Chess gets a lot of play on the big screen. Filmmakers use the game to show adversaries locked in mental battle, express the intellectual superiority of one character over another, or simply to give characters something to do with their hands while they converse. But how realistic are those matches in popular movies? Do they even follow the real-life rules of the game? And what—if anything—can they tell us about characters?
Walt Hickey and Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight attempted to get answers with the aid of real-life grandmaster Robert Hess. The journalists obsessively recorded the chess moves portrayed in seven popular films: X-Men, X-Men First Class, From Russia With Love, Blazing Saddles, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Independence Day, and Back to the Future Part III. After spending hours playing, pausing, and rewinding, Hickey and Roeder sent diagrams of each game to Hess, without telling him what movies they were from. Hess, in return, responded with his thoughts on each game.
Whether or not you’re a chess aficionado, Hess’ insights were fascinating. He pointed out that two of the games portrayed—in Sherlock Holmes and From Russia With Love—were probably based on real high-profile professional chess matches. Other matches were eerily aligned with characters’ personalities. For instance, Hess provided the following analysis of X-Men’s Professor Xavier in a game against Magneto: “Player with the black pieces is hyper-aggressive. Sacrificed a lot of material and isn’t done yet!” As FiveThirtyEight observed, that description seems eerily prophetic, since “over the course of the next several films, Xavier is shown to have a keen understanding for the necessity of sacrifice — including on his own part.”
For the full analysis of the seven films—with diagrams—check out FiveThirtyEight.