The game of chess is often described as a metaphor for life. So, if that’s the case, it makes perfect sense that chess pops up in movies pretty frequently. There are not many strategy board games that can compete for chess in number of movie appearances, let alone movies based around the game itself.
Trying to name the absolute “best” movie of all time involving chess is difficult. There are a handful of movies though that stand out above the rest. Here is a look at five of the top chess movies ever released.
Queen of Katwe
This movie just released a couple years ago, so not everyone will agree with this being listed as an all-timer. The non-fiction book by Tim Crothers was a best seller though, and the movie delivered. It tells the story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl raised in the slums. After being introduced to chess by chance, she quickly rises up the ranks by discovering her natural knack for the game.
What makes this movie stand out is, although it has an often used “started from nothing, turned into something” plot line, it doesn’t exaggerate. The struggle is authentic. It might sound very fairytale, but let’s just say the ending is not what is expected. While she has success as a chess player, it doesn’t come without failure.
The acting is great across the board. Madina Nalwanga, the girl who plays 10-year old Phiona, did a particularly great job. Chess movies might not be in their peak right now, but it is the strongest release in the last few years. The book is also a great read too and gets into a bit more detail on the full struggle Phiona and her family goes through.
This documentary is also pretty new, releasing in 2016. This is the best way to really learn about Norwegian chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen. He is still under 30 years old, but he became a grandmaster at age 13, and by 2014, he achieved a peak rating of 2882 (highest ever).
The story of Magnus is incomplete, simply because he still has a life of chess ahead of him. What makes this documentary great though is that it focuses a lot on how he got to where he is. He was extremely aggressive as a chess player early in his career, but he has toned it down as he matures.
This is a great movie to check out for the younger generation, because he can serve as inspiration. Since it is a documentary, a lot of people who aren’t into chess might not really get a ton out of it. Carlsen is an interesting story, but he doesn’t have the crossover appeal of say, Bobby Fischer. He simply goes about his business and dominates, especially in the middlegame.
We will probably get a few more films on Magnus Carlsen in the future, but this 2016 entry is certainly a great start. It will be interesting to see how long his reign lasts. He is a guy who doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.
The name Bobby Fischer might be linked with a movie lower on this list, but the 2014 biographical drama film, Pawn Sacrifice, is centered around his story. Fischer is one of the most well known chess grandmasters of all-time, and the movie focuses on his matches during the Cold War against his Soviet Union rivals. The big match in Pawn Sacrifice is the 1972 World Chess Championship match vs. Boris Spassky.
Chess became an obsession for Fischer at a young age, when he began to focus on simply becoming the best to ever play. The movie highlights his weird behavior at times, to say the least. From tearing up a hotel room in the beginning of the movie to quitting tournaments and giving up chess altogether at times, his struggles individually play a big part in the story.
Tobey Maguire does a great job bring Fischer to life. The supporting cast also really made this a must see for any person who likes chess. Those who were actually there feel like the movie is not accurate, but this is Hollywood, right?
Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine
For a true chess documentary, it is hard to find a better one to start with than Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine. Released in 2003, the movie is about Garry Kasparov facing off against IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997. The documentary is informative and well shot, giving viewers a unique look from the perspective of Kasparov.
It was very interesting to see Kasparov, who at the time was the highest rated chess player ever, really struggle thoughout the rematch with the computer. After dismantling Deep Blue in 1996, IBM came back with a stronger opponent for the six game rematch.
From psychological games to allegations of cheating, seeing the best of the best struggle against artificial intelligent was never really seen before this 2003 was released. Computers have evolved a lot since then, but it is still the standard for true chess documentaries because it was so historic.
Searching For Bobby Fischer
This might be the most cliche chess movie of all-time, but it’s still entertaining for all levels of chess players. The 1993 classic tells the story of a rising chess prodigy named Joshua Waitzkin and his quest to win at any price while having two very different coaches guide him. The movie certainly has crossover appeal, since chess lovers and movie lovers have rated the film highly.
Big name actors made this a popular movie even outside the chess world, and it was nominated for Best Cinematography at the 66th Academy Awards. It might be showing its age a little, but it still holds up.
As good as the movie is, the consensus has always been that the book was better. It is based a lot more on truth, since it was written by Waitzkin’s father, Fred. Every chess player should find an opportunity to check out both.