12 Best Chess Movies of All Time

Pawn to C4. Rook to H5. Knight to E6. This might seem like an odd set of references, but they are chess moves. Chess is a game that I have little experience with, but have always been curious about . We see plenty of people, children, and adults playing out in a park or inside a bookstore. What they’re saying to the world is, “I’m a respectable intelligent person that knows enough about chess”.

After a thorough search, I’ve come up with a list of movies that have chess as one of the, if not the main theme. Before beginning the list, I want to let you know that few of these movies deal with chess a little less than the others. So the ranking of a film is based on my opinion on the movie as a whole rather than the degree of the game involved in it. Here is the list of top chess movies ever made. You can watch several of these best chess movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.

12. Knight Moves (1992)

Peter Sanderson is a chess grandmaster whose freedom gets threatened after a murderer of females shows up in the city they all live in. Filmmakers bring all the doubts throughout the story to let spectator curious about who the lunatic may be, which is very classic in the called “whodunit” thrillers. It feels rather impossible not to notice how much like 2004’s ‘Saw’ this movie does look; in my opinion, it’s pretty clear that James Wan has had at least an inspiration in ‘Knight Moves’. Of course, ‘Saw’ is a lot more elaborate and well produced than this, but I won’t deny this film has brought a nice idea to the genre.

Though it’s a common serial killer story with some well-known elements like a murderer playing cats and dogs with the police, a guy being involved into the crimes meeting a femme fatale and a series of ritual murders with hints to an incident in the past, it’s very thrilling and entertaining. The setting is very interesting, being a small tourist island in the fall as a background for a deadly chess tournament. The murder scenes are not that gory, but scary and breathtaking. The final showdown between Lambert and the villain is a rollercoaster ride with some nice twists and fight sequences.

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11. Pawn Sacrifice (2014)

Strictly as a moviegoer, I feel that ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ is a pretty good historical story about a famous match. The best moments of the movie are the chess match sequences, which, despite being few in number, manage to remain exciting thanks to the film’s cleverness to keep the proceedings tight, but tense. It also does well to explain the game for non-players, but I’m sure that should be little issue. What the movie doesn’t do well at is to try and tell us who Bobby Fischer was. Don’t get me wrong. Tobey Maguire plays him very well. But for those who seek to know him on a deeper level will be left empty-handed.

Sure we know that Fischer was a great chess player, had a lot of psychological problems and said some strange things, but it’s all stuff that’s been told. Something like ‘Lincoln’ showed more about the personality of the president and ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ dwelled into the stern personality of P.L. Travers. This stands out among the few unsatisfactory aspects of the movie. The pacing can also come off as a little slow ironically as the filmmakers probably didn’t want too many chess games. I think they could have used some more. All that being said, the film remains true to its genre and provides a good experience.

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10. The Luzhin Defence (2000)

Luzhin Defence is a movie about a chess prodigy in the 1920’s who could be magnificent if it weren’t for his madness. Emily Watson also stars as his sympathetic fiance. How much you like the film will depend on how much you like chess, and Turturro rambling on about it. But for me, Turturro’s performance is one of his most cerebral, which is really good. However, the film doesn’t bring things together completely. Still, there are some good chess match scenes.

The highlights of ‘The Luzhin Defence’ are the lead pair’s performances. John Turturro and Emily Watson are spellbinding in their roles. Watson, in a wonderfully reserved performance completely convinces the viewer why she would fall for Luzhin. Torturro delivers a nuanced performance of a complex man. Geraldine James also does a good job. Stuart Wilson’s Valentinov is one dimensional. Alexander Hunting does a fine job as the young Luzhin but he bears no resemblance to Torturro.

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9. Computer Chess (2013)

In this mock-documentary, the computer nerds meet the chess nerds in a black and white, cheesy hotel setting during the 70’s. In the background, a purposeful primal therapy group works its spells and enchantments. One of the computer chess entrants is a sociopath that looks and speaks oddly like Chevy Chase, giving this movie unexpected authenticity. Another, the father of a chess buff, is one of those guys from the time that loved being the loudest guy in the room and loved asking the smartest persons in the room questions he couldn’t answer.

