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15 Movies About Chess You Should Watch Next

Chess doesn't seem to be the sort of thing that would translate well to film. The contests are often long, marked by little to no conversation, and even the most dramatic moves are nearly impossible to lend intensity with a camera move. However, the mind sport has proven to be an undeniably intriguing element of film time and again. There is a metaphor of it, certainly. There's a reason Denzel Washington bellows, "This s***'s chess, it ain't checkers!" in "Training Day" — chess has become synonymous with strategy and complexity.

There is also the straightforward thrill of watching brilliant people excel at a game that many will never crack — that one-on-one intensity of two wonderful talents struggling to best one another. Finally, there are the people chess attracts. Colorful characters. Obsessives. Hustlers. Prodigies. Both at the board and in their lives, these individuals are undeniably compelling.

To help you discover the subgenre for yourself, we're here to guide you to the best of the best.

The Grass Arena

While Mark Rylance only recently broke through in the United States with films like "Bridge of Spies," "Dunkirk," and "Ready Player One," he has had a long and distinguished career on the English stage and screen. This offering, "The Green Arena," is amongst his earliest works. It was initially part of an English television series but did so well on its own that the producers chose to release it as a standalone feature film.

Inspired by the memoir of the same name by John Healy, it follows Healy's (Rylance) rise from criminal — he was jailed after getting in a fight at the height of his experiences with alcoholism — to chess champion. While dutiful in following biopic genre conventions, the film's performances compel. Rylance captures the complexity of Healy and makes some of the book's more lyrical prose sound surprisingly authentic as dialogue. In addition, the late Pete Postlethwaite is excellent in a supporting role as a fellow ostracized alcohol user "The Dipper."

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

The Luzhin Defence

Like many films about chess, the focus here isn't necessarily about chess as a game as it is evidence of an obsessive or broken nature. The obsessed broken man in question, in this case, is Aleksandr Ivanovich "Sascha" Luzhin (John Turturro), an incredible chess player whose traumatic past leaves him dangerously vulnerable to psychological attacks and deception. Yet, despite his fragile nature — or indeed, perhaps because of it — he attracts the attention of Natalia (Emily Watson). The two fall quickly and deeply in love, and not even her parents can keep them apart. There is, however, a chess championship tournament standing between them and their wedding day.

Often melodramatic, "The Luzhin Defence" is nonetheless a showcase for the acting talents of Turturro. No matter how seemingly over the top the film goes, the actor continues to make Luzhin recognizably human and sympathetic. The ending may be too unrealistic for some but feels so emotionally honest it is difficult to resist.

Return from the Ashes

The chess here acts as both that catalyst that throws the lead characters together and a metaphor for the manipulative cat and mouse game that is to follow. In a France on the edge of World War II, Dr. Michele Wulf (Ingrid Thulin) plays chess against a stranger Stanislaus Pilgrin (Maximilian Schell). His amoral desire for wealth intrigues her, and they fall into a romance. When Germany invades France, they marry in a desperate attempt to keep the Jewish Wulf safe, but the plan fails, and she is taken away to the concentration camps.

Somehow surviving that horrifying experience, Wulf returns to France and finds Pilgrin. Rather than tell him she's his long-lost love, she instead allows him to believe that she is merely a woman who resembles his ex. He falls for it and recruits her to pretend to be herself so that he and Wulf's stepdaughter Fabi (Samantha Eggar) might access Wulf's estate. The film quickly dives into full noir with secret lovers, murder plots, and simmering resentments building. The ending confirms what any good chess player knows — the queen is the most dangerous piece on the board.

Queen To Play

A French-language film set in Corsica, "Queen to Play" is something of an antidote to the many chess films that depict the mind sport as either sinister or intensely competitive.

Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire) is maid in service of Kröger (Kevin Kline). While working at his house one day, she notices his chessboard, and he offers to teach the game to her. Surprising them both, she not only takes to it but finds that it unlocks something inside her. Before long, she sees chess everywhere, and thoughts of it consume her waking hours. However, as noted above, the film does not cast this growing fascination as dark or dangerous. Instead, it takes on the sheen of liberation. A maid, a wife, and a mother, Hélène has spent so much of her adult life looking after and cleaning up for other people. With chess, she finally has something she can call her own. Moreover, she's good at it. For the first time in years, or perhaps ever, she feels a part of something that brings her joy without demanding anything more of her than just playing.

Pawn Sacrifice

Until "Spider-Man: No Way Home," this was Tobey Maguire's last live-action role for seven years. While it is excellent to have him back to acting again, if his career ended here, he certainly would've gone out on a decisive turn as the volatile real-life grandmaster Bobby Fischer.

