Chess—a game of strategy, logic, and patience. In a May 1980 Newsweek article legendary film director Stanley Kubrick had this to say about the game that had captivated him since he was a child:
“You sit at the board and suddenly your breast leaps. Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it. But what chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it’s really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas” (Newsweek).
Chess has been around since around the late 6th century. For the uninitiated, each player starts with 16 pieces—8 pawns that can move only one space forward at a time and may only capture diagonally. The 8 pieces behind it vary in types of moves according to that piece’s class. One of these pieces is the King, which if captured, causes the opponent to win the game.
But what does this have to do with filmmaking?
Well, chess was actually part of the reason Kubrick got into filmmaking.
Kubrick: “I was taught to play chess at the age of 12, but did not play seriously until about the age of seventeen when I joined the Marshall Chess Club in New York on West 10th Street between 5th and 6thAvenue” (Berenstein Interview).
This is the Marshall Chess Club where Kubrick played. Chess prodigy Bobby Fischer played here as well when he was only thirteen years old. It was here at the Marshall Chess Club where Kubrick first met a film critic named Alton Cook for the New York Telegram and Sun who got Kubrick interested in filmmaking (Bill Wall).
Only a few blocks away from the Marshall Chess Club is Washington Square Park where Kubrick played chess for quarters and reportedly made about twenty dollars a week (Bill Wall).
In an interview with Jeremy Bernstein, whom Kubrick often played chess with, Kubrick spoke of his time playing in Washington Square Park.
Kubrick: “When I was waiting for things to happen, you know, waiting to get an answer on something, which went on for months, you know? Sometimes… I would go there about twelve o’clock and stay there until, you know, midnight. I’d say, a good twelve hours a day with breaks for food…”
Kubrick: “In the daytime, you’d get a table in the shade and at night, you get a table by the light. And if you made the switch the right way, you had a good table all the time” (Bernstein Interview).
There is great article by Bill Wall on Kubrick’s obsession with chess (and I put the link in the description). In it, he talks about how chess has made several appearances throughout Kubrick’s filmography. An early film of his titled The Killing features a scene at the Flea House—a New York chess club that no longer exists (Bill Wall). This character was played by a friend of Kubrick’s who was a chess enthusiast in real life and was actually killed in a fight at the Flea House in 1980 (Bill Wall).
And in Lolita, this happens:
“Oh dear! Oh dear! Ow!”
“It had to happen sometime.”
I covered the game between HAL and Frank in another video, but a little known fact about 2001: A Space Odyssey is that the Russian scientist named Smyslov was a reference to a Russian chess grandmaster named Vasily Smyslov who was the World Chess Champion from ‘57 to ‘58 (Bill Wall, Wiki).
2001 co-writer Arthur C. Clarke didn’t play chess, so during production Kubrick often played with his friend physicist Jeremy Bernstein, who wrote an article in 2010 about his experiences playing chess with Kubrick (Bill Wall). He mentioned that when they first started playing, Kubrick won the first four games, but lost the fifth. Bernstein took that opportunity to jokingly tell Kubrick that he was hustling him all along. Bernstein writes, All during the filming of 2001 we played chess whenever I was in London and every fifth game I did something unusual. Finally we reached the 25th game and it was agreed that this would decide the matter. Well into the game he made a move that I was sure was a loser. He even clutched his stomach to show how upset he was. But it was a trap and I was promptly clobbered. “You didn’t know I could act too,” he remarked” (Playing Chess With Kubrick).
But when it came to filmmaking itself, Kubrick used what he learned from chess strategy and applied it to the decision making process.
In an excerpt from a Rolling Stone interview in 1987, interviewer Tim Cahill said to Kubrick, “Someone had asked you if there was any analogy between chess and filmmaking. You said that the process of making decisions was very analytical in both cases. You said that depending on intuition was a losing proposition” (Rolling Stone).
And Kubrick responded, “I suspect I might have said that in another context. The part of the film that involves telling the story works pretty much the way I said. In the actual making of the movie, the chess analogy becomes more valid. It has to do with tournament chess, where you have a clock and you have to make a certain number of moves in a certain time. If you don’t, you forfeit, even if you’re a queen ahead. You’ll see a grandmaster, the guy has three minutes on the clock and ten moves left. And he’ll spend two minutes on one move, because he knows that if he doesn’t get that one right, the game will be lost. And then he makes the last nine moves in a minute. And he may have done the right thing. Well, in filmmaking, you always have decisions like that. You are always pitting time and resources against quality and ideas” (Rolling Stone).
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a French radio interview for A Voix Nue. You may hear some strange sounds occasionally—these are remnants of a French translation that was cut out of the clip.
“It teaches you to overcome the initial excitement of something that looks good and to analyze it. Even Bobby Fischer or Karpov can’t see to the end of the game. I mean, they can analyze deeper than anybody else, but none of them can see all the way. Part of the decision is based on analysis and the rest is on a feeling” (A Voix Nue).
“When you’re making a film, basically, once you start you have to make most of your decisions on some sort of intuitive basis. There really isn’t time. You have to make so many decisions that you couldn’t possibly really sit down and analyze to any great extent, but at least, even if you stop for a minute you will prevent yourself from making a mistake where something looks initially attractive, but when you really think about it, it isn’t right. I would say chess is more for preventing you from making mistakes than it is for giving you ideas. The ideas come spontaneously and seem to be born whole, but the discipline of examining them and not just saying, ‘oh, that sounds great,’ I think that’s something which chess teaches you… Most of the mistakes you see in films are really because people just don’t even- I mean, if they avoided the mistakes, you wouldn’t see so many things that everybody in the audience sees is stupid, but nobody seemed to realize it when they’re doing it. I think it’s really because there is an awful lot of filming that goes on where people literally just don’t think for a moment. They get an idea and they just do it.” (A Voix Nue).
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This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.
“Stanley Kubrick and Chess” by Bill Wall http://billwall.phpwebhosting.com/articles/Kubrick.htm
“Playing Chess With Kubrick” by Jeremy Bernstein
The Rolling Stone Interview: Stanley Kubrick in 1987
The Killing (1956 dir. Stanley Kubrick)
Lolita (1962 dir. Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes
Making: The Shining
A Voix Nue Interview
Kubrick Interview with Jeremy Bernstein
“Manhattan Skyline” by DeeTunez
“Ocean” by DeeTunez