and progress.
At the end of 2020, I joined the mass of people around the world who watched Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. As an unskilled but enthusiastic player and observer of chess, I’ve always enjoyed seeing on-screen portrayals of this competitive form. The Beth Harmon character in Gambit (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) was realized with appropriate gravity and naturalness, and the sport as a whole was given a remarkable canvas despite the deft avoidance of deep chess strategy. It’s a credit to author Walter Tevis that his novel of nearly forty years ago could provide a period piece that felt fresh and relevant and also seemed to capture both the past and future of the sport.
For decades television and film creators have used chess purposefully in their art. In old cat-and-mouse detective shows such as Columbo or Banacek, chess might come up as a peripheral device to show the intellectual capacity of the antagonist or as a marker of the foresight of the hero. In the series The West Wing, President Jed Bartlet played chess with his communications director in order to maintain his mental sharpness. Perhaps its most strategic use was in Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, in which chess plays an altogether different role: a communication device that shows how two people transcend a language barrier between English and French. As it turns out, in most cases the best filmic explorations of chess originate from the lives of real players — often featuring storylines that are as surprising as anything found in the narrative of Beth Harmon.
In the documentary Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, we are given a ringside seat for the ultimate man vs. machine moment as one of the most outstanding chess performers of all time, then-world champion Garry Kasparov, loses in his much publicized rematch with the IBM computer Deep Blue in 1997. Kasparov’s frustration in this film is both palpable and completely understandable, as he competes with a faceless opponent and an equally opaque team of IT developers. The film turns on a conceit referring to “The Turk” — a legendary unbeatable chess-playing automaton that conceals a hidden human player. The tone of this film is somewhat like a potboiler in contrast with more typical documentary approaches, but the story is a worthwhile precursor to the present, in which the current FIDE World Champion Magnus Carlsen and his fellow grandmasters consistently use a combination of digital chess engines and human play to develop their abilities.
In 1984’s Dangerous Moves (La Diagonale du Fou), an old Russian grandmaster must defend his championship title against a younger master and defector to the West. In one of my favorite moments of dialogue in the film, the aging champion, who is in declining health, tells his second to do away with his cigarette during a practice game. “But it’s not even lit!” is the reply. The old grandmaster intones, “But you threaten to smoke it; in chess, threats are more serious than actions.” The story delves into psychological advantages and suspicions between opposing sides that are a hallmark of the sport’s history in the cold war years. The movie draws on a similar real life confrontation, a 1978 match between Anatoli Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi (who had defected), in which a number of bizarre extracurricular tactics and accusations took place. It may be necessary to point out that in fact, not all chess men are above board. However, Moves goes beyond its historical precursor by examining the deeper motivations of its two competitors, unlocking influences of not only the national tensions but tribal and emotional ones as well. It was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of the year.
When it comes to the American milieu, the obvious standout figure in our chess history is Bobby Fischer, and in the surprisingly well-crafted 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice, Tobey Maguire adeptly embodies the brilliance and brittleness of the late grandmaster. In fact, the film is challenging to watch at times specifically because of how volatile and disagreeable Bobby Fischer could be — especially the closer that he came to the world championship. In the supporting role of Father Bill Lombardy, actor Peter Sarsgaard serves as a layman’s chess translator and a conscience in whom the viewer can invest when Fischer’s anti-social and anti-semitic tendencies manifest. When high value pieces are exchanged in one sequence, Lombardy reassures Fischer’s agent that everything is fine because it merely “simplifies the game.” Later on Lombardy uses the story of the brilliant 19th century American player Paul Morphy to serve as a warning about the pressure that chess at the highest level of competition can put on a person’s psychological wellbeing. In the role of the Russian champion Boris Spassky, Liev Schreiber does a wonderfully understated job — conveying at the ending a moment that seems to be the historical influence of this match on a pivotal gesture in The Queen’s Gambit.
In the collective memory of our culture the flaws and inconsistencies of Bobby Fischer tend to be outshone by his early years of brilliant play and the success of that moment in 1972 on the world stage in Reykjavik, Iceland. It is that memory and the void created by Fischer’s desertion that serves as a challenge to be answered in the outstanding feel-good film Searching for Bobby Fischer — the true story of a boy named Josh Waitzkin. It’s a child prodigy sports film that manages to celebrate winning while also putting victory in perspective behind the concerns of childhood and most importantly, being a decent human. One of my most prominent memories of this film comes back to me from my years as an inner city high school English teacher. I used the film as a culminating visual partner to reading Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1974 play, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-moon Marigolds, a straightforward but challenging drama about a dysfunctional family and a little girl who is discovering her love of science while learning to bloom in her own way.
My students didn’t need to be skilled in chess to be reeled in by Josh’s story. Director and Screenplay author Steve Zaillian makes the most of both Fred Waitzkin’s original story and a vintage 1993 cast boasting the likes of Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne, and Joe Mantegna. The minor roles of William H. Macy as an excitable chess dad and Laura Linney as an elementary teacher show their consummate skill years before their well-earned fame. Fishburne is dangerously close to being a trope (long before The Matrix) as a chess “street guru,” but he is so engaging that we look forward to every second his character can be on screen. As Josh’s mother, Joan Allen embodies the moral center of the story. The cinematography by Conrad Hall is music to the eyes, somehow making an ancient game of 64 squares into a centerpiece of timeless childhood and the effort to prove oneself. If you have not seen the film, tonight or as soon as you can would be a good time to watch it from the first move to the last.
