Chess is a fascinating game of intellect that has been around for almost 1,500 years. It has a strong and rich legacy and, as such, is a great inspiration for movies. As so many similarities have been drawn between the skills applied in chess and problem-solving skills used in every-day life, chess games are the perfect arena in which opponents can epically spar one move at a time. When it comes to the best chess movies, those listed below have become fan favorites.
Searching for Bobby Fischer
Released in 1994, Searching for Bobby Fisher is considered the best chess movie across a number of sources. The American drama was written and directed by Steven Zaillian. The movie relates the story of a young boy, played by Max Pomeranc, who is a chess prodigy. The movie is based on the real-life character Joshua Waitzkin, and Searching for Bobby Fischer was adapted from a novel written by Joshua’s father.
The story follows the prodigy’s journey as his family discovers he is a chess genius and hires a strict instructor, played by Ben Kingsley, to nurture his talent and model him after chess master, Bobby Fischer. Joshua ends up facing the dilemma of whose guidance to follow when he meets a speed chess hustler, played by Laurence Fishburne, whose style pits him against Joshua’s initial instructor. Things come to a head when Joshua decides to follow and cultivate his own chess strategy, and as players must look to the position of their pieces, Joshua must consider every move he makes as a step towards or away from a given result in the game and in life.
Another film about Bobby Fischer, Pawn Sacrifice was released in 2014 and is an American biographical drama. It follows the true story of Fischer’s matches against soviet grandmasters during the Cold War. The film’s climax was the 1972 World Chess Championship when Fischer, played by Toby Maguire, faced Borris Spassky, played by Liev Schreiber.
The film starts when Fischer is a young child that struggles with paranoia. Throughout his discovery of chess, coaching, and becoming a grandmaster, his mental state does not improve. Culminating in the 1972 championship game against Spassky, Fischer’s mental stability is tested to the ultimate as he feels the pressure of his win for himself, his family, fans, and country. While he ultimately wins the match, the fear and anxiety turns into delusions, and he ends up isolating himself as a result. That image of the twisted genius that so many artists, musicians, and champions exhibit shines through in Pawn Sacrifice.
Queen of Katwe
The Queen of Kawtwe is a feel-good Disney movie that chronicles how the discovery of chess changes the world of a Ugandan girl living in the slums of Katwe. Directed by Mira Nair, the life of Phiona Mutesi is inspirational as she rises above the challenges of slum life to become a champion chess player and Woman Candidate Master after her wins at the World Chess Olympiads. The film was adapted from the book by Tim Crothers.
Phiona Mutesi is a 10-year-old girl who discovers the game of chess one day by a missionary man teaching it to onlookers. Mutesi’s daily life consisted of helping her mother, caring for her younger brother, trying to scavenge for food, clothing, and clean water to keep her family healthy. As Mutesi grows and hones her chess-playing skills, she enters more and more competitions. As she progresses, her world opens up beyond the slums she calls home, and she must grapple with who she is, where she comes from, and where she wants to go. With the pressure of a better life for her and her family as the ultimate motivator, Mutesi must learn the true meaning of victory and triumph. Again, the theme of chess mastery coincides with the mental challenges chronicled by the human condition.
Knights of the South Bronx
Knights of the South Bronx stars Ted Danson and relates the true story of a teacher at an inner-city school who helps his students by teaching them the game of chess. Directed by Allen Hughes and written by Jamal Joseph, the story of David MacEnulty is an inspirational story of how the caring of one person can make such a difference in the lives of children.
When Richard Mason (Ted Danson) finds himself in a substitute teacher position at an inner-city Bronx school, he quickly learns that his grade-4 students have very little advantages and suffer due to neglect from parents who are drug addicts, absent, destitute, and who send their children to school only to meet state requirements. As Mason struggles to reach his students, he realizes he needs something they can bond over, and that becomes the game of chess which he teaches his students to play at competition level. Through competitions and victories, Mason’s students learn the values of self-worth, confidence, and the valuable life lesson that anyone can change their stars and rise above humble beginnings.
In Knights of the South Bronx, a disenchanted class of grade-4 students learn that when given the opportunity, they can be just as good as anyone else. Their teacher shows them that the chessboard is blind to color, race, and privilege, and when the class unites and works together, there is little they can’t accomplish, even when up against those with far more privileges and advantages.
Chess is akin to the game of life. It involves the crucial skills of perception, observation, visualization, and strategy. The equalizing power of a game like chess proves excellent fodder for movies that want to tell the stories of people who, although disadvantaged in some way, were able to use the game to lift themselves up. Chess also provides an excellent backdrop for exploring the stigma of the mentally anguished genius like Bobby Fischer. Searching for Bobby Fischer, Pawn Sacrifice, Queen of Katwe, and Knights of the South Bronx make up some of the best chess movies as they chronicle inspirational tales of personal growth and victory on and off the board.