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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Chess Masters (originally published 5/01)

Filmmakers have always had an affinity for fast-moving sports like basketball and tennis. Other competitive events, however, lend themselves less readily to the screen's penchant for dynamic visuals and continuous action. A game of chess, for example, can hardly be said to inspire the visual imagination. At first blush, it would seem to be the least "cinematic" type of contest imaginable.

And yet there is more to consider here. Intrinsic visual interest, after all, is only one aspect of the filmmaker's art. The primary function of most movies is to tell a story, and from that perspective chess has much to offer. The intricacies of chess strategy can serve as a simple and effective metaphor for the twists and turns of a well-conceived plot. Besides, the difficulty of making a chess match visually interesting can be viewed by the filmmaker as a stimulating challenge.

Chess, therefore, has figured prominently in more films than you might have imagined. The most recent example is "The Luzhin Defence," in which John Turturro plays a chess champion whose mastery of the game is equaled only by his inability to cope with life away from the chessboard. To see how earlier filmmakers have met the challenge of building a film around chess, look for these titles on home video.

"Chess Fever" (1925). The silent film era in Russia produced some of the most enduring cinema classics ever made. One of the most significant filmmakers of this period was V. I. Pudovkin, whose contributions to the art of film editing remain influential to this day. He is known for such powerful dramas as "Mother" (1926) and "Storm Over Asia" (1928), but recently Kino Video ( has released a restored version of a short comedy directed by Pudovkin early in his career. The film satirizes the popular Russian obsession with chess by featuring a main character whose chess mania interferes with his love life. Pudovkin integrates footage of the 1925 chess championship, including shots of then world champion Jose Capablanca. The Kino release pairs "Chess Fever" with another Pudovkin production called "By the Law."

"The Prisoner: Checkmate" (1967). Patrick McGoohan's remarkable television series about a pleasant little village that no one can leave somehow seems fresher and more relevant than ever. If you don't know this series, I urge you to discover all 17 episodes on home video. This one features McGoohan's character, Number Six, as a pawn in a chess match comprised of living pieces. He thinks he sees an avenue for escape, but, being only a pawn, he has little understanding of the machinations arrayed against him.

"Black and White as Day and Night" (1978). Before hitting the big time with "Das Boot" (1981), director Wolfgang Petersen made this edgy drama for German television. Bruno Ganz stars as an obsessive chess enthusiast who is pathologically driven to win at all costs. Eventually he cracks under the strain of being unable to face defeat at the chessboard. Instead he turns to computer programming, where he devotes himself to the creation of a program to (what else?) defeat the reigning world chess champion.

"Dangerous Moves" (1984). This political thriller brings us back around to Russia and its national preoccupation with chess. Here the Russian grandmaster who holds the world championship is challenged by a younger, dissident Russian expatriate. Each is handicapped by an infirmity - the champion by failing health and the challenger by emotional instability - and each is being manipulated for political gain.

"Searching For Bobby Fischer" (1993). This wonderful little film, written and directed by Steve Zaillian, is my own favorite chess movie. Based on the life of American chess prodigy Josh Waitzken, it effectively dramatizes the downside of genius. Josh's intuitive mastery of the chessboard, although a great gift, threatens to rob him of the simple joys of childhood. He eventually learns to cope by synthesizing the counsel of two utterly different mentors, one a classically trained chess master (Ben Kingsley) and the other a street-wise free spirit (Laurence Fishburne) who hustles lightning-fast, aggressive games of speed chess in the park. Ultimately, each has much to teach the youngster about both chess and life.

These films demonstrate that moving, engrossing, and even thrilling cinema can indeed be woven around the game of chess. All it takes is a trip to the corner video store to prove it to yourself. It's your move.

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