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Every Chess Movie, Ranked
And one obvious TV series.
Wait, what’s a “chess movie”?
It’s a movie in which the story centers mostly around the game of chess.
So you really watched every movie with chess in it?
Nah, there’s just too many. I had to pick out the most popular and interesting ones. This post should be titled “Every Seemingly Fascinating and/or Relevant Work of Visual Media I Managed to Get Hold of That Sort of Mostly Centers Around Chess, Ranked”, but that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue now, does it.
Why did you watch so many chess movies?
Because there was a pandemic and I had fallen in love with chess and I love movies, so I thought it would be a good idea to combine them.
Hell no. It was like combining ketchup and ice cream.
But watching these films gave you new insights into chess and improved your game, right?
Wait, so this whole experiment was basically a failure?
Hey look man, you have no idea how much time I spent researchi-
Yeah yeah. But you’ve written about them and ranked them all anyway. Why?
Because I like ranking things. Because I didn’t really like the other movies-about-chess lists I found online. Because somebody had to.
Are there any movies that don’t exist but that you would’ve liked to see here?
I would love it if someone made a biography on Paul Morphy. And Mikhail Tal. And Petrosian, and Capablanca, an-
Got it. So how can I watch all the films that aren’t available on any streaming platforms? How did you?
I, umm, uhhh… I obtained them somehow. Y’know.
But most of these movies you can rent online. Go to JustWatch.com to find out where and how. I’ve provided Netflix and YouTube links wherever possible.
And do I need to be a good chess player to enjoy any of these movies?
Only if you think you need to be a good driver to enjoy Drive.
Alright. Honestly, the only chess related feature I’ve seen is The Queen’s Gambit. Did it make your list?
Yes of course. And, spoiler alert, it’s my number one pick.
Nice. So which other movies in the list would you say are a must-see?
Honestly, I wouldn’t take the rankings too seriously. The descriptions are more important. Which movies you’ll like depends more on your tastes and interests, because all of these are quite good. They all bring something unique to the table, or rather the chessboard.
10. Dangerous Moves (1984)
Synopsis: In the 1980’s Soviet Union, a 52 year old Soviet Jew and a 35 year old genius who defected to the West several years earlier compete in the final match of the World Chess Championship.
Dangerous Moves is a French film that tells the story of a World Championship match and all the resulting psychological warfare that goes on behind it. It depicts the nuances of professional chess and the political chaos that accompanies any large sporting event in great detail. It shows how every side tries to fight for the smallest advantage possible, on and off the board.
The two protagonists are fascinating characters. They’re from different Soviet eras, and have opposite political views, temperaments, and chess playing styles. Their fight is portrayed as a clash between the old and the new.
I’d say the plot and performances are pretty good, but apart from the protagonists, none of the supporting characters feel fully developed. I was surprised to learn that Dangerous Moves won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film back in its day. Hurray for chess movies! But still, I’d recommend it only if you’re looking for a quiet, slow-burning tale.
It does end on a touching note, though. (Spoiler warning.) What happens is that Liebskind, the older guy and reigning World Champion, is forced to abandon the match and thus forfeit the title because he suffers a stroke. And so the match is terminated midway, and Fromm, the challenger, becomes the new World Champion by default. In spite of this, Fromm visits Liebskind in the hospital, and they privately play out their remaining games by saying the moves out loud to each other. Their love for chess transcends their rivalry. We never get to find out who actually wins. Poignant stuff.
09. Computer Chess (2013)
Synopsis: Various programmers compete in a nondescript California hotel in 1980 to see which of their computer programs can best the others at chess.
I mean this without exaggeration: Computer Chess is the single strangest movie I have ever watched in my life, a title previously held by heavyweights like 2001: A Space Odyssey (good), Mother! (bad), High Life (atrocious), and Midsommar (excellent). It deserves to be on this list simply because of how unconventional it is, for better and for worse. It just happens to be about chess.