For many young people (and their mentors) chess has served as a validation of intellectual ability and a proving ground for self-worth. It had been years since I had seen John Leguizamo in a film, but his 2020 passion project Critical Thinking brings to the screen — with his younger co-leads — the experiences of a brilliant Miami chess team made up of Black and Latino high school students whose academic prospects and futures might not have looked particularly rosy at first glance. The movie undeniably has a Dangerous Minds kind of quality as it introduces real life teacher Mario Martinez, and the violence of Miami’s streets is made clear early on in the story. When Mr. Martinez’s students ask why the deck feels stacked against them, he explains that the accomplishments of people of color have been written out of history in many cases, and in chess history he refers to the fact that players like Kasparov and Fischer are well-known figures, while Raul Capablanca, an all-time great world champion from Cuba, was a name unknown to these teenagers. Mr. Martinez is the person who anchors these students to tap deep into themselves to change the nature of the conversation.
In discussing what spurred him to make the film, Leguizamo reveals a negative inspiration: he found the underdog success story of these boys and their teacher to be what he termed an “antidote” against one of the most infamous works of sociology written in the past century: Charles Murray’s 1994 work The Bell Curve. This text aggregated research on intelligence across broad racial categories with the (intentional) effect of propping up reactionary views of race and society. Mr. Leguizamo felt that the story of this group of students in Miami at the turn of the 21st century was one way to counteract the racist assumptions lurking behind Murray’s decontextualized data and generalizations. The inescapable Russian influence on the game takes an interesting form here as well when the protagonists are joined by a savant-like Cuban immigrant who has had the benefit of the Soviet Union’s influence and chess training back on his home island.
During the fall of 2016, the Walt Disney Company teamed with ESPN to release a memorable story in the genre of this game on screen. The film Queen of Katwe brought the world the adventures in the life and chess of Fiona Mutesi. As I anticipated rewatching the film I looked forward to seeing the crisp photography and the nonstop symphony of prismatic images from Fiona’s home village in Uganda. In one of my favorite sequences, a young player named Gloria introduces Fiona to the game, bluntly but mischievously telling the newcomer while moving pieces, “They kill each other!” Gloria also teaches Fiona the game’s most inspiring rule: if the lowly pawn traverses the board to the final opposing rank, it can become a queen, the most capable piece on the board. This movie follows a familiar arc of growth and a heroine coping with privation en route to emergence with her individual brilliance, but the work by Robert Oyewolo, Lupita N’yongo, and Madina Nalwanga are true to the urgency of the lives they portray, and the aforementioned iridescent colors of central Uganda are humanly magnetic.
No catalogue of this topic would be complete without the mention of one more documentary. 2012’s Brooklyn Castle demonstrates how the pursuit of excellence in chess can align with academic growth and a sense of teamwork among students who are just breaking into their adolescence. I first became acquainted with New York City’s I.S. 318 and some of its students and teachers in Paul Tough’s 2012 book How Children Succeed, which spends several thoughtful chapters describing chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel’s devotion and effort to fully developing the various abilities of her middle school chess students. The game is often used to teach about life off the board. Seeing Brooklyn Castle provides a useful framework for understanding just how rewarding and martialing it is for young people to have a rigorous source of engagement and tutelage in disciplines such as chess, art, and music.
These matches and films bring me back to 2016, the first year in which I actively followed the world championship. I was curious about the mystique and the dominant record of the titleholder, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, who achieved the highest rating of any player in history in 2014 according to the sport’s evaluative algorithm. Ordinarily, I would pull for the challenger in such a situation. However, this match was held only weeks after the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Carlsen’s challenger was Sergei Karjakin of Russia, and so I followed each game with an unspoken hope that Carlsen would retain his title rather than giving Russia an additional feather in its national cap, especially in this sport, after Putin’s latest exploits. It may have been unfair to Mr. Karjakin to hold the machinations and geopolitics of his country against him personally, but in some ways, I was merely revisiting a longstanding and aforementioned role that this sport has played as a proxy battleground between political systems, ideas, and symbols.
Squaring off in New York City for the world title match, Carlsen and Karjakin played game after game with no victories for either until the Russian broke through in the 8th game. Carlsen then survived with yet another draw and tied the score with his own victory in game 10. The match remained even after games 11 and 12, leading to four deciding games of rapid chess — shorter, time-pressured matches in which Carlsen was more at home. After two stalemates, Carlsen captured the third face-off playing black, and then in the final frame and Karjakin’s last hope to draw it out further, Magnus set up and successfully launched a late-breaking sacrifice of his white queen to checkmate Sergei in dramatic fashion and defend the title. Two years later in 2018, the United States narrowly missed the opportunity to claim a new champion as Italian-American challenger Fabiano Caruana lost a similarly close match to Carlsen.
The significance of games is multifaceted. They entrance and energize us, and to the extent that we are fully invested in these competitions, they validate us — even in defeat. That is the message of Kasparov vs. Deep Blue in 1997. Against the computer, the grandmaster represented us in a voyage to our limits, and what we take from it is to remember that we are not merely artificially intelligent. Our mental power is part of an emotional range. As in life itself, the process of adjusting and improving is key. Drawn matches can be beautiful displays of patience and fortitude, and victories sometimes emerge from winding pathways of uncertainty. That is the wisdom to be found in the narratives of Joshua Waitzkin and Fiona Mutesi, and it is the inspiration of the story of Beth Harmon.