‘The Queen’s Gambit’ And The History Of Chess In Entertainment

The Royal Game

Chess has long had its place in culture, with the earliest depictions dating back more than a thousand years. No simple board game has confused, compelled, and controlled people like it has.

Perhaps the foremost ingredient towards the game’s success is its loyal player-base. The International Chess Federation (also known as FIDE) reports upwards of 170,000 players actively participating in clubs and tournaments. Chess.com, the premier website for casual online play, has more than 40 million registered accounts. Somehow, the game has even found a place in the e-sports community. Simply put, there’s never been a real risk of chess suddenly “dying out”.

Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen after winning the 2018 World Chess Championship. Image credit: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

But while it has its devotees (and quite a lot of them at that), chess is far from becoming a fixture of entertainment in the same way as, say, football. Unless it’s being played under accelerated time control, chess moves fairly slowly — and for viewers without a firm understanding of the position on the board, there’s little to be had in the way of action or drama.

A new Netflix series, however, aims to change that.

In Defense Of Chess

Based on the 1983 novel of the same name by author Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit is helmed by Godless creator Scott Frank. It stars Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, Emma) as (fictional) chess prodigy Beth Harmon, with Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Can You Ever Forgive Me? director Marielle Heller in supporting roles.

Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) sits in front of a chessboard in the Netflix limited series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’. Credit: Netflix

Frank recruited Garry Kasparov, a former World Champion widely regarded as one of the greatest chess players of all time, to oversee the production of the series and make sure the chess being shown was up-to-standard. Meanwhile, famed chess coach Bruce Pandolfini, who proofread Tevis’ original novel, was tasked with creating realistic games for the series with moves that would complement the story’s tonal progression.

Utilizing its period setting and gorgeous cinematography to the highest extent, the series portrays chess as a game of wonder and allure. The chess sequences themselves are thrilling and intense, even for someone with no knowledge of the game. Has chess always been this interesting?

Chess As Art

The first movie that featured chess was 1903’s A Chess Dispute, a minute-long silent film that shows two men getting in a slapstick fight over an illegal move. It was directed by Robert W. Paul, a pioneer of early motion picture filmmaking techniques.

From then on, chess would occasionally come up in various movies and television shows. 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death included Alekhine’s My Best Games of Chess in an important scene, the 1957 film The Seventh Seal established the familiar image of a man playing chess with death, and 1963’s From Russia With Love features a reenactment of a famous win of Boris Spassky over David Bronstein.

A man plays chess against death in Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’. Image credit: Empire

The first major film to actually embrace chess as the centerpiece of its story, however, was 1984’s Dangerous Moves, about two men competing in the World Chess Championship. It set a precedent for chess films earning critical acclaim, winning Switzerland the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (in 1977, a somewhat less well-known film, The Chess Players, had been selected as India’s entry in that same category).

The next big chess movie, 1992’s Knight Moves, was a by-the-numbers thriller that painted a chess grandmaster (played by Christopher Lambert) as the subject of a murder investigation. Few consider it to be as nearly as good as the next movie to put the spotlight on chess: 1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer.

Don’t Move Until You See It

Searching For Bobby Fischer starred an actual competitive chess player, Max Pomeranc, as two-time U.S. Junior Chess Champion Josh Waitzkin. Ben Kingsley plays Bruce Pandolfini (who was Josh’s real-life trainer) and Laurence Fishburne appears as Vinnie, a speed-chess hustler whose irreverent coaching shapes Josh’s playstyle (one year later, Samuel L. Jackson would play a speed-chess wiz in Fresh; these two performances are not to be confused). Searching for Bobby Fischer immediately set new standards for what a chess film could be, and each one since has been faced with navigating its shadow.

Josh (right) competes against Vinnie (left) in 1993’s ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’. Image credit: IMDb

But despite getting an Academy Award nomination, a rare 100% Rotten Tomatoes score, and a spot on AFI’s list of “America’s Most Inspiring Movies”, the film underperformed at the box office.

Was this just the way it had to be? Could mainstream audiences never be convinced to watch a chess drama?

Searching For “Searching For Bobby Fischer”

2000’s The Luzhin Defence was far from the first film to show a chess player coping with a fractured mental state, but it certainly propelled the trope. It didn’t perform too well critically or commercially, but it’s become something of a cult classic with chess buffs.

The Dark Horse was the first of a trio of chess films released between 2014 and 2016 that all fell victim to the curse of Searching for Bobby Fischer: massive critical acclaim, little-to-no box office returns. In The Dark Horse’s case, it holds a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was lauded by critics as one of the greatest New Zealand films ever made, but it still couldn’t make back its $2.1 million production budget.

The next of these films was Pawn Sacrifice, which, despite having the added pull of seeing Toby Maguire as Bobby Fischer, followed the established “pattern” to a T. It was hailed as an incredible drama — although, in the spirit of Asa Hoffman, Spassky disagreed with this assessment, saying the film had “no intrigue” and arguing with the way he was portrayed. Maybe he was right, considering Pawn Sacrifice couldn’t make even a third of its budget back.

Finally, 2016's Queen of Katwe. This one had perhaps the best chance of doing well: a true-to-life underdog story with the star power of Lupita Nyong’o and the directorial expertise of Academy-Award-nominee Mira Nair. Still, it only made $10 million at the box office off of a $15 million budget.

Madina Nalwanga and Lupita Nyong’o in ‘Queen of Katwe’. Image credit: SlashFilm

Since then, we’ve had a few small chess movies, such as John Leguizamo’s Critical Thinking, but it seemed that Hollywood has largely given up on attempting to make films about chess. Commonly suggested reasons for this include that the stories all followed the same underdog formula, that there was little to be made in terms of profit, and that there just wasn’t a way to package the centuries-old game in a way that was consumable for the average audience — especially in the age of streaming services allowing viewers to pick and choose what they want to watch.

And then came The Queen’s Gambit, the series that made people realize that the reason that we’ve hardly ever had a commercially successful movie (or series, for that matter) about chess was not because of the stories themselves but rather the reluctance of studios to market those stories. Queen of Katwe, for instance, received hardly any marketing or press coverage. Disney dumped it in theaters expecting it to fail — the same way they treat 20th Century releases now.

Netflix didn’t make that mistake with The Queen’s Gambit, and because of their efforts to actually advertise the series as something worth watching, it currently sits at the #1 spot on their trending page. And like the original chess drama, Searching for Bobby Fischer, it also has a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score.

Knight Moves has a 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the worst-received chess movies of all time. But of every film I surveyed in this article, it was the only one to be a major commercial success, making $31 million on a $9 million budget. I don’t know what the takeaway from that is.

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