It catches you off guard because the plot on paper seems pretty straightforward. You go in expecting an archetypal sports-movie-with-chess, but come out having seen something indescribable. Within the first five minutes itself, in fact, you can tell that something is amiss: the movie is shot in black and white, in a 4:3 aspect ratio (?!), and begins without any studio names or titles.
Its strangeness has nothing to do with chess. This is apparently a ‘mumblecore’ film, a genre characterized by low budget production and high improvised, naturalistic dialogue. That would explain a lot. Critics and folks familiar with director Andrew Bujalski’s earlier works seem to have loved it.
As for me, I honestly didn't know something like this could even get made. It's hard to gauge what they wanted to achieve with this film, because it seems exactly like the kind of movie that will never make any money. So what is it - a casual hangout movie? Sort of. An examination of the effects of computing on chess? A bit. A character study of programmers and chess players? Ironically, if at all. A comedy? I guess…?
It's definitely more for film lovers than chess lovers, that’s for sure. Although the direction is quite inconsistent and the story keeps flying off in bizarre directions, there are some unforgettable scenes here, writing about which would only diminish their unique unrealness. The film gives off a very “chill out, take a blunt, and talk about the big questions of life” vibe.
Watch Computer Chess if you ever want to be called a cinephile. Seriously - I’m going to gatekeep that word now. This movie is the ultimate test. Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two, or, if you’re like me, you’ll realize that the kind of movies you usually watch are way too formulaic.
08. Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine (2003)
Synopsis: A documentary chronicling the events around the infamous 1997 match between Garry Kasparov, the former World Chess Champion, and Deep Blue, a chess playing computer created by IBM.
Chess has always been the go-to platform for artificial intelligence researchers because of its closed nature. AI in the chess domain had been catching up with human intelligence since the 80’s - as seen in Computer Chess - and by the mid-90’s IBM had built Deep Blue, a computer they claimed could beat the best minds in the game.
A match was arranged in 1996 between Deep Blue and Garry Kasparov, the World Champion at the time, which Kasparov predictably won. IBM then improved their machine and setup a rematch with Kasparov in 1997 - and beat him. The world looked on in awe.
The 1997 rematch consisted of six games played over a week. It was a source of substantial drama and controversy, and received massive global media coverage. It’s probably the most famous chess match ever played, give or take Fischer and Spassky’s 1972 clash.
Kasparov’s loss to Deep Blue is one of the most seminal moments of the 20th century, because humanity had crossed a seemingly impossible threshold: a computer, completely of its own volition, had under tournament conditions defeated the best (human) chess player in the world. The creation had outwitted the creator. Human beings could no longer claim to be the best thinkers on the planet. The world would never look at computers the same way again.
Deep Blue’s victory - or Kasparov’s loss, depending on how you look at it - was a watershed moment in the history of chess, computing, and AI. It was a sign of things to come. Two decades since, anyone can now simply go to lichess.org and get free, instant access to a chess engine that’s better than any human grandmaster alive. Yes, including Carlsen.
So it's crushingly disappointing to find out that Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine is the only publicized documentary of such a pivotal moment in time, because it is a shoddy, crude piece of filmmaking. Every directing choice in the film is terrible. For some inexplicable reason, the narrator of the documentary literally whispers what’s going on, as if he’s telling you a secret. This was probably done to give the film a mysterious feel, but just feels cheap. The editing is also bad. All the footage about the Mechanical Turk should’ve been left out.
Thing is, the backstory of the match and the controversies surrounding it are so interesting in and of themselves, that even a basic, straightforward documentary about it would’ve been a winner. Instead we get this… thing.
The film's saving grace is that it shows a lot of actual footage from each game and its subsequent press conferences. It's an inviting glimpse into the atmosphere of the time, and the inhuman level of tension Kasparov was under throughout the event. He was playing for his reputation and his pride, sure, but more importantly, he was representing all of humanity as one of its great intellectual champions. Imagine the pressure athletes face when they represent their country. Now imagine the pressure someone might face when representing their species, even symbolically.
