Mental Floss

22 Games of Chess in Fantasy and Science Fiction

David W Brown
Screened / Screened

The game of kings is a mainstay of science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes it’s on screen or on the page, and sometimes it’s indirect—an influencing factor in the lives of authors and filmmakers. Either way, it's a gift for sci-fi fans. Here are 22 famous examples of chess in fantasy and science fiction.

1. Star Wars

The only rule I really know about Dejarik holochess is that it’s best to let the Wookiee win. But this being science fiction and all, there are elaborate rules for the holographic pieces fighting on a circular board.

2. Harry Potter

Hermione Granger thinks wizard’s chess is “totally barbaric.” Thankfully for everyone involved, Ron Weasley was a pretty good player, and eventually leads giant pieces into battle while chasing down the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone. Pick your poison).

3. Star Trek

Kirk and Spock famously spar over the tri-dimensional chessboard in the original Star Trek series. My guess is that some prop designer thought it might look neat, and that in the future we’d have all memorized the 10^50^50 number of moves possible in a standard game of chess. Star Trek fans just couldn’t leave it alone, though, and we ended up with this.

4. Fallout

Not even a nuclear apocalypse can end the madness that is chess, as evidenced in the video game Fallout. One particularly avid player is ZAX 1.2, a supercomputer.

5. WarGames

If only Matthew Broderick had listened to the computer and played a nice game of chess, a lot of headaches might have been avoided. Instead, after hacking into NORAD, he decides to play something called Global Thermonuclear War, and almost starts a global thermonuclear war.

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey

An early hint that HAL 9000 might be losing his mind is revealed during a chess game against Dr. Frank Poole. "I'm sorry Frank,” says HAL, “I think you missed it: queen to bishop three, bishop takes queen, knight takes bishop, mate." HAL is, of course, mistaken. Queen to bishop 3 is an illegal move on the board in question; the correct move would have been queen to bishop 6. A devoted chess player like Stanley Kubrick would have known that. It’s almost inconceivable that with his famous attention to detail he’d have missed it.

7. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

In Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a chess player is murdered, with a presumably unfinished game of chess left at the scene of the crime. Or is it unfinished? Dun-dun-DUNNNNN.

8. Unsound Variations

In Dreamsongs, an anthology of short stories, George R.R. Martin writes about the repercussions of a missed sacrificing attack during a collegiate chess tournament. Martin, for his part, is a Life Member of the U.S. Chess Federation.

9. Deep Thought

In Douglas Adams’s novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a powerful supercomputer named Deep Thought is built to find the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. It makes perfect sense, then, that when IBM engineers built a powerful chess computer in 1989, they borrowed the name. Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov bested Deep Thought in both games of their match.

10. Through the Looking-Glass

Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass is based on a game of chess, with characters often represented as pieces, and scenes as squares on a board. Alice is, of course, a pawn; if she makes it to the eighth rank, she will become a queen.

11. Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey

After Bill and Ted are killed, the Grim Reaper promises to resurrect them if they can beat him in a game of chess. They opt for Battleship, Twister, and Clue.

12. Nightfall

In Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, a multiplayer chess variation is played that makes tri-dimensional chess seem reserved. “The men about the table had brought out a multi-chess board and started a six-member game. Moves were made rapidly and in silence. All eyes bent in furious concentration on the board.”

13. 1984

Syme, who works for the Ministry of Truth and is helping write the next edition of the Newspeak dictionary, is on Oceania’s chess committee. Winston knows that Syme has been vaporized when the latter’s name is quietly removed from the committee roster. “It looked almost exactly as it had looked before—nothing had been crossed out—but it was one name shorter. It was enough. Syme had ceased to exist: he had never existed.”

14. The Tempest

In the final scene of Shakespeare’s romance The Tempest, Ferdinand is found to be playing a game of chess against Miranda. Chess is an important symbol in the play. Prospero has moved the characters around his island much like a chess player might move pieces. Likewise, Prospero is, in a way, trying to capture a king—Ferdinand’s father, Alonso.

15. The Chessmen of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs was an avid chess player, going so far as to invent his own variant, called Jetan, in his 1922 novel The Chessmen of Mars.

16. Unicorn Variations

Here’s how Unicorn Variations came about: author Roger Zelazny was asked to contribute to two different anthologies. One anthology asked for a story featuring a unicorn. The other anthology wanted a story set in a bar. Zelazny’s friend, George R.R. Martin, mentioned a third anthology with a chess theme, and suggested that he save himself a lot of work and just write a story about a unicorn playing chess at a bar. Zelazny went on to win a Hugo for the story.

17. The Seventh Seal

In the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal, a knight challenges Death to a game of chess as a way of delaying his own demise. This film totally ripped off Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

18. X-Men

At the very end of the first X-Men movie (the only good one), Professor X and Magneto play a game of chess. The pieces are, of course, made of glass.

19. Superman II

In Superman II, Lex Luthor creates a hologram of himself playing chess, and uses it as a distraction for him to escape prison. Had Michael Bolton actually gone to a minimum-security prison in Office Space, he probably would have thought of this plot device and used it to make his own escape.

20. Jason and the Argonauts

In the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, the unfolding tale of Jason’s pursuit of the Golden Fleece is depicted as a chess game between Zeus and Hera.

21. Discworld

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, the Ankh-Morpork Assassins' Guild plays a variation of chess called Stealth Chess. Two files, one on each side, widen the chessboard and these squares—called “the Slurk”—are colored red and white (as opposed to black and white). Only one piece moves on the Slurk: the assassin.

22. Blade Runner

Tyrell and Sebastian play a game of chess in Blade Runner. It’s based on “the Immortal Game,” a very real and celebrated 1851 game between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky, in which Anderssen sacrifices his major pieces in order to checkmate Kieseritzky with minor ones.

This article was originally published in 2013 and has been updated in 2022.