Features Jul 6, 2014 | 11:28 AMby GM Ilja Zaragatski

The 7 worst movie chess scenes

Chess scenes in movies are as ubiquitous as Messi, Neymar or Robben during half-time ad breaks in the FIFA World Cup, but also somehow as worn out as Sebastian Vettel’s Pirelli tires a lap before a pit stop. chess24 author and German Grandmaster Ilja Zaragatski has watched every film ever made in order to compile a list of the worst – though by no means the least entertaining – films featuring chess. 


7: Austin Powers – The Spy Who Shagged Me

So we start our list of flawed cinematic chess scenes by awarding seventh place to the irresistible Austin Powers. Honestly, by the end of this clip our office had been reduced to a laughing heap on the floor. And no wonder! The film, and especially this clip, is pretty good and certainly entertaining. According to unconfirmed rumours all Russian grandmasters from Kasparov to Kramnik were introduced to chess exactly as you see here, even if it’s admittedly quite cold in Russia. All that doesn’t change the fact, however, that firstly the board is rotated wrongly (the a1-square shouldn’t be white) and secondly – the king and the queen have swapped places. Those are typical Hollywood errors that seem to occur every other time a chessboard appears in a film.

That was a parody of the following scene:

6: The Thomas Crown Affair

Even though the 1999 Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo remake of the 1968 “The Thomas Crown Affair” is one of my absolute favourite films, this scene from the original just won’t cut it. No matter how pioneering and iconic it is it just looks ridiculous to the eyes of anyone who’s even once sat down in front of a wooden checkered board. In this clip seductive music plays in the background, Emmanuelle-style, and the sexual tension climbs with every move… really!? At least in my own tournament career it’s been very rare for my opponent to try and disturb my concentration with sexual innuendo. Even with female opponents that’s never happened. Ok, that might also be down to me  It's also typical of somewhat less than perfectly realistic Hollywood chess scenes that they end with someone declaring "checkmate!" to emphasise domination, just as the woman does here. In real life, though, no chess player ever utters “checkmate!” A few might perhaps let a “mate” slip out, but usually the pieces are left to do the talking and – when the game is over – you can look at your opponent with a sense of superiority and await capitulation   

5: Beatsteaks - Say say say   

Fifth place in our series of chess laments goes not to a film but a music clip: the Beatsteaks with “Say say say”. A cool band, a cool song, good actors (it’s enough to mention Tatort cult star Wotan Wilke Möhring), but not such great chess players. This sub-par work looks a lot like the previous two clips, i.e. stolen. But why would you want to copy something that’s already so bad  Once again: constant eye contact and the exchange of bedroom glances. The way the two make their moves and especially the way they capture their opponent’s pieces reveal that this is probably the first time Wotan and Friederike have ever had the pleasure of shuffling felt-lined wooden pieces across a board. Just as in the original version (6th place) the two stars can’t make a single move without the accompaniment of mimes and gestures… something you seldom see in the world’s chess playing halls! Have they never heard of a poker face?!

4: The Thing from Another World

“The Thing from Another World” is an otherwise recommendable remake of John Carpenter’s science fiction horror film of the same name from 1951. Kurt Russell is also cool and finds a very neat way to deal with his loss in this clip… but his liquid act of violence against the overwhelming electronic opponent wasn’t really necessary. At least it’s relatively unlikely – despite the “chess wizard's” announcement – that Russell gets mated after Kh1 with Rg6. Even a cursory glance at the board just before the end of the game gives no inkling of Rg6 mate. Another gaff: the second position shown on the monitor couldn’t have arisen from the first. Then again, the silicon-chip-powered move announcements in this example are also a little strange. “King to rook one” and “rook to knight six” probably derive from the chess scene in Stanley Kubrick’s classic “2001 – A Space Odyssey” and the spaceship computer HAL 9000. It’s a shame, though, that there are two rooks and two knights, meaning such notation would be far from unambiguous. The chess scene in “2001” sadly didn’t make it onto this list, though, as otherwise it’s flawless and the game there had already actually been played: Roesch-Schlage, Hamburg 1910

3: “Well played sir... well played"

Source: imgur.com

Ok, this isn’t even a film clip, but the video is really bad. In fact, I couldn’t stifle a laugh! However: firstly, Bxa3 isn’t yet mate, as after Rxa3 White (alias the cloven one with human hands) has a clear extra queen, and secondly, the colours of the squares are again swapped. Ah, you ignorant goat, you’ve still got a lot to learn  

2: The Shawshank Redemption

Uh oh. Everything goes wrong here in the space of only three seconds. It’s a real shame, as the film itself really isn’t that bad and is pretty popular for a reason. It’s hard to forgive, however, that Black’s missing a bishop and White two pawns, the a1-square is again white and the king and queen have swapped places (the two classics). On the other hand, the king and the queen are, after all, on the right colour squares… but a minus times a minus isn’t always a plus!

1: The Seventh Seal

Well this just fits wonderfully, doesn’t it! First place in our Top (or should that be Bottom) 7 is the chess scene from the 1957 classic “The Seventh Seal” by Ingmar Bergmann. Again, the position looks as though it was just randomly thrown together while the colour of White’s left corner square is again wrong. In itself that wouldn’t be the end of the world, but you have to take into account that this is an award-winning and commercially hugely successful film where the chess battle between the lead character and Death is the centrepiece of the whole work. Despite all that, whoever set up the chessboard requires… remedial help  


So then, dear Hollywood producers: in order to avoid such embarrassments in future I hereby selflessly offer to provide guidance on the realistic portrayal of chess scenes. For a small fraction of the multi-million-dollar budget, of course  


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