The retrospective interviews in the film are also good. Kasparov speaks candidly, and seems largely frustrated by what happened to this day. The movie seems to suggest fowl play on IBM's part (as does Kasparov), implying that Deep Blue had human assistance, but never tries to dig deeper into these claims.
I’d still recommend watching Game Over simply because of how important an occasion it covers. However, Kasparov’s own book, Deep Thinking, is a much deeper and comprehensive look into the whole saga, and into the advent of AI and how it’s changed the nature of chess as well.
And history repeats itself. Nineteen years after Deep Blue’s victory, another AI, called AlphaGo, defeated the world’s best Go player at his own game in another highly publicized match in 2016. The documentary about that event, also titled AlphaGo, is available on YouTube and is an absolute masterpiece.
07. Two Kings For a Crown (2015)
Synopsis: As the USSR collapses around them, grandmasters Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov fight for the World Chess Championship, while the country they called home changes forever. (A documentary.)
At just fifty two minutes, Two Kings for a Crown is honestly more of a TV special than a full fledged movie. It’s a chronicle of the tussle for the World Championship between Kasparov and Karpov in the 80’s, and the evolution of a rivalry that would come to dominate top level chess for two decades.
The movie mostly covers the pair’s World Championship matches (that would often last for months), and includes real footage of the games as well as interviews from both Kasparov and Karpov. Short and crisp, this one’s for the history buffs.
06. Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993)
(Released in some countries as Innocent Moves)
Synopsis: A prepubescent chess prodigy refuses to harden himself in order to become a champion like the famous but unlikable Bobby Fischer.
Searching For Bobby Fischer is one of those old school Hollywood family dramas, you know? The kind of films that are characterized by recognizable actors, mellow colouring, and grand, swelling musical cues, where people are inherently good at heart and the good guys win. This is quite possibly the most straightforward movie on this list.
Although it’s a work of fiction, the story is based on the life of Josh Waitzkin, a real life former chess prodigy and author. Waitzkin is a fascinating guy who I discovered through his appearances on Tim Ferriss’ podcast. He's done a lot in life apart from chess, most famously having written the bestselling The Art of Learning (which I haven’t yet read (but will someday!)).
The movie portrays Josh’s precocious gift for chess, and how it starts to change things for him. A core tension in the story is between Josh’s parents - his mom wants to just let him be a normal kid, while his dad wants him to reach his maximum potential and push himself, a la Whiplash. Another tension is between the cool street hustler Josh befriends and the uptight tutor his parents hire for him.
Apart from chess, the story touches on themes of competition, friendship, kindness, and father-son relations. Real footage and stories from Bobby Fischer's life are interspersed throughout.
Max Pomeranc, the child actor who played Josh, did an outstanding job here. He honestly should’ve been nominated that year. He’s able to evince so much from the minutest of gestures. Lawrence Fishburne is also huge fun as the hustler. The ending is sweet and touching. I like this movie quite a lot.
For a glimpse into Josh Waitzkin’s genius, check out this game he played when he was just eleven years old. It’s one my favourite chess games. Such artistry, such brilliance.
05. Into the Night with Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel (2013)
Synopsis: A documentary that follows Peter Thiel and Garry Kasparov as they travel around New York City for a day, talking about their mutual interests.
Into the Night is less of a movie and more of a podcast. Peter Thiel, the famed entrepreneur and venture capitalist, hangs out with Garry Kasparov in NYC sometime around 2013. They spend the day walking around the city, meeting people, and talking about the things both of them usually like to talk about - chess, AI, technology, geopolitics.
This is not a normal conversation, though, because they’re not talking to or for the camera. It just happens to be there, like a fly on the wall. Kasparov and Thiel’s banter is at once intelligent, stilted, awkward, and sometimes unintentionally funny, but still captivating. Thiel is a bit ill at ease, sheepish, humble, and seems hilariously in awe of Kasparov, who’s his usual self-obsessed, arrogant self.
