The Tobey Maguire film “Pawn Sacrifice,” about American chess legend Bobby Fischer, hit theaters this week. And that seemed like a good excuse to talk about chess in film. There are plenty of films about competitive chess — “Computer Chess” is a personal favorite — but the game also plays a prominent role in all sorts of films as a narrative strategy. It’s used to say something about the characters or to foreshadow the plot.
So let’s go one level deeper into some iconic movie scenes that involve a chess match. This exercise involved a lot of pausing and rewinding and probably wouldn’t have been possible without 1080p. To pick apart these cinematic chess clashes, we also spoke to chess grandmaster Robert Hess, a former U.S. national championship runner-up, and turned to the raw silicon-powered strength of the chess engine Stockfish. (We showed Hess the positions over email, without telling him anything about the movies the games were from.)
Black: Prof. Xavier (black to move)
Despite a heavy material disadvantage — black is down a queen and then some! — Prof. Xavier can actually force a lovely mate in four moves. And checkmate his opponent is exactly what he does.
From grandmaster Hess: “Player with the black pieces is hyper-aggressive. Sacrificed a lot of material and isn’t done yet! No clue what to say about white, but it’s clear black had devilish intentions.”
This is a rather accurate assessment of Xavier’s character. Over the course of the next several films, Xavier is shown to have a keen understanding for the necessity of sacrifice — including on his own part.1
“X-Men: First Class”
White: Prof. Xavier
Black: Magneto (white to move)
Once again, Xavier has this game won: He can force mate in eight moves, per Stockfish’s analysis. Hess said: “White’s cruising. Up a ton of material. Checkmate in a few. Very clear that white was the stronger player.”
But … here’s what actually happened in the film:
Prof. Xavier blunders away his queen, swinging the advantage heavily towards Magneto. In the context of this film — chronologically the first film in the series — this totally seems like something Xavier would do. He is young, brash, occasionally nihilistic and still grappling with his new responsibilities. Magneto, on the other hand, is cool and assured, even when his back is against the wall.
The context of this scene in particular is important, as it’s the one where the major division in the pair’s friendship comes out in the open: Magneto is going to kill the bad guy, and there’s nothing Xavier can do to stop it. And this makes Xavier, in the end, sloppy both in the game and in the rest of the film, unable to obtain the unambiguous victory he’s visualizing and in the process losing his most powerful ally, Mystique.
“From Russia With Love”
Black: Unnamed competitor (black to move)
Unlike some other matches we’ve seen, this game is still very much up for grabs — though the engine sees white with a slight, roughly two-pawn advantage.
Hess liked this game: “Clearly the best game of the bunch so far. The game is level if black continues with the only move Ne6. Otherwise white has a winning attack. White has sacrificed a rook and pawn in exchange for a powerful light-squared bishop, indicating a great understanding of material imbalances. Regardless, looks like some solid chess players!” Hess predicted a draw.
This game bears a striking resemblance to one played between Boris Spassky and David Bronstein in 1960. It’s a brief scene in the film — Kronsteen, white, is a chess grandmaster and also a (doomed) chief planning officer for SPECTRE. He’s just at a tournament, so this game isn’t really there to comment on the plot; it’s mostly there to characterize the bad guy as a very capable planner.
White: Jim, the Waco Kid
Black: Bart (game is over)
Nothing to analyze here: White has been checkmated.
“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”
Black: Moriarty (white to move)
Stockfish sees this as a clear winning position for white (Holmes), but getting there isn’t obvious. It requires a queen sacrifice, eventually leading to checkmate, which Holmes — Holmes gonna Holmes, after all — finds.
“Now this is an awesome position! White’s queen is en prise,2 but instead of retreating, the lady should sacrifice herself on g6,” Hess said. “A wonderful attack that black cannot defend against. The starting position tells me that both players are quite decent chess players, as they’ve reached a complex position that looks quite plausible. Well done!”
This cinematic game is a variation on a real-life 1966 game between grandmaster Bent Larsen and the former world champion Tigran Petrosian. There is also an analysis of this game on YouTube. When it comes to chess on-screen, this one is a bit on the nose.
The key point of the scene is two very smart people playing a very elaborate game. But there’s something very compelling about the fact that to win the game, Holmes needs to sacrifice his most powerful piece. I don’t really think it’s possible to spoil an iconic story called “The Final Problem” that was first published in 1893, but, needless to say, in the film, it kind of comes to that.
White: David Levinson
Black: Julius Levinson (white to move)
Jeff Goldblum — er, I mean David Levinson — is playing as white here, and it’s his move. But his dad, playing as black, has a ridiculously huge advantage in this position, according to the chess engine. Hess agreed: “White is busted. Down a rook and a bishop, it looks like everything has gone wrong. Seems like white sacrificed the whole army in hopes of landing a checkmate, but with the artillery whittled down to just a few pieces … it’s over. Black cruises.”
But this is Hollywood, baby! David takes his time: “If you don’t move soon, I’m going to start to decompose,” gripes the elder Levinson. And then this is what actually goes down:
Both of black’s (dad’s) moves in this scene are absolute blunders, allowing MIT grad and computer expert and eventual saver-of-the-planet son back into the game. (Dad actually has a forced mate-in-14 after son’s first move.) “This is not checkmate,” dad says. Oh, but it is.
“Back to the Future Part III”
White: Copernicus the dog
Black: Marty McFly (white to move)
“Are you sure this is the right position? It’s impossible!” Hess said. “White is missing a bishop and rook on the kingside, but hasn’t moved a single other piece. Just a joke of a chess game!”
Despite the ridiculous-looking board, white has this one in the bag, per Stockfish — and common sense. Marty McFly (as black) has just blundered away his bishop to Copernicus the dog (as white). After that move, you can bet he’d like to go back to the past.
Also, that dog is very obviously licking peanut butter off the queen for the entire scene. These are the things you learn when repeatedly watching a 30-second “Back to the Future Part III” clip in slow motion for an hour.