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The Top Ten Jewish Chess Movies

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chess fearured

The Queen’s Gambit, a novel that has been adapted for and is currently streaming on Netflix (read a review here), has caused an uptake in the game of chess.

Jews, as we know, excel at the sport, perhaps because it requires no physical contact, is played indoors and takes brains to master. In fact, the Netflix show is the number one streamed programme in Israel according to this report.

Below, in chronological order, are ten Jewish movies with or about chess.

Casablanca (1942)

Humphrey Bogart was a chess fan and can be seen playing a game in the classic movie. There is a much Jewishness beneath the surface in the film as it was Warner Bros.’ attempt to get the US involved in WW2. In fact, some speculate that Bogart’s lead character might even be Jewish.

The Killing (1956)

Kubrick’s film proceeds like a chess game with a carefully elaborated plan to rob a racetrack. One scene in the movie was shot at the Chess and Checker Club of New York or ‘the Academy of Chess and Checkers,’ later known as The Flea House.  Kubrick, a former chess hustler frequented The Flea House and other such venues. From among the players, he met there, Kubrick recruited Kola Kwariani to play Maurice Oboukhoff. In the clip, we see Maurice kibitzing and calling a fellow player a ‘patzer’

2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick was famously a chess lover and often played chess on set with his principal actors. Chess features in the movie when Dr. David Bowman plays against the supercomputer, HAL. The computer wins anticipating IBM’s later developments in supercomputing and chess.

Dangerous Moves (1984)

Directed by Richard Dembo, this French film was called La diagonale du fou (‘The Fool’s Diagonal’, referring to the chess piece called the bishop in English but the fool in French). It dramatizes the match between two great Soviet masters, Pavius Fromm and Akiva Liebskind, in Geneva during the World Chess Championship of 1983.  

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

Writer Steven Zaillian, who won an Oscar for his adaptation of Schindler’s List, directed this father-son story based on Jewish Josh child chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin.

Fresh (1994)

The film follows twelve-year-old Michael who sells drugs to help his family make a living. Michael often meets his father Sam, who teaches him how to play chess. While not an obviously Jewish movie, its director, Boaz Yakin, is.  

The Luzhin Defence (2000)

Based on novel by Vladimir Nabokov novel, it starred John Turturro as Sascha Luzhin. Nabokov, who had a Jewish wife and son, often featured chess in his novels. For example, when Stanley Kubrick adapted Lolita in 1962, it when Humbert Humbert plays chess with Lolita’s mother, Charlotte Haze, he announces he will ‘take her queen.’ John Turturro is known for playing Jewish roles in Miller’s Crossing and Quiz Show.

Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine (2003)

In 1997, Russia champion, Garry Kasparov, who had a Jewish father, played against IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue in a real-life reenactment of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Pawn Sacrifice (2011)

Bobby Fischer was a Jewish chess prodigy. Here he is played by Tobey Maguire.

Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011) 

A documentary that explores the life of Fischer.

This list is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive. Please feel free to suggest your own.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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Ralph
Ralph
6 months ago

No way was Rick Jewish in Casablanca. Come on! Have you ever been downstairs in a frum shul on Yom Kippur? But with the exception of Ingrid Bergman and even then, the rest of the cast was Jewish even those playing Nazis.

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