Jumping back and forth in time, the film focuses on Fischer's youth and his time as one of the greatest chess players to ever live. "Pawn Sacrifice" doesn't shy away from depicting Fischer's tantrums, delusions, and often bigoted beliefs while still accurately capturing what a truly transformative figure he was in the chess world. The story ultimately arrives at the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavík, Iceland. There Fischer finally faced off against Boris Spassky (a cool, confident Liev Schreiber) while battling extreme paranoid delusions about being hunted by the KGB. The climax dramatizes the championship's sixth game, still considered one of the greatest single rounds of chess of all time.

While chess enthusiasts — including Spassky himself — have expressed disappointment in how the film depicts both the history of the match and how the game itself is played, it's the sort of film that will excite filmgoers with everything from moderate to zero knowledge of the game. Maguire's central performance is arresting, and Edward Zwick's direction injects energy into what is typically a very static sport to watch.

Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine

This documentary may appear almost quaint given how much technology has advanced since 1996. Still, it depicts a fascinating chapter in the evolution of computer programming. Moreover, many of the questions it asks about how far we want to go with technology and what it means for humanity remains as relevant, if not more so, today.

In 1996, the World Chess Champion for 11 years running, Garry Kasparov, agreed to face off against IBM's chess-playing computer Deep Blue and triumphed. A year later, the man and machine met for a rematch. Deep Blue proved triumphant this time, capturing two games to Kasparov's one while the other three ended in draws. Kasparov, however, insisted that somehow IBM had cheated to give Deep Blue the victory. "Game Over" explores this notion while highlighting past fraudulent examples of supposed computer-like creations being able to beat humans in chess. While the central question of fraud remains unanswered, the documentary holds the viewers' attention while analyzing the evidence and exploring possible motives for both sides to misrepresent what happened between the computer and the grandmaster.


Magnus Carlsen was 13 years old when he earned the title of chess grandmaster. This made him amongst the top 10 youngest players ever to be declared a grandmaster. Thirteen years later, this documentary attempts to explore Carlsen's life and rapid rise to the top of the mind sport.

Using archival footage, interviews, and home movies, "Magnus" is less concerned with answering what makes the grandmaster tick and more with simply observing a genius at work. Unlike other documentaries like "Game Over" or "Bobby Fischer Against the World," the film isn't searching for answers about conspiracies or allegations of fraud. Its only endeavor is to capture Carlsen being Carlsen.

These sorts of documentaries rise and fall on the quality of their subject. It is lucky for the film then that Magnus Carlsen is a naturally charismatic and entertaining person, very comfortable in his skin and confident in his talent. Even casual fans of the game will likely find plenty to enjoy in this exploration of one of its greatest players only three years into his still active World Championship winning streak.

Bobby Fischer Against the World

Directed by well-regarded and respected documentarian Liz Garbus, this documentary covers a lot of the same ground the film "Pawn Sacrifice" does. However, by relying on the perspectives of chess players that Fischer faced or who came into the game in his shadow, "Bobby Fischer Against the World" has a decidedly different tone. Simultaneously more intimate and emotionally distant than the fictional film, the documentary doesn't just depict how chess affected Fischer but how he — with all his genius, mental health concerns, and bigotry — affected the mind sport.

Garbus is also intensely averse to adding any sort of Hollywood sheen to Fischer's decidedly dark and damning behaviors. So while the film is comfortable depicting the grandmaster's triumphs, it makes no effort to hide the depressing trajectory of Fischer's life. It's hard to look away from the film, but it is also undeniably difficult to keep watching. Still, when that's the truth of a man's life, what else can you do but show it?

Computer Chess

A mockumentary set in 1980, "Computer Chess" is the rare film that utilizes the mind sport to tell a comedic tale.

In a hotel, a group of like-minded individuals — perhaps best labeled as nerds — have gathered to showcase their chess skills, computer skills, and computer programs' chess skills. Unfolding at the same low-rent hotel are two other conventions, one dedicated to a cadre of self-involved self-improvement types and one all about the theoretically carefree swinging lifestyle.

While the other two conventions are depicted with little depth, they serve their purpose as cracked mirror reflections of our chess-loving protagonists. The self-helpers should be able to relate to the chess group's obsessions but can't see past their nerdy and passive trappings. The nerds should grasp the hunger for unusual personal connections that the swingers indulge in but struggle with their discomfort with sex too much to possibly relate. A later interaction with a sex worker only furthers this particular facet as the man hiring her struggles to understand how she can be both an object of lust, a person who has sex for money, and an individual with intelligence and deep interests.


