Features Feb 15, 2019 | 12:17 AMby chess24 staff

Stanley Kubrick and chess

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) is considered to be one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century, but he was also a great fan of chess. Marc Lopez, of the radio program Cooltura Escacs, sent us this article.


His love for chess was well known. In fact, in exhibitions made about him and his movies, a chessboard was always displayed:


We are talking about Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999), one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century. His movies have been nominated several times for the Oscars, even though he only won the award once; in 1968, for the design of the special effects used in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”, a science fiction classic. Some of his other career successes include: “A Clockwork Orange”, “Barry Lyndon”, “The Shining” and “Full Metal Jacket”

The power and technique of Kubrick would inspire a whole generation of filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Woody Allen, Ridley Scott, etc. Even Orson Welles, who was 12 years older than Kubrick, would say: “Of those I would refer to as the ‘young generation’, I see Kubrick as a giant”. He was, without a doubt, a reference point for the whole movie world.

His Wikipedia page mentions several times that his love for chess could have contributed to his “coldness as a director and the perfectionism he always had”. When they accused him of being too perfectionist, he would reply, “journalists use the word perfectionist as a way to attack me, and I don’t think it’s fair. If you try to do anything, you have to make sure that you are doing it in the best way possible. I never waste neither my time nor my money, instead I try to do things properly”.

Let's now make a short survey, in chronological order, of some of the appearances that chess made in his movies:

In 1956, “The Killing” had its premiere. The movie is about a robbery taking place on a racecourse, where the robbers want to steal two million dollars. In preparation for the robbery, the main character wants to convince his friend to help him. To find him, he goes to “The Academy of Chess and Checkers”:


We can see the scene, during which a voice-over says: “Three days later, at 10:15 on a Tuesday morning, Johnny Clay begins the endgame preparation of his plan”. This is clear chess-related language: “preparation, endgame, plan,” at the same time as he enters the chess academy.

The scene starts with the main character entering the academy, trying to find his friend so that he can make an illegal proposal. It turns out that this friend in the movie was a real friend of Kubrick's. In the movie, this friend was scolding a couple of old men who were playing a game, until one of them got angry and yelled, “What do you know about chess!” as well as, “Stay quiet, it’s impossible to concentrate with so much noise!” The “noise” he refers to are the typical comments of, “what are you doing, why are you jumping with the knight and allowing a fork? etc.”, which are used many times by enthusiastic amateurs. This friend has a very heavy Soviet accent, which he will play with later.

When they finally meet, the main character and his friend hold a very philosophical conversation, in which the friend explains the Soviet ideal by saying, “individuality is a monster that you have to kill in the crib so that other people feel comfortable”. His love for chess is also very noticeable when he, as a chess player, speaks about art: “The gangster and the artist are equal under the eyes of the Master, they are admired by their peers but there will always be someone who will destroy them for the good of others”. We can see the recurrence of Soviet thought, with individuality frowned upon. They keep talking, and it seems as if Kubrick is the one speaking to us through the character: “I am always here losing time with chess. I don’t know what I would do without a place like this”. Later we will comment on this anecdote about Kubrick and the park, and you will understand the relationship much better.

Eight years later, in 1964, the movie “Doctor Strangelove” was released. Chess made an appearance here as well, but this time it was more backstage than in the actual movie. It was a comedy based on the Cold War, which was clearly shown by  bomb threats and other war-related things. On the film set, it was not uncommon to see postponed games between Kubrick and one of the actors, George C. Scott:


It was common to see them playing a game. This is a picture from the actual film set, but we don’t know if it’s the same game as the last picture.


Related to this movie, we have found this video, in which the main character gets inspired by Doctor Strangelove and goes to the park to play chess. In the description of the video they explain that the father of the person who posted this video, along with a friend, produced the performance. This makes it so much more beautiful - that not only well-known filmmakers followed Kubrick, but that anonymous people also wanted to make their own films. We can see a long line of curious people forming every time there is a chess game being played in a park.

Four years later, a famous movie would have its debut. It was the movie which would win Kubrick an Oscar - the classic science fiction movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It's a two and a half hour adventure which passes through time and space, and in which a group of astronauts try to figure out the origin of signals coming from an alien-like creature. The crew flies with the spaceship Discovery 1, which is monitored by a supercomputer of the newest generation called HAL 9000 (only to satisfy curiosity, if you look carefully, HAL are the letters that come right before IBM, honouring the famous computer company). Inside Discovery 1 there aren’t many more activities to do than to sleep, eat and play chess.



Continuing with “2001: A Space Odyssey”, at the end of the movie there is a scene in a room which could be called the chess room, since it's an 8x8 square, like a chessboard. 


During the filming of another of his famous movies, “The Shining” (1980), it was common to see Kubrick play chess against the actor Tony Burton during the breaks. Tony Burton would later confess that at first, he only had a contract to stay one week just to film a couple of scenes, but that he ended up staying six weeks because of how much fun he had playing chess with Kubrick. In Wikipedia you can find the following fragment of the interview: 

“...Stanley was a stronger player than me, but I was strong enough to give him a fight, which he enjoyed very much. In fact, I beat him the first or second game that we played, something that would not happen again. But the fights were equal. He loved that and I think we were the only two who played at such a level.”

There are many more references to Kubrick and chess. In an interview he said, “In relation to movies, chess is more useful for the prevention of errors than in the inspiration of ideas. The ideas come up spontaneously, and the discipline which is needed to evaluate them and put them into practice is tremendous work”. This interview was made by the magazine Playboy, in September 1968.

One year prior, he was already interviewed by Jeremy Bernstein who published a piece in “The New Yorker” about his movies. During the course of the interview, chess was brought up and it was here that Kubrick told us about the anecdote that we commented about before of the park: Kubrick played in the Marshall Chess Club, the same club as Bobby Fischer. This club was located close to Washington Square, in New York, where Kubrick himself admits that, depending on the season, he could spend up to 12 hours playing chess in the park!

He earned approximately 20 dollars each week by playing chess. He said, “When I was waiting for things to happen, you know, when I was waiting to get a reply which could take several months to come, many times I would go to the park, I did that from 12 o’clock at noon until 12 o’clock at midnight. I could stay there twelve hours a day, with some breaks for food. During the day I tried to get a table which had shadow, and at night I would try to get a table under the street lamps. In this link, you can hear Kubrick himself explain this anecdote, between minutes 1:44 and 2:14.

In the same interview that we mentioned before, the one from the Playboy magazine, Kubrick said a quote which has remained relevant: “Apart from many other qualities, chess teaches you how to control the excitement that you feel when you see something that looks very good. It teaches you to think before you act, and to think with the same objectivity when you are in trouble”.

With all this, it is not surprising that a novel has been dedicated to him, and that chess appears on the front page. It’s not just any novel, but an amazing one that has its own fantastic trailer, with several important rhetorical questions to think about. Check out the promotional video, which is truly a gem, as there is beautiful violent music played by violins and questions in “Da Vinci Code” style: "What would happen if Kubrick would have left something more than his legendary movies?” “What would happen if there was a hidden message in his movies, that could change the course of history?” “The novel that will change your view of movies, forever!”


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