The film is, of course, mainly about the characters. The whole artificial intelligence and computer chess story is an interesting thread throughout the film but it is not the main focus. From the start, most of the characters in the film seem socially awkward, somewhat repressed, insecure and nerdy, often even speaking in a hesitant or awkward way. Along with these, there is the ‘Cal Tech team’ and the ‘MIT team’ and a wicked science fiction plot that seems to be fizzling towards the end, just as the nascent sex life of one of the team members does also.

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8. Queen of Katwe (2016)

‘Queen of Katwe’ is an inspiring story of a slum girl who, with coaching, is able to bring out the chess genius in her. Given the opportunity, talents can arise in anyone. The depiction of slums in this film didn’t leave much to the imagination. It showed very harsh living conditions and was very realistic. Not only does this film tell an inspiring story, but it also gives a cultural education, shedding some light on slum life in Uganda. The customs of the culture and the way the people express themselves are a great fun to watch. As well, the screenplay did a good job in incorporating the difficulties of a small town girl competing in the big world, as well as displaying cultural sensitivities.

The cast mainly consists of youth, and though their inexperience is evident, their portrayals are well done. For her first film, Nalwanga does a good job at displaying tenacity and innocence. Her expressions are natural and she has good chemistry with the other actors and actresses. As a biographical movie, the kids in this film added a sort of purity that helped the movie have a sense of reality. Nyong’o as the mother, and Oyelowo as the coach, also did well at displaying passionate emotions.

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7. Fresh (1994)

‘Fresh’ should be deemed as one of the films that express the realism of the inner city, especially through an individual that has been acculturated by his surroundings. He’s a streetwise, young individual that sets an example of how life in the inner city is like, and there are noted examples. Fresh is a young, 11-year-old African American male that rejects the societal norms that are analogous to achieving success. Throughout the movie, he lives the typical lifestyle of a young male that pushes drugs, lives in a single parent household, with a lot of younger siblings.

He has no male role model, since his father is a convicted felon, living on the streets as a chess player/hustler. The only family that he is closest to is his sister, who is portrayed as a drug-addicted individual that sleeps with other men and living a lifestyle that is deemed as degrading. The storyline is very entertaining. Not only does the story make the viewer think, but it also makes them guess what’s next. The script is fantastically written and the actors do a great job executing. What I love most about the script is that it uses a prop (chess) to coincide and parallel the story.

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6. Queen to Play (2009)

‘Queen to Play’ is a very heartwarming movie with moments that will have you wondering what’s going to happen next. It’s about a middle-aged woman named Helene, who works as a traveling maid and sets her sights higher than most. You can tell she is fed up with her current job and needs something new in her life. While she is cleaning a house on her normal schedule, she sees the housekeeper playing cheese with a woman. Director Caroline Bottaro does a great job on selecting the cast for this movie.

The cinematography in this movie really does a great job on capturing love, suspense, and happy moments with close-ups and very low angled shots. This adds to the movie more so than just having simple straight on wide angle shots. Notice just simple techniques used like this throughout the movie that makes it just that much better. The music is also something much needed in some parts of the film, even though its just chess, this movie gives off a suspenseful vibe.

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5. Brooklyn Castle (2012)

‘Brooklyn Castle’ is about I.S. 318 – an inner-city school where more than 65 percent of students are from homes with incomes below the federal poverty level – that also happens to have the best junior high school chess team in the country. Chess has transformed the school from “school in need of improvement” in 2003, to one of New York City’s best. But a series of recession-driven pubic school budget cuts now threaten to undermine those hard-won successes.
The film follows the usual pattern of this type of documentary by highlighting a few individuals and following them not only in their chess matches but illustrates how their families support them and how the students must try and balance their academics and other interests with their chess playing.

The second act of the film loses its sense of direction but finds its footing again in the third act when the focus is on the kids and the intense competition of the tournaments. If you feel that the country’s educational system is in a perpetual downward spiral, and no one really cares, be sure to give it a watch. It’s sure to give you at least some hope for our nation’s future. There are some technical chess terms mentioned in the movie, but I would venture to say that it would not hamper any non-players from enjoying it.

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4. Life of a King (2013)

After spending 17 years in prison Eugene Brown goes back to his home in Washington D.C. and tries to make an impact in the lives of young men and women who are forced to grow up under the same conditions as himself. Since he is an ex-convict he doesn’t have many choices and so he decides to use chess as the means to get his message across as all too often the high school students react rather than think ahead or plan. One particularly bright student named Tahime becomes the focal point of Eugene’s efforts as Tahime is at a definite crossroads in life due to a hopeless family situation, peer pressure and the lack of any substantive alternatives available to so many in the inner city.

