20 November 2019

Chess imagery in popular culture

From Captain America: Civil War
In a short detour from the usual topics, I'd like to take a moment to explore (and deplore) the often annoying and occasionally truly awful depictions of chess in pop culture - including movies, TV productions, advertisements, and the like. Chess has an intellectual and often-times sophisticated image associated with it, although of course this is not always the case in real life. It's when things just appear wrong that it becomes annoying (or sometimes funny) to any chessplayer with a true love of the game.

The most frequent error - based on a lifetime amount of (unscientific) observation - is setting up the board wrong. It seems that the vast majority of the time I've seen a chess board on screen, it's not correct - something which should take a production assistant maybe a few seconds to verify, especially in the smartphone era. The two most common problems are the initial position of the pieces - often the King and Queen are switched - or when the board is turned 90 degrees, with colors reversed (the lower right square being dark rather than light).

Here's one of the top Shutterstock chess images, which demonstrates the first sin, reversing the king and queen:

An example of the latter sin, wrong board orientation/colors, can be seen in the lead pic of this post, taken from the blockbuster-budgeted Captain America: Civil War. At least the wood board and set are very aesthetic-looking and high end, with the pieces set up in correct order. It's a relatively subtle error, but I suppose it still doesn't bode well for Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and her allies that they can't set up their chessboard right.

Another cringeworthy (and more blatant) example of this is in the TED-Ed "A brief history of chess" video, which is intended to educate its audience about chess:

It's also relatively common to see random positions that could never happen in a real game, are illegal, or impossible things like multiple same-color bishops or pawns on your first rank. Those of us who recognize these gaffes may inadvertently laugh out loud, causing our non-chessplaying companions to wonder what is going on. This can be slightly embarrassing in, say, a business meeting, but it's really not our fault, is it?

Business presentations are in fact an egregiously common example of chess-related blunders. I suppose consultants and others want to make dramatic and smart-looking statements, but they often just look silly. For example:
Like knocking over your opponent's king with your rook?
The above at least might show a real position, although it's not entirely clear from the visual. The below is worse, as the source article (from a chess-related domain, in fact) is about chess and business analysis, but it illustrates the idea with a randomly thrown-together board. This doesn't exactly convey an image of competence and deep understanding:
From https://www.ichess.net/blog/chess-and-business-analysis/

Some relief from the awfulness

To provide at least some contrast, my favorite chess depiction (if not completely accurate), far and away, is the opening scene in the Bond movie From Russia With Love (1963). It shows a slightly modified position from Spassky-Bronstein, 1960. (You can tell it's from the 1960s by the ticking chess clocks and the fact you can smoke at the board.)

The Chess.com article on it is very thorough and one of the comments points out that the extended analysis based on the movie's game position has a flaw. Oh well.

Two other movies that get the feeling and most (if not all) of the details right:
  • The Luzhin Defense (2000), based on the Vladimir Nabokov novel. There is one major game inaccuracy depicted, according to the linked article, although the finale's combination sequence is correct.

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dave plays White; based on the position shown, he is not really very good, and of course loses to Hal 9000.)


  1. Just came here to say that multiple bishops of the same colour are possible :)
    By the way "Le tournoi" (the tournament) is IMO the best chess movie.

    1. Ha! Although only if a pawn could have been promoted. ;)

      I actually put "Le tournoi" on my watch list before it came out, but haven't seen it yet, so I'll have to track that down.


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