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

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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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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