David Smerdon | March 26, 2012 10:50

Lights, Camera, Chess


There was a time when chess only made an appearance in the movies if the director felt the need to add some intellect and cunning to his evil villain’s persona.  The recent Bond baddie in Casino Royals is a typical example, and the John Travolta/Jonathan Rhys-Meyers action flick From Paris With Love doesn’t do much to alter this trend.  (Of course, if you go back even further to the original Thomas Crown Affair, a thieving Robert Redford goes a little way to soften his criminal character by using chess as foreplay for the steamy love scene with detective ???.  But that’s, unsurprisingly, something of an exception.  Or is it?  Read on.)

 On my recent flight from Amsterdam to Brisbane, I watched three in-flight movies, all of which contained a chess scene.  What are the odds?!  Even more remarkably, the chief protagonist in every story was the wielder of the wood.

Robert Downey Junior uses his chess brilliance as a weapon in the fight against the evil Professor Moriarty (who is also, more routinely, portrayed as a chess master) in the new Sherlock Holmes adventure.  In the Cold War spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Gary Oldman marks the candidates for the mole in the British service on difference chess pieces, which also serve as their code names.

And then, perhaps most surprisingly, chess appears a few times in the latest Twilight instalment – yes, actual chess in the teenage vampire flick Breaking Dawn.  And for what purpose, I hear you ask?  As a necessary distraction (replacement?) while Edward (the vampire) refuses to consummate his marriage to Bella (the human).  Eventually, Bella finally wins a game against her new husband and, sweeping the board of its pieces as they lie on the beach at their honeymoon retreat, it seems her cunning chess strategy is remarkably similar to the old Redford technique.

Possibly the most romantic vampire-movie-chess-honeymoon-scene of all time (at least by elimination)

A new dawn for chess in film, perhaps.  And not only film.  I finally bit the bullet and read the first Harry Potter book (under extreme peer pressure, I should add), expecting to be bitterly disappointed.  While the writing level would have gotten a ‘B’ from my fifth grade English teacher, I was pleasantly surprised to see that not only did chess feature in the story, but played a pivotal role in Harry and co. surviving the perils of the Dark Lord.  While J.K. Rowling could have earned my eternal respect by actually including genuine chess moves in the human chess game that decides the climax, I could at least appreciate an effort to promote chess in a bestselling childhood story.  Inspiring stuff, from the ground up! 

I wondered… Has chess really become that popular in Hollywood, and in popular fiction?  Has it become cool?  Has it become…sexy?

Unlikely.  Perhaps chess has become a little less nerdy than its former image, and that’s something of which to be proud.  But, despite Vampire Edward’s steamy honeymoon strategy (not to mention the 2012 Chess Pin-up Calendar that adorns my kitchen – thanks, Shiloh), ‘chess’ and ‘sexy’ are rarely uttered in the same breath.  In fact, the advice of almost every top chess player I’ve spoken to is to keep chess and romance as far apart as is humanly possible.  As Freddy Trumper sings in Chess: The Musical, “I get my kicks above the waistline, Sunshine.”

Unless, of course, you’re trying to resist the amorous advances of a sparkly vampire playing for mate.

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Author: David Smerdon


Urayoan's picture

Hello David, the actor in the Thomas Crown affair was Steve Mcqueen.

Urayoan's picture

Or in the remake the actor was Pierce Brosnan

Dave's picture

Bah, right you are! Poor movie trivia knowledge on my part.

test's picture

The series follows former World Chess Champion Arkady Balagan (Shawn Doyle), a genius who uses his analytical skills to solve crimes.


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