Now rather than reveal any more of this movie and risk spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it I will just say that the director (Jake Goldberger) did a reasonable job in staying focused and presented the plight of young African-Americans trapped in poverty and despair with few recourses other than a life of crime and subsequent imprisonment. Although the performances of both Cuba Gooding Jr. and Malcolm M. Mays stood out I have to say that there were other unknown actors who performed quite solidly as well. In short, this was a pretty good movie and I rate it as above average.

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3. The Dark Horse (2014)

We first encounter him wandering the streets as if he was a toddler discovering the outside world for the first time. He soaks in the rain. Feels the ground beneath his feet. And then he finds himself more or less back where he most fully feels at home: in front of a chess board. He used to be “The Dark Horse”, rolling through opponents with a speed matched only by the trash-talking that came from his mouth. Now he is a shell of that former player, his mind had betrayed him.
Cliff Curtis plays Genesis Potini in the best performance of his career, after doing the rounds in Hollywood and establishing himself as a capable character actor. But he has never so completely transformed into another person like this.

‘The Dark Horse’ isn’t totally about Mana and the rest of the Maori youth succeeding beyond their situation. Criticisms aimed at the formulaic competition miss the point – win or lose, each of these kids has a long battle ahead of them, and this was merely a waypoint towards a long-term goal. Chess, as Potini outlines, is one way of uncovering their cultural pride and identity; the queen as the Earth Mother, the king as Maui, leader of his people. But every piece is a warrior in their own right, and whether you’re a pawn or a king or a queen or a bishop, everyone is welcome to play on Genesis Potini’s board. What we eventually realize is that while chess was his way of saving these kids, it was also the key to saving himself.

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2. Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)

‘Bobby Fischer Against the World’ is a documentary rigorously trying to wedge its way beneath the skin of the idea that chess and madness might be a little closer to one another than one would first think. The amusing reactions one hears of the Americans often having in understanding that a game of Cricket can last all day, for five days, and that draws are often the end result came to mind during the Bobby Fischer Against the World. Chess, it is revealed, being a game that, when the two best players in the world face off against one another for the world title, is played out across a good dozen-or-so matches of intense gamesmanship wherein which individual matches can only really be called off as a draw after something ridiculous like five hours, at least you’re outdoors and you’re moving about when you play Cricket.

Chess is another animal; just the two people, at a table, at the forefront of a large hall engaged in a game of such emotional and cerebral manpower that it doesn’t matter what the weather is, just make sure you guard that damn king piece. You don’t have to be a little off-kilter to take it up as a profession nor indeed study it religiously as a nine-year-old boy, but it would seem that if you want your name echoed and remembered through its future echelons, it certainly helps. The film is Garbus taking the “sport” of Chess and placing it onto screens – not in a stilted nor mundane fashion, but in a way that is cinematic and appealing.

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1 Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ is a film of remarkable sensitivity and insight, tells a story based on fact, about a “new” Bobby Fischer, a young boy named Josh Waitzkin, who was born with a gift for chess, which he nurtured in the rough-and-tumble world of chess hustlers in New York’s Washington Square Park. His parents acknowledge his gift but are concerned about how he can develop it without stunting the other areas of his life. After realizing what his son is capable of, Fred seeks out a chess player, a once highly regarded grandmaster named Bruce Pandolfini, and hires him to tutor Josh. Bruce tries to teach his pupil a regimented, cerebral approach to the game, while Josh’s mentor from the park, Vinnie favors a fast-paced and aggressive style used by hustlers to intimidate their opponents.

The movie succeeds with the heart-warming, honest acting of the film’s protagonist Max Pomeranc. Steven Zaillian, the director, made a conscious choice when he cast the film to find kids who actually could play chess. He wanted chess players first and foremost, and who also could handle the demands of the script. His face is expressive, open, and yet strangely inscrutable when he plays chess. The criteria Zaillian demands of his protagonist ultimately defines whether this film works or not, and Max delivers a truly natural performance. The audiences’ enjoyment of this film pivots on his character, and Pomeranc is wonderful.

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