Fresh (Sean Nelson) spends most days just trying to survive. His life is filled with one chaotic situation after another, each presented as an opportunity for him to let down himself and those around him. Whether it is coming up short while acting as a drug courier or being repeatedly late to school, Fresh struggles to meet the expectations placed upon him. However, none of them hurt as much as his brief interactions with his father, Sam (Samuel L. Jackson), which take place over a chessboard. Time and again, Fresh fails to defeat his old man, and time and again, Sam belittles him for the effort.

Chess makes up a small portion of the film but is of central focus. It serves to depict Fresh's alienation from everyone's assumptions about him and from his very own father. Each match the film showcases is bittersweet, capturing a son growing up and away from his parent and neither party knowing what to do to bridge that gap.

Queen of Katwe

As pointed out by a review of the film in The Guardian, "Queen of Katwe" is the kind of story about life in Africa that's rarely captured in film. Inspired by an article written by Tim Crothers for ESPN, the movie depicts the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), who discovers chess at the age of 10. She began to learn under the tutelage of Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) and soon became a trailblazing player, accomplishing more than any player from Uganda, man or woman of any age, had achieved.

While painting a perhaps slightly less harsh reality than the one Mutesi grew up with, the film doesn't pretend that her life was easy or fun. It is especially honest when it comes to the reality of her chess matches. Rather than attempting to focus on a victory (something even Crothers article does), the movie shows Mutesi falling at her first Olympiad and returning to her home feeling defeated. A post-script informs us she continues to play and grow increasingly successful but never undermines the film's climax's sad, straightforward honesty.

Critical Thinking

Something about mixing chess, film, and true stories really seems to work. "Critical Thinking" is another entry in this subgenre, and it focuses on arguably the first inner-city team to win the U.S. National Chess Championship.

In 1998, a squad of five students from Miami Jackson High, inspired by Mario Martinez's (John Leguizamo) critical thinking class, struggles against a school system that doesn't believe in them and home lives that make their daily existence precarious. The film is "an inspirational teacher brings out the best in his students" tale meets an "improbable underdogs overcome the odds to win" sports story. It delivers on both premises well, thanks largely to Leguizamo's energetic turn. During an especially bravura scene, the actor shows off his gift for loose-limbed comedy by enacting an entire chess match — complete with wigs and accents — in a way that is both accurate to the event and interesting enough to command the attention of his students and the audience.

Brooklyn Castle

At Intermediate School 318, budget cuts threaten many of the school's clubs and extracurriculars. Included on this list is the chess club. The documentary follows just over a year in the life of the school and the club as they struggle to prove themselves in the mind sport and not fall apart as they push against dwindling funds.

Despite the odds, they became the first middle school to capture a United States Chess Federation and the most winning team on their level in the nation. While all of that is interesting, the film's strength lies in how the camera embeds itself among the students. It shows them not just as chess players but as kids. Watching their happiness, seeing their interactions, hearing them articulate why they play chess — all of it feels honest and vulnerable in a way that proves irresistible. Chess brings them together, but their personalities are what keep us watching.

The Dark Horse

What immediately stands out about "The Dark Horse" is the depiction of Genesis Potini's (Cliff Curtis) mental health issues. A speed-chess master from New Zealand, Potini lives with bipolar disorder, a fact the movie neither shies away from nor indulges in for cheap drama.

The movie does its best to depict chess from Potini's perspective, including the use of dreamlike fantasy sequences and tales that ground the pieces and moves in the man's Māori heritage. He sees chess in the way some see sports or music or theatre. It isn't just something fun or interesting to do — it's a way to organize one's life, to bring everything into focus. Chess could be a way out of the worst of circumstances or a means of bringing out the best in oneself.

There are plenty of things to like in "The Dark Horse," but none of them loom as large as Curtis' performance. The native New Zealander rarely gets a chance to play the lead in American films and watching him here, it's baffling as to why. His acting is honest, empathetic, and powerful and forces the viewer to sit up and take notice.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Searching for Bobby Fischer

Another "based on a true story" chess film, "Searching for Bobby Fischer," tells the story of Joshua Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), who became an American chess prodigy. The film adapts the book written by Fred Waitzkin (who appears in the film as played by Joe Mantegna) but shifts the focus to Joshua more specifically.

Interpersonal dynamics are where the film gains its energy. Watching Joshua manage his relationship with his father, who becomes far more into the boy's success than Joshua himself, is heartbreaking. However, the highlights come from the child's interactions with his teachers, the brutal and cold Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), and the loose improvisational street hustler Vince (Laurence Fishburne). Kingsley is especially arresting in a performance that easily could have gone over into cartoony but instead is a study of intensity.

"Searching for Bobby Fischer" ends on a note so simple and sweet it would do little to describe it in print. However, in practice, the grace of it is wonderfully startling. After two hours of watching a boy repeatedly come close to being broken by adult agendas, his single message to a younger player is a surprisingly effective salve.