Their personalities are quite different, which makes the interplay between the two awkward yet mesmerizing. They lack conversational chemistry but have so many common interests and so much to say about said interests that you’re hooked in anyway. The people they talk to throughout the day are each unique as well, from robotics students to chess players to political consultants.
Like Computer Chess, I genuinely can't fathom why this was recorded, for whom, and what anybody involved could’ve possibly gained from it. It’s priceless stuff nonetheless. This genre of “two smart people hang out for a day and talk about stuff” is addicting to watch. While podcasts have now become the go to place for great dialogue between experts - here’s Kasparov on Lex Friedman’s show in what is one of my favourite conversations - something about people walking around in a city as they talk adds a layer of entropy and colour to the conversation that makes the whole thing even better.
04. Brooklyn Castle (2012)
Synopsis: A documentary that takes an intimate look at the challenges and triumphs facing members of a junior high school's chess team in New York City amid financial crises and budget cuts.
Brooklyn Castle doesn’t focus on the specifics of chess itself, per se, but on how the game benefits school children and adds more fun, competition, and meaning to their lives. Unlike the other films here, it calls attention to the educational and sociological aspects of the game.
It’s about the students and teachers of a school in NYC called IS 318. This is a school famous for its chess program, and its students have consistently been winning tournaments throughout the US for years now. Most of them come from lower income families. Chess serves as a gateway for them to learn to concentrate, get to travel, and potentially even make money.
Although there is plenty of chess in Brooklyn Castle, this is more of a “school movie” than a “chess movie”. My favourite thing about it is that it takes you back. It gives you a good sense of what it’s like to be a kid in school, going through the daily tribulations of assemblies, classes, and homework.
The real, unpolished feel of the footage makes the difference. There isn't much of a three-act plot here. The documentary simply covers a single academic year at IS 318, sometime around 2008. Students in the chess club practice and travel for various national tournaments, and the documentarians focus on some of these children specifically, asking them about their ambitions and expectations out of life. It’s about the little things - how chess helps a boy with ADHD to focus better, how it helps another girl get a college scholarship because of her high rating, how another boy becomes the school president. Small moments, but they move you.
The school is constantly being hit by budget cuts. (It’s 2008, after all.) The chess program is always close to getting cut out. But the students keep fighting. They write emails to the mayor, organize fundraisers, and continue to practice their game.
Watching this as an adult made me realize how much effort goes into the administration of a school, which is something you never consciously think about when you’re a kid. The film focuses particularly on two teachers, and the way they have to simultaneously manage budget deficits, keep school spirits high, maintain a rapport with the kids, organize tournament travel, and, y’know, teach. It’s too much work and they do it so well. We would be nowhere without teachers. The general spirit and tone of the whole project is uplifting and hopeful.
03. Magnus (2016)
Synopsis: A documentary about the early life of Norwegian chess prodigy and current world no. 1 Magnus Carlsen, who became a grandmaster at age 13 and the World Chess Champion at age 22.
Magnus is a short, fast moving documentary that is better at entertaining than being informative. Although it's quite good, it fails to answer the one question I've had about Magnus Carlsen all these years.
To provide some context: Carlsen is the current World Chess Champion and has become the standard bearer of chess in the last decade, similar to what Tiger Woods is (was?) to golf and Lionel Messi is to football.
It goes with saying that Carlsen was a child prodigy, but he quickly became the top ranked chess player in the world in 2011, when he was just twenty one years old. Now, this is extraordinary because a) chess is notoriously competitive, especially among its best players - most classical chess games between grandmasters end in a draw, b) most chess players, even the best ones of their generation, never reach the world number 1 ranking, and c) to repeat myself, Carlsen became the world number 1 at just twenty one years of age. An impossible feat.
Then, three years later, he qualified for the 2013 World Championship match and defeated the incumbent titled holder, India’s Vishwanathan Anand, to win the title. He’s never once dropped below the number 1 ranking or lost his World Championship title since.
This is extraordinary for any sport and any time period. In fact, the more you read about Carlsen, the more you realize that he’s not just a great chess player, but one of the greatest sportspeople who ever lived.
So, coming back to the movie. The biggest flaw of Magnus as a documentary is that it paints Carlsen's journey as that of a typical prodigious kid, and never examines him further than that. Were you to make a movie about any top chess grandmaster today, like Fabiano Caruana or Anish Giri, most of the footage would look quite similar to the one shown here: a precocious child becomes obsessed with chess, quickly wins tournament after tournament and rises through the ranks globally, handling increasing pressure and media attention, and finally makes it to the top ten. None of these steps are unique to Carlsen's life.
But what is it that makes Carlsen so much better than literally every other chess player in the world? How did he rise through the chess ranks faster than almost anyone ever has? How is he outstanding even at the top level of the sport?
The movie doesn't bother to explain, or even address this question. It simply paints Carlsen as another genius that mastered chess. It disappointingly ignores both the extent of his success and how anomalous it is.
Apart from that one major flaw - which, to be fair, is a huge one - Magnus is an enjoyable film. It's directed with style and flows smoothly. It focuses mostly on the 2013 World Championship match in Chennai, when Carlsen first won the title against Anand, and it's really fun to see the game footage, commentary reactions, and press conferences in detail. You get to feel the ungodly amount of pressure these players face at the highest level.
I looked into my own question a bit, and the best explanation I found for what makes Carlsen so good is this video of Vladimir Kramnik talking about Carlsen’s play from his own experiences. You can always rely on Kramnik to be an eloquent explainer of all things chess.
Bonus track: also check out this video demonstrating Carlsen’s incredible memory.
02. Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)
Synopsis: A documentary exploring the tragic and bizarre life of the late chess grandmaster and World Champion, Bobby Fischer.
Bobby Fischer Against the World is less about chess and more about the nature of genius. That’s what makes it fascinating.
Because Bobby Fischer was a genius, no doubt about it. The eleventh World Chess Champion and the only American to ever hold that title, he was also the only player to finally break the Soviets’ ironclad grip on the crown. The five World Champions before him had all been from the Soviet Union, and soon after Fischer’s victory, Karpov and Kasparov came along and dominated the game for another twenty years:
The table above is fascinating because it shows not only the depth of chess talent the Soviet Union managed to cultivate for decades, but also how exceptional Fischer must’ve been to stand out among these greats.
Like 2016’s Magnus, BFAtW is also a biography but it’s better on just about every level. That’s mainly because Fischer is simply a more interesting character. For better or for worse, though apparently mostly the latter, Fischer’s life has been more dramatic than that of any chess player before or since. The fact that he was also a great player almost seems like a coincidence.
In contrast to Fischer himself, this is a well balanced, even film. It is thoroughly researched and tonally consistent, and includes plenty of interviews from his contemporaries and friends. It'll appeal to chess players and non-players alike, and most importantly, has plenty of footage from Fischer's life and games. It's one of the better documentaries you're likely to watch on any topic.
The movie covers all of Fischer's life, from birth to death - the stunningly high highs and the crushing lows. It shows how Fischer came from a troubled family and survived a rough childhood; how he penetrated the secrets of chess and became a world class player in his teens; how he took on the entire Soviet chess apparatus without any support from his family or country. How he then defeated Boris Spassky (another all time great) and became the World Champion, before deciding not to defend his title and becoming all but a recluse, never to play again.
So goes The Ballad of Bobby Fischer, the song that ends the film:
Bobby came back with his poor little sack / And his eyes were on fire and his fingernails cracked / Screamin' and hollerin' and stinkin' of gin / Oh Bobby, Bobby, where have you been?
"I've traveled this world, chasin’ the sun / I lived as a king and I lived as a bum / But to answer your question, it's really quite clear / I never was gone, ‘cause I never was here."
Fischer embodied many cliches that we associate with high achievers: the neglected kid, the arrogant misanthrope, the lone genius, the troglodyte. But such is Fischer’s impact on the zeitgeist that you could argue that these tropes became cliches in large part because of him.
Why did Fischer all but disappear after 1972? Why did he refuse to defend his title? How much did he suffer from schizophrenia? We’ll never have definite answers to these questions, but the movie explores them anyway. Said modern day philosopher Kanye West:
I can’t let these people play me / Name one genius that ain’t crazy.
Obviously, a huge chunk of the film is dedicated to his 1972 match against Spassky, which was seen as an extension of the Cold War and which sparked a worldwide chess boom back then. But more notable is the fact that the film also shows footage from Fischer’s last few years spent in Iceland, where he lived without much fame, money, or glory.
This is unglamorous footage most filmmakers would’ve left out, but I’m glad it made the cut: it helps us keep the man in perspective. It’s tough to watch at times. After watching BFAtW, for all his extraordinary accomplishments, you never feel jealous of Fischer. There could’ve been a temptation to make the man an enigmatic, unknowable mystery, but the movie avoids lionizing him, and shows him for what he was: a deeply gifted, deeply troubled man who once did some great things.
Apparently, Fischer's last words were, 'Nothing is so healing as the human touch.'
01. The Queen’s Gambit (2020)
Synopsis: Orphaned at the age of nine, prodigious introvert Beth Harmon discovers and masters the game of chess in 1960's United States, while battling her inner demons. (TV miniseries.)
It’s probably fitting that this movie list ends with a TV show. I’ve always been more of a TV guy anyway.
The Queen’s Gambit is different from every above entry in more ways than one. Not only is it the most recent work on this list, but also the most popular one by far - within a month of its release in 2020, it had become the most watched show on Netflix in sixty-three countries.
Enough has been said and written about the show that I don’t feel the need to add much. The bottom line is that it’s just really, really good TV. It tells a great story without overextending itself. In just seven episodes you get everything a drama can offer: conflict, friendship, competition, romance, tragedy, humour, personal struggles, and the pursuit of excellence.
It’s worth mentioning that the chess stuff is great too. If memory serves right, this is the only entry here where the chessboard is given high prominence by the camera. There are many scenes where you can pause and analyse the moves being played by the characters, and they’re all authentic. Garry Kasparov served as a consultant on the show, and helped create fictional (but realistic) chess games for the story.
Of course, the most significant way The Queen’s Gambit stands out is that it’s about a woman and not a man, something unheard of in chess fiction. The way the show handles this inverted gender stereotype is deft and subtle. It avoids obvious sexist cliches.
Another thing that stands out is the show’s production design. There has never been a better looking chess-themed film, period. The sets, costumes, lighting - everything is perfect. Even the chessboards and pieces have a polished, regal look to them.
Beth Harmon is an amazing character. Modeled obviously after Bobby Fischer and Paul Morphy (who she’s directly compared to in the show itself), she’s a genius-who’s-their-own-worst-enemy a la Will Hunting or Gregory House. Her struggles with pill addiction constantly threaten to ruin her chess career.
All of these elements add up to something great, but for me the primary appeal of this show is competence. I love watching people who are great at things. Example - here’s a fifteen second clip of how fast grandmasters think. Chess is a great tool to dramatize such excellence, and The Queen’s Gambit uses every possible instrument in the entertainment arsenal to hammer in Beth’s intellectual superiority over her opponents. There are times when Beth looks at an opponent with a sly smile, chin on hand, and twinkle in her eyes, knowing he’s about to get destroyed on the board. The opponent then knows it too. He fumbles and tries to keep the game alive, but is ultimately forced to accept the bitter truth that all chess players have embraced deep down, a truth that H. G. Wells phrased perfectly: that there is no remorse like the remorse of chess.
So if The Queen’s Gambit is the most popular work of entertainment that currently represents this sport in the broader cultural zeitgeist, then chess is doing